Who are we praying to? What are we asking for? Three Buddhist teachers explore what prayer means in a nontheistic tradition and the best way to approach it in your practice.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know whom you’re praying to, says Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. The very act of asking for help allows the heart to open and invite the world in.
Buddhists tend to dismiss prayer, which perhaps isn’t surprising. After all, aren’t we trying to get away from putting the responsibility for our spiritual development on something outside of us? And if we were to pray, whom would we pray 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. Prayer can help us do that.
Prayer is like riding a bike—our steering will always naturally follow our gaze. 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’s doubtful we’ll have enough to pay the rent. The same is true with our spiritual life. Spiritual progress—human progress—requires clear intention.
So how do you pray? You can recite a particular prayer or pray in a spontaneous way, using your own words. Whichever way you choose, it’s important to make the prayer personal. You can do that by making the supplication specific so 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.
Often we supplicate because we 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 relationships. Still, we have our part to play in that bigger picture, and everything we do in life matters. 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. This is the spirit of prayer.
The Paradox of Prayer
Prayer is alive and well in Western Zen, says Jan Chozen Bays, even as it challenges us to make sense of what we’re doing.
Do Zen Buddhists Pray? This question was raised recently among Zen teachers online when someone in a drought-affected area requested that others join in a collective effort “beseeching the blessing of rain in any way that speaks to you.” The ensuing online conversation made it clear that there is no “party line” regarding prayer. One teacher called prayer “wellmeaning superstition,” akin to rubbing crystals or sacrificing goats; however, the same person later confessed to praying hard when his child was critically ill. Another teacher worried that if we pray for a resource like rain to fall in one dry area, we might effectively be asking for the rain to be diverted from another area. It turns out that’s not the case, but it would entail more water evaporating from oceans and lakes, which could then result in violent storms and flooding. Cause and effect are complicated. A scientist whom I consulted on the question advised, “Be careful what you pray for.”
Many teachers answered that they do pray. But in a nontheistic religion, this raises some questions: to whom? to what? In daily Zen practice, it seems that often we are praying to our self—both our individual-limited-lifespan self and our larger self of boundless-interbeing. We aren’t praying for personal material gain; rather, we are praying in order to turn our hearts and minds toward the positive qualities of compassion and clarity. We are voicing an aspiration that we become able to extend compassion and wisdom to ourselves and others.
If It Sounds Too Good to Be True...
When we pray, says Mark Unno, it’s important not to get caught up in magical thinking or to become attached to specific outcomes. Just praying is enough.
When we think about prayer in a Buddhist context, we find there are at least two major types: prayers for and prayers of. Prayers for are directed to future fulfillment of specific goals. These might include prayers for peace, prayers for health and well-being, or prayers for the fulfillment of the bodhisattva vows. Prayers of are the prayers of buddhas and bodhisattvas— that is, prayers arising out of the awakened mind.
The prayers for may or may not come to fruition. You might pray for a family member’s health to recover, or for the success of a fellow practitioner’s efforts at a particular stage of practice, or for yourself. Your family member may recover from illness, or she may not. The practitioner may attain the next stage of practice, or he may not. However, the prayer of the Buddha, be it shakyamuni or Amida or some other expression of the ultimate oneness of the dharmakaya, is already fully present, unfailing.
Buddhist practice involves a transformation of one’s whole being; thus, it is sometimes referred to as a mind-body practice. When practiced communally, such as in a sesshin or dharma gathering, one’s own practice is supported by the mind-body energy of the entire group. There are palpable physical effects of practice that seem to be transferrable from one person to another—from master to disciple, teacher to student, and within a group-practice setting—so it makes a certain amount of sense that the mind-body energy of such practice is also transferable through Buddhist prayer.
Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.