“Are You There Buddha? Its me, Jack…” ~ 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

I soooooooo want to make fun of this picture!

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 (which by the way includes this guy, this gal, this dude and this). 

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.

Not saying a word....

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. 

.........nothing to see here....just some deities, ummmm, wrestling.....

….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!




7 thoughts on ““Are You There Buddha? Its me, Jack…” ~ Buddhists and Prayer

  1. There. Now this is the John worth coming here to read. Excellent post. (John is always fun to visit but once in a while Jack comes out to play. Hows that for dualistic? ~ The Management)

    I came up in the extremely anti-religion punk rock world, and the idea of prayer was total kryptonite when I was young. Except when I wanted the attention of certain young women. Then a plea or two may have escaped my lips.

    But, as usual, Buddhism offered me a reasonable explanation that changed my attitude. And this is due to the fact that everything arises through interdependent origination, and that, despite our persistent concepts to the contrary, we’re all deeply connected. In ultimate truth, inseparable.

    So, prayer connected to buddhas and bodhisattvas — said to possess pure clairvoyance and the compassionate vow to effect the liberation of schlubs like us — connects us to the means of liberation: their teaching and assistance. One analogy is that the B&B’s compassion is always radiant, like the sun, but we’re usually sitting in a north-facing cave. Prayer is like stepping out and facing that warming sun. In other words, it takes two to tango. There has to be some effort or movement on our part. Prayer can be a part of that.

    Another kind of prayer is aspiration. Wishing to discover the inner means to develop deeper kindness, for example. My sense is that this simply makes positive impressions in the mindstream that will ripen into those circumstances sometime in the future, maybe this life, maybe not, depending on the relative strength of circumstances.

    Then, of course, prayers for others. How does this work? Again, my sense from looking into the Buddha’s teachings is that we’re all interconnected on the relative level, and ultimately inseparable. So, doing something virtuous, and mentally offering the positive result of that virtue to another, or all others, can be shared to some degree. Obviously it’s not magic. Everyone’s dealing with massively complex matrices of karma, and once it starts to ripen, it’s a little late for prayer, but sometimes that’s all you can do: hope to help in the future.

    In that vein, prayer should never be a substitute when practical kindness is called for. As one of my teachers put it, if you see someone who’s broken their leg, you don’t give them a lecture on karma and pray for them. You take them to fix their leg.

    OK, maybe that’s enough for now. We’ll begin your education on the symbolism of visualized Vajrayana deities another day.

    • Oh the visualization aspect I get. I did some Shingon practice in the past. I am on the fence about it. I still gotta lot of Zen in me so I dislike my meditation to be too….cerebral. But, then again, whoeversaid that our practice always had to be easy or what we want it.

      I had to work into Buddhist prayer. I was an indifferent and skeptical Christian and then an atheist so I resisted the usefulness of what looked like prayer. But there is an act of humility in baring your neck….but that is a different post.



  2. Thank you for the pictures of what items are on your altar. Sogyal Rinpoche mentions the Absolute and suggests the interplay between that and the relative experience we have. The deities with their skull necklaces and many arms and heads remind me that the creative nature of man has tried to assist us for eons with conceptualizing the Absolute…just a fart in the mighty wind but right effort, just the same.

    Also, Thank you Bitterroot for the discussion on types of prayer.

    Love, Christine

  3. i enjoyed reading that post~very much. i like especially how you are one of few able to separate your ego from what you are writing.

Comments are closed.