Sunday, August 18, 2013

Buddhist Prayer

*This post originally appeared on DH back in 2010. The conversation back then was rich, so I decided to repost it today.

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 discomfort 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.


Jeanne Desy said...

Well worth repeating. Recently I had an experience of receiving healing of a general sort. Talking with my teacher, that led me to the Gateway Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which is just lovely. Why would there not be all sorts of unseen energies available for us to draw from, from trees, from that aggregate compassion we call Kanzeon...?

tinythinker said...

I had typed out some thoughts on this issue last night, but it was really long so I left them unposted. I realized today it would be better to make it a separate post and give the link instead. Interesting issue. Thanks for reposting.

Guido said...

Dear Nathan,

thank you for taking the time to post your pieces online. I find myself in similar struggles and similar questions as you. :)

This post immediately reminded me of a scene in the Simpsons which I'd like to share. Whether Deluded or epitome of the highest skillful means, here it is:

Kind regards, Guido