The flag was originally designed in 1885 by the Colombo Committee, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The committee consisted of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera (chairman), Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Don Carolis Hewavitharana (father of Anagarika Dharmapala), Andiris Perera Dharmagunawardhana (maternal grandfather of Anagarika Dharmapala), Charles A. de Silva, Peter De Abrew, William De Abrew (father of Peter), H. William Fernando, N. S. Fernando and Carolis Pujitha Gunawardena (secretary).
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, an American journalist, founder and first president of the Theosophical Society, felt that its long streaming shape made it inconvenient for general use. He therefore suggested modifying it so that it was the size and shape of national flags.
Blue (Pāli and Sanskrit: nīla): The Spirit of Universal Compassion
Yellow (Pāli and Sanskrit: pīta): The Middle Way
Red (Pāli and Sanskrit: lohitaka): The Blessings of Practice – achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity
White (Pāli: odāta; Sanskrit: avadāta): The Purity of Dhamma – leading to liberation, timeless
Orange (Pāli: mañjeṭṭha; Sanskrit: mañjiṣṭhā - rather a scarlet colour): The Wisdom of the Buddha's teachings
The sixth vertical band, on the fly, is made up of a combination of rectangular bands of the five other colours, and represents a compound of the other five colours in the aura's spectrum. This compound colour is referred to as the Truth of the Buddha's teaching Pabbhassara ('essence of light').
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The nonsectarian Buddhist flag is flown over the temples of many different schools. However, some choose to change the colors of the flag to emphasize their own teachings.
- In Japan, there is a traditional Buddhist flag (五色幕—goshikimaku) which has different colors but is sometimes merged with the design of the international flag to represent international cooperation.
- The Japanese Jōdo Shinshū replaces the orange stripe with pink.
- In Tibet, the colours of the stripes represent the different colours of Buddhist robes united in one banner. Tibetan monastic robes are maroon, so the orange stripes in the original design are often replaced with maroon.
- Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal replace the orange stripes with plum stripes.
- Theravāda Buddhists in Myanmar replace orange with pink, the color of the robe of the country's bhikkhunīs.
- Theravāda Buddhists in Thailand opt the usage of a yellow flag with a red dhammacakka; it is sometimes paired with the international Buddhist flag.
- Soka Gakkai uses a tricolor of blue, yellow, and red. It is often mistaken to the flag of Romania.
In 1963, the Catholic President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem invoked a law prohibiting flags other than that of the nation, to ban the Buddhist flag from being flown on Vesak, when Vatican flags had habitually flown at government events. This led to protests, which were ended by lethal firing of weapons, starting the Buddhist crisis.
- "The Origin and Meaning of the Buddhist Flag". The Buddhist Council of Queensland. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
- The Maha Bodhi, Volumes 98–99; Volumes 1891–1991. Maha Bodhi Society. 1892. p. 286.
- Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2002). A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West. Beacon Press. p. xiv. ISBN 9780807012437.
- "Buddhist flag marks 125th anniversary". Sunday Observer. 16 March 2010. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
- Wilkinson, Phillip (2003). DK Eyewitness Books: Buddhism. Penguin Putnam. p. 64. ISBN 9781782682875.
- "The Buddhist Flag". Buddhanet. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
- "Flags of the World: Buddhism". Archived from the original on 24 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-24.
- Zachary., Abuza, (2001). Renovating politics in contemporary Vietnam. Boulder: L. Rienner Publishers. p. 191. ISBN 1588261778. OCLC 65180894.