Sunday, January 17, 2010

Do Buddhists Pray?

I have been reading this great book called "Ocean" by Kenneth K. Tanaka. It is described as "An Introduction to Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism in America." It appears to be out of print, but Amazon lists several used copies. Fantastically, it is also available in a (apparently free) online version. This book is written in a question-and-answer style, and clearly presents a concise introduction to Buddhism in general and Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism in particular.

I read the following section this morning about prayer and Buddhists:


Do you pray?
Yes we do, but not to the same extent or in the same manner as in Western traditions. This is partly because we emphasize meditation and reflection more than prayer. The other reason, of course, lies in the absence of a supreme divine being to whom one can pray.

I understand there are many kinds of prayer in Christianity, including thanksgiving, blessing, intercession and invocation. In the Buddhist tradition,
too, gratitude (similar to Christian “thanksgiving”) plays a vital role in the thoughts and actions of Buddhists. This is especially true among the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists for whom gratitude constitutes the primary motivation for much of their religious and worldly actions. Similarly, Buddhists seek blessings for the happiness of all beings. “May all beings be happy” is the constant refrain in the Loving Kindness Sutta (or Sutra) that is most frequently chanted as a blessing by Buddhists of Southeast Asian background. Also, the Buddhists do “intercede” on behalf of others when they hear about misfortunes of others such as an illness. Particularly the Buddhists of Southeast Asian background mindfully direct their thoughts to others. “May they get well; may they be happy.”

But our concern for them should not simply stop here. To pray is easy, but a true test of our concern for others lies in our deeds, such as visiting them at the hospital or assisting the family with the chores during trying times.


For many of us who are former theists, the word "prayer" has an unpleasant connotation. It seems this word can actually be expanded to more uses than just "Our Father". I've been trying to work on my aversion to the term "prayer" and references to "God" for some time, with minimal success. I can understand how the word can mean more than the narrow meaning it held in church, but my gut reaction is still aversion.

Many Buddhists prefer to think of these thoughts that Rev. Tanaka calls "prayer" as "meditation." Perhaps this is an Americanization, too. Many American Buddhists (perhaps most) are former church-goers, and left Christianity and/or theism for a reason. Perhaps the word "meditation" is a useful distance from the old connotation of the word "prayer".

[I should note here that "meditation" and "prayer" are not direct synonyms. There are many kinds of meditation, and some of them resemble prayer, while others are exercises in no-thought, so that the directed, specific ideas of prayer would not apply.]

But for me, in my 12 step work, the word comes up a lot, and many people talk a lot about prayer. I really can't avoid it. The word bothers me, but I have to release my aversion to it. I'm not praying to a personal Higher Power, but I do ask for happiness and peace for myself and others. I do give thanks for life and blessings. I do seek greater meaning in life, and try to understand the right path in a given situation. These things are prayer, or meditation. Take your pick.

Unfortunately, the word "prayer" has also been politicized in the United States, as so many other spiritual concepts have been politicized here. People talk about prayer in schools, and those who do are understood to be a certain "brand" of Christian, often those who believe that we live in a Christian nation, "one nation under God", and are intolerant of other expressions of faith or non-belief.

One thing I find difficult at meetings is when the meeting is closed with traditional Christian prayers, like the Lord's Prayer. The words of the Lord's Prayer, while beautiful, speak of a personal God in heaven, who does certain things for those praying. I understand that it is very meaningful for Christians; I was one, once. But to me, its use in 12 step meetings goes against the concept that "God" is defined by the individual, the "God of our understanding." The "God" spoken of in the Lord's Prayer does not resemble the "God of my understanding" at all. Sometimes I don't say it at all. Sometimes I am too weary of doing all the "translation" in my head to make the words coming out of my mouth feel authentic to my own belief. And I admit that I become resentful of the group's forcing their own God of their understanding onto me then.

Yet, I have no problem with the Serenity Prayer. It is a simple and powerful concept, and to me has little to do with defining God or asking a god to do something for me. I say it often to myself in difficult situations, and use it like meditation. Opening and closing a meeting with the Serenity Prayer offers a kind of peace and balance, and helps me achieve mindfulness. It also helps to solidify what I think is an important focus for every 12 step meeting: understanding that we are not personally in control of most things, especially addiction.

I think it is important to make peace with prayer. Prayer, or meditation (if you prefer), is a powerful way to get your mind off yourself and to think more expansively. Being able to pray for others--say, stopping to pray for a person that you resent--can help you achieve mindfulness. It is easier to think of ourselves and others with kindness and compassion when we can get out of our ego and think in the way we call prayer.

I identify as an ignostic humanist these days, but consider myself to be spiritual. I don't appreciate the fact that prayer has been co-opted by those who would consider my spiritual practices to be amoral or immoral or pagan. I do have a Higher Power, which I will talk about in my next post. But making peace with prayer is important for recovery, and I am working on this in my own life and path.

No comments:

Post a Comment