February 2, 2010

“Are You There, Buddha? It’s me, John.” ~ Buddhists and Prayer

Prayer should be part of our spiritual journey, transforming confusion into clarity and suffering into joy. However, some mistakenly believe that the Absolute is separate and/or different from us. Believing this, their prayers ask for favors, such as health, salvation, fame, victory or the winning lottery numbers. They use prayer in order to manipulate their God to work for their benefit. Wanting Him to play favorites, they beg to be blessed by Him at the expense of others. However, this attitude defeats the power of prayer. We believe that in order for prayer to be effective it must be devoid of any self-centeredness and calculation, relying strictly on great compassion. It should be done to strengthen and open our hearts, and to benefit all beings. Buddhist prayer has nothing to do with begging for personal worldly or heavenly gains.

Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion and wisdom rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and points us to the blessings of Life. ~ from here

This is always a tough one for me and both the video and excerpt touch upon important differences between Buddhist and Christian definitions of prayer. It seems that no tradition of prayer in Buddhism utilizes a direct connection with supernatural agents. This doesn’t mean that, as Barbara puts it, we don’t “invoke” the names, features or aid of deities or Bodhisattvas. If you walk into my house in the morning during my routine, I would say that it damn well looks like a prayer. Hands in gassho while reciting something “reverent” in front of an altar.

I don’t ask or request anything but by connecting with the needs and suffering of others and by trying to realize the qualities of those Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I suppose that it opens up some Dharma doors for me.  There is a conduit to transcendence somewhere. Even my skeptical mind assumes as much but the exact method is out of grasp and open to interpretation and experimentation. Prayer can be a part of that because it connects me to the transcendent nature for which I strive. Just as Christians pray, we pray. We ground our prayers in the strength of our practice and not the waiting ears of some omniscient creator however. That is not to say that some help or guidance isn’t appreciated from time to time (yeah, I’m looking at you Amitabha!).

Bottom line is that if praying to invisible omnipresent Buddhas aids your practice then apply it. From my brief (and granted incomplete) exploration of some esoteric practices it seems that the qualities of those we pray to can eventually become realized in our own actions and reactions if we strive. At that time I suppose it is fine to throw away the deities and pray to the features we already have as a way to actualize them.

The critical point of any practice is to practice with zeal. Zeal does not entail just working hard, but also enthusiasm and some amount of delight in the practice. That zeal may manifest itself in prayer to deities, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, recitation, meditation or just joyous experience in life. The whole point of prayer is connection, whether that connection is with nature, God, Amitabha or simply our own nature is of little (or no) importance.

The real point is to bring about some amount of inner balance and serenity. It is not important to get into a great deal of conceptualization whether this or that thing is of a specific practice (Buddhist, Christian or secular). The largest difference between Buddhist prayer and prayer in a Christian sense is that prayer for Buddhists is a part of a process that works towards the end of suffering.

I suppose that there is an aspect of reverence in any tradition though. But sometimes the best prayers or chants are the ones where the dude next to us laughs, farts or falls down. Then we connect with our practice in an honest and whole-hearted way – laughter!




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