Why Do Buddhists Pray?
Buddhist prayer is the focus of this article by Elizabeth that first appeared in the Fall 2014 Issue of Buddhadharma Magazine.
When we recognize how lost we get in the habitual momentum of our thoughts and emotions, we realize how little strength we have to move in the direction of sanity. This can inspire us to understand and appreciate the power of prayer. Prayer cuts through the wild and discursive activity of the mind, giving us direction and providing a means to bring our actions together with our intentions.
Because Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, we tend to dismiss prayer as dualistic. After all, aren’t we trying to get away from putting the responsibility for our spiritual development on something outside of us? Who are we praying to anyway? In this day and age, prayer is often seen as superstitious and embarrassing. We forget that we function in dualism most of the time and that there are benefits to knowing what we want and asking for it on the spiritual path.
We have to think practically about spirituality. Simply hoping that we will one day wake up “fully illuminated” won’t do it. Without a defined intention we fall into spiritual vagueness and operate from that lack of clarity. We need to ask ourselves, where are we going? What do we actually want? Prayer is like riding a bike: our steering will always naturally follow our gaze. As the Buddha said in the sutras, “You are your own master. You make your future; there is no other refuge.”
The direction we go in is up to us. If we direct the mind toward making money, we have a better chance of earning money. If we don’t, it is doubtful we will be able to pay the rent. The same is true with our spiritual life. Spiritual progress—human progress—requires clear intention.
We supplicate because in life we often don’t know what to do. Praying can be a way of giving over to the mystery and movement of life. It expresses an acceptance that we don’t know everything and never will—that we only ever see a little piece of things. We don’t see the infinite web of interconnected relationship of which we are a part. Yet, on the other hand, we have our part to play in that bigger picture and everything we do in life matters. This is an interesting paradox, isn’t it? It takes a big mind to live in the heart of this paradox—to be awake and responsive, while accepting the indeterminate nature of things, the fact that we don’t know. This is the spirit of prayer.
We can pray for anything. But what we pray for influences the direction we go in and the transformative nature of the practice. Praying for happiness and to get rid of our suffering keeps us within the boundaries of ordinary mind. Prayers don’t have the same poignancy and liberation when we are trying to avoid life and not feel the world around us. If we move out of our individual desire to be free from suffering into the bigger view where we acknowledge that suffering is part of living in this body and world, we experience the profundity of prayer. Accepting the beauty and pain of our world is the foundation of the Buddha’s path.
So what does it mean to pray without the limitations of our individual preferences? It means we’re praying for a deep unconditional wakefulness not based upon the preferences of the ego. Just in asking we experience a mind full of awe and humility. We allow life to touch us, and feel the longing to move forward with compassion and love.
How to practice prayer
Twice a year my community gathers for a group retreat—drupcho—where we recite a hundred thousand prayers by the renowned meditation master of our lineage, Kunchyen Jigme Lingpa. Because this is a group practice, and we recite the prayer aloud again and again, it demands a lot of energy, focus, creativity, and vision. When we don’t pay attention and forget to make our prayers personal, our practice becomes vague and rote, and the energy in the room sags.
With prayer, there are always ebbs and flows. This practice demands strength and insistence. When habitual mind wants to shut down, prayer can serve as the stubborn refusal to collapse into the tired and familiar world of ego. Other times prayers flow effortlessly. When that happens in a group the whole atmosphere comes to life and the power of prayer is palpable and strong.
So how do you pray? You can recite a particular prayer or pray in a spontaneous way, using your own words. But regardless, it’s important to make the prayer personal. People often comment that it helps to make the supplication specific so that the practice doesn’t get abstract. You might begin by focusing on a friend who is suffering from illness or on a mistreated animal. Or you might supplicate for a way out of an unhelpful habit or addiction. At times praying will naturally segue into resting, beyond words or ideas, into the fathomless nature of being.
In our group retreats we invite prayer requests. People send them in via email and once a day we read them aloud. Everyone listens so attentively as they are being read that you could hear a pin drop. Some of the prayers are general: for the welfare of animals, the elderly, children in abusive situations, for soldiers fighting in wars, those living in prisons, or suffering from depression. Sometimes prayer requests include names and descriptions of personal situations.
It always surprises me how many requests we receive, how personal they are and how much courage people have in asking. When we listen to the requests, we feel the presence of all those people as if they sat gathered amongst us. Their prayers touch us and open up our practice, generating a general atmosphere of healing and positivity, which speaks of the power of interdependence. Sometimes they write us afterward, saying how touched they felt and how it made a difference for them and their loved ones.
When you pray, it might be to an image of the Buddha or your teacher. Or you could pray to the nature of your own mind, as inseparable from the nature of the deity. Sometimes you might not even know to whom you direct your prayers but the asking itself has its own power. In fact, if you think about it, do you really have to know? And can you? The nature of the Buddha, the teacher or anything in this world is fathomless, mysterious, and doesn’t lend itself to being known in a conclusive way.
This is particularly important to reflect upon, because in the modern world praying to an object often seems contrived. We might want to believe in a deity or the Buddha, but it feels artificial. One of the most essential and unique aspects of this tradition is the understanding that nothing possesses intrinsic existence. Often we assume that we—the real one—are praying to an imaginary deity. But in fact, even that which we call “self” arises from an infinite complex of relationships arising and falling away each moment. Everything is imaginary, in that it resists definition and is dynamic and open to interpretation—or in Buddhist terms, everything is empty.
Prayer is a means to help us move forward with some sanity—a practice that helps us utilize the world to wake up. We can pray to our teacher or the Buddha as a way to move forward on our path. We don’t necessarily have to see this dualism as a problem. In fact, to see dualism as a problem is dualistic. What we call path is a way of navigating dualism through utilizing our life and experience in a positive way.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 Issue of Buddhadharma. Download the entire article which includes a number of different viewpoints.