Sunday, February 7, 2010

Buddhist Prayer

We had a ceremony this morning at zen center commemorating the Parinirvana, or physical death day, of the Buddha. It was a short ceremony, attached to our regular children's precept ceremony, but I noticed that, at one point, the doan (basically a chanting leader), spoke in language that could be called a prayer. He said something to the effect of "May Shakyamuni Buddha continue to support and lead us through our lives." Now, it's important to note that there isn't a belief here of a deity hovering over our world, determining what is happening and what will happen in the future. If anything, a statement like this is calling forth the buddhanature - enlightened energy - within each of us to continue to manifest in our lives.

About a week ago, there was a post over at Barbara's Buddhism Blog about prayer in Buddhism. She basically takes the stance that we Buddhists do not pray because prayer assumes a petitionary stance towards some outward deity or spirit. In the comments section that follows the post, there's a fascinating set of exchanges between Barbara and a commenter named Jeff Wilson. Wilson brings up that many Japanese Zen practitioners, in everyday life, make petitionary prayers in daily life to such figures as Kwan Yin, Jizo, and other bodhisattvas, while at the same time, believing in the core Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. He parses this activity out as an example of working within the relative or practical world, while at the same time, maintaining the ultimate view that there is nothing separate in this world. Barbara was having none of that, and defended her position, getting snotty at the end in my opinion.

All of this, though, raises the question for me of why such unconfortability with the word "prayer" and activities that would fall under it's domain? I don't get it. Possibly it's tied up the definition Barbara seems to give, that prayer is basically done towards the outside, suggesting a belief in a supernatural being having an ability to control some aspect of your life. Well, maybe. But does it have to be? Can one not pray, even petition for something or some quality, but from within?

I'd answer a resounding yes! Look at the old Sufi poets, who spoke constantly of God, but were often, if not exclusively "praying" to wake up what was already within them. I "pray" to Jizo fairly frequently, especially to call from within me that equanimity that seems to disappear when I am biking in traffic.

The fuss I have seen when it comes to prayer - and I've seen it in people in my own sangha, as well as people writing online - seems curiously limiting to me. Because those monotheistic folks do prayer, we Buddhists better eschew it. Or because it sounds like a petition to a deity, we better say we don't do it. Or because Buddhists are about meditation, we don't pray. Honestly, I can only guess at the myriad of reasons for eschewing prayer in all forms, but it all seems like a reaction to other traditions, an act of separating Buddhism from other spiritualities, which seems like a waste of time and energy to me.

In her post, Barbara suggests that Zen folks don't pray, but we do "invoke." The main definitions of invoke are "to petition for help or support," or "to appeal to or cite as authority." Sounds like prayer if you ask me. And I see no issue with it at all. My petitions to Jizo do not change my view that there is no separate God out there. And I can imagine that plenty of Buddhists around the world can invoke, or pray, to any number of deities and still maintain a similar understanding. And maybe some do think there are separate bodhisattvas floating around out there, protecting and helping people. I guess I'm not all that interested in judging these folks as "wrong practitioners" for believing in such things.

*Jizo image from the Michigan Aikido blog.


shindo said...

Hi Nathan... I enjoy reading your blog... I've added it to my roll....

Take care!


Nathan said...

Thanks much Shindo. Bows,Nathan

Algernon said...

Barbara really seemed to get stuck on the word "prayer," to the point of cutting off discussion and deleting comments (including one by me that was not even argumentative).

"Invoke" or "pray," which is correct?

Dai zai ge da pu ku...

Marcus said...

Hi Nathan,

In the tradition I took refuge in, prayer consists of turning everything over to our Buddha-nature and having faith that everything is being taken care of by our fundamental selves. But the idea that Buddhists don't pray is total nonsense!

The busiest time in East Asian temples (after Buddha's Birthday) is the university exam season when you can't move for the families praying for good grades.

And most Buddhist ceremonies involve prayer. Daily in Korean temples people chant the name of the Bodhisattva and carry out prostrations - followed by prayer.

etc etc etc

The same here in Thailand. What are all those people doing in the temples when they kneel and place their hands together and say their prayers? Many of them are directly addressing the Buddha, or a famous dead monk, or a semi-divine ex-king, etc, to help them with exactly the same things that Christians prayer for help with.

Remember, the Bodhisattva of Compassion hears and responds to every cry.


PS - please delete my blog from your blog-roll as I'm no longer blogging! Cheers!

Emma said...

Really thought provoking post Nathan. I agree that many of the problems with prayer come from its association with Christianity.

As a Buddhist, from a Catholic background, I find that my kind of 'prayer' - to someone like Kwan Yin - is a kind of reaching inside myslef for qualities that will assist and support me. I happen to associate Kwan Yin (or the Buddha, or Dalai Lama) with certain qualities, which I'm trying to cultivate in myself.

Great post.

spldbch said...

You mentioned that the original writer rigorously defended her position to the point of getting "snotty." I'm not familiar with the teachings surrounging prayer in Buddhism but I do know a little about the teachings on non-attachment. Based on your description it seems like she's really identified with and become attached to her position/point-of-view.

LuLu said...

Great topic! I teach a few yoga classes per week and at the end I will often invite students to join their hands together at their heart center as we count our blessings or things of that nature. I do often tell them that this does't mean they are praying or anything religious, yada yada. I too am programmed with the idea that prayer makes people uncomfortable!

However, I agree with you. My prayers aren't directed to some great controller of destinies. In yoga traditions there are lots of "gods" and people get tripped up with that. When really the "god" images and stories are used to illustrate different qualities of the one divine spirit that we all have within. The idea is actually to use the images and stories to make the spirit and qualities MORE accessible not less.


Samuel said...

Buddha Nature, Atman-Brahman, the Holy Spirit....

The experts will write for years to convince us how different they are and how important the difference is.

"The kingdom of God is within you." - Luke 17:21

The monk sitting in meditation, the steadfast recitation of a Holy man, the realization of a wise man.

They have no need to quibble over the linguistics of the ineffable.