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Dharma Talk - The Role of Prayer in Buddhism

Charles Day*

(This dharma talk is an expanded version of a talk originally

presented at the “Prayer in America Workshop,” October 18, 2007, in
Des Moines, sponsored by Iowa Public Television.)

Let me preface my remarks by emphasizing that Buddha, who lived in

India from 563 to 483 BC, six centuries before Christ, considered
himself a fully awakened human being, not a god. He taught that all
human beings are capable of realizing their already enlightened
nature. His teachings are considered guidelines, not commandments,
and difficulty in following them is due to ignorance and
misunderstanding, not sin. Buddha studied and meditated intensively
for six years with the specific purpose of determining what caused
human suffering and how to alleviate and end it, and this is what he
taught for the 45 years following his enlightenment at age 35.

Buddha emphasized that to discover our own divinity - our Christ-

consciousness, Buddha-nature, or enlightened nature – we must look
within and not to some external source. Jesus, I submit, came to the
same conclusion, as reflected in his teachings that, “The kingdom of
heaven is within,” “My Father and I are one,” and “Love your
neighbor as yourself.”

There are many traditions and sects within Buddhism, just as there
are many divisions and denominations within Christianity. Different
Buddhist traditions differ in their rites, rituals, and practices, but they
all share the same basic teachings of the Buddha, summarized in his
lecture on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which I will
not be discussing in this talk. My purpose here is to discuss the role
of prayer in Buddhism.

In doing so, I’d like to share several quotes from different Buddhist
traditions and teachers, and then present some of my own
observations. Keep in mind that the word “meditation” is used far
more frequently than the word “prayer” in Buddhism. But both words

are intended to describe a similar personal spiritual practice, although
there are differences in purpose and structure, which I’ll explain later.

The first quote is by Tibetan Buddhist Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche from

his book The Joy of Living. “No matter how long you meditate, or
what technique you use, every technique of Buddhism meditation
ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your
similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be
happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when
you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help
but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and
aversion. When you look at your mind, all the imaginary differences
between yourself and others automatically dissolve and the ancient
prayer of the Four Immeasurables becomes as natural and persistent
as your own heartbeat:

“May all beings have happiness and its causes.

May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings constantly dwell in joy, transcending sorrow.
May all beings remain in great peace, free from attachment and

This next quote is from Prayer in Buddhism by G.R. Lewis, a Shin

Buddhist. (

“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."

Lewis offers, as an example, the following Lovingkindness and

Compassion Prayer adapted from Shantideva, an 8th century Indian

“Oneness of Life and Light

Entrusting in your Great Compassion
May you shed the foolishness in myself,

Transforming me into a conduit of Love.
May I be a medicine for the sick and the weary,
Nursing their afflictions until they are cured.
May I become food and drink during time of famine.
May I protect the helpless and the poor.
May I be a lamp for those who need your Light.
May I be a bed for those who need rest,
and guide all seekers to the other shore.
May all find happiness through my actions,
and let no one suffer because of me.
Whether they love or hate me,
Whether they hurt or wrong me,
May they all realize true entrusting.”

The parallels are obvious between this Buddhist prayer and the
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The noteworthy difference is that the
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is directed outwardly toward “Lord” and
“O Divine Master” while this Buddhist prayer is directed inwardly
toward the “Oneness of Life and Light.”

This difference reflects Buddha’s emphasis on the selfless,

interdependent nature of all reality, including the illusory sense of an
independent, autonomous, controlling self that is separate from
others and the rest of existence. Buddha internalizes rather than
externalizes the source of all being, regardless of what it is called,
God, Yahweh, Allah, Cosmic Consciousness, Emptiness, Unity,
Oneness, Ground of Being, or the simply the Imponderable Mystery.

The following quote is from the Dalai Lama:

( "Most of the prayers that
we recite contain meanings to be reflected upon....There is a type of
chant which is done to invoke the compassionate attention of the
Buddha, (but) the difference between this and worshipping a god is
determined by the motivation and the recognition of what one is
doing. Whenever a Mahayana Buddhist makes an offering or a prayer
to the Buddhas or Bodhisattavas he is asking guidance and aid (from
one’s inner divine qualities) to attain enlightenment for the benefit of
all sentient beings."

Here’s a quote from Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai
International (SGI) and leader of the Nichiren Buddhist tradition, a
tradition that practices chanting instead of silent sitting, as its primary
form of meditation:

“Prayers...are a concrete reality in our lives. To offer prayers is to

conduct a dialogue, an exchange, with the universe. When we pray,
we embrace the universe with our lives and our determinations.
Prayer is a struggle to expand our lives.”

“Prayer is not of the realm of logic or intellect. It transcends these.

Prayer is an act in which we give expression to the pressing and
powerful wishes (and intentions) in the depths of our being and yearn
for their fulfillment.”

“Our faith is reflected in our daily lives, in our actual circumstances.

Our prayers cannot be answered if we fail to make efforts appropriate
to our situation.”

I’d also like to offer a quote from Deborah Guthrie, a local practitioner
of this tradition. She said, “Prayer in Nichiren Buddhism is the
practice of chanting. The prayers may appear to be requests for
something tangible, such as financial security, or intangible, such as
happiness, (but the) prayer is considered more of an intention or
determination than a request. Prayers are offered with the
understanding that the benefits will move one along the path to...
enlightenment (so that one is better able to help others along the
path). Inconspicuous benefits, rather than material benefits are
considered the most important in this process, such as increased
happiness, compassion, and wisdom.”

The next quote is from the Lamrim Tibetan Buddhist tradition:

“Prayers for world peace are light, gentle, and meaningful...Buddha
taught that everything depends upon the mind; therefore if we wish to
bring about world peace we must first establish peace within our own

I site this quote because it is particularly relevant today in view of the

doomsday predictions resulting from the possibility of a nuclear

Armageddon or Global Warming. We must achieve inner peace
before we can achieve outer peace.

Now a quote from the world renown Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It
is from his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, in a section which he
calls “Concrete Prayer”:

“The beginner’s mind, the mind of love, or the mind of enlightenment

is absolutely essential for the Buddhist practitioner....Monks or
laypersons who practice will always observe the Five Wonderful
Precepts (vowing to refrain from harming living beings, stealing, lying,
inappropriate sexual activity, and abusing intoxicants). These
guidelines are the expression of the practitioner’s understanding and
love. They are not rules imposed from the outside. They are
concrete practices of mindfulness and meditation...(Just as)
Observing the Ten Commandments in daily life is also the concrete
practice of prayer and meditation. Prayer of the Heart is not possible
for one who does not consistently observe the commandments. If
you do not observe, for example, “Thou shalt not kill,” how can “Thou
shall love the Lord thy God” be possible?”

Let me share with you a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh that can also be
considered a meditation or prayer and exquisitely reflects the
interconnected unity of everything in existence. Thich Nhat Hanh
wrote it in 1976 when he received news about a twelve-year-old girl,
one of many boat people trying to escape Vietnam, who threw herself
into the sea after being raped by a sea pirate. After meditating for
several hours, he realized, “I could not take sides against the pirate. I
saw that if I had been born in his village and brought up under the
same conditions, I would be exactly like him.” Out of his suffering
came the poem:

Call Me By My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I am still arriving, in order to laugh and to cry,

in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of every living creature.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river,
And I am the bird,
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond,
and I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm

that it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast that it fills all four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so that I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up
and open the door of my heart,
the door of compassion.”

This is such a beautiful poem or meditation, reflecting unity and

compassion. Now, I’d like to make a few observations of my own. So
far I’ve talked about prayers and meditations that emphasize the use
of our cognitive and thinking processes to develop wisdom and
compassion. In fact, the meditation or prayer practice recommended
most often by the Buddha, and the technique he himself used to
become enlightened, is a sitting meditation practice intended to
minimize and transcend the cognitive and thinking processes.

The instructions are to sit quietly, focus the attention on the breath or
other repetitive object, such as repeating a word or phrase, or
focusing on a sound or visual image. And then to return the attention
to the breath or other chosen object each and every time one
becomes aware that it has been distracted by sounds, body
sensations, or thoughts, feelings, and images that arise
spontaneously in consciousness.

Regular practice of this simple method cultivates wisdom and

compassion through focusing and refocusing on the breath and
training the mind to let go of distracting, unwanted and unnecessary
thoughts and feelings. It leads to an awareness and letting go of the
generally reactive mental processes of thinking, remembering,
planning, judging, etc., so that one can experience the mind’s
underlying innate qualities of bliss, equanimity, and the peace that
surpasses understanding.

I’m reminded of the story told about Mother Teresa when a reporter
asked her what she said when she prayed to God. She said, “I don’t

say anything, I just listen.” And when the reporter then asked, “Well
what does God say to you when you pray,” she replied, “God doesn’t
say anything, he just listens too.”

This experience of cultivating silence and transcending thoughts, by

whatever method it’s accomplished, is perhaps the highest common
purpose and denominator of all of the prayer, meditation, and
contemplation practices in all religions. And sitting meditation is a
very powerful practice, validated now by a half-century of
psychological, physiological, and neurological scientific research. It
facilitates psychological and spiritual growth, inner change and
transformation, and ultimately the experience of what Christian
mystics call “unity or union with God,” Buddhists call enlightenment,
and what I describe as the transcendent experience of “oneness
without an opposite” or “awareness without content.”

On the other hand, there are Buddhist meditations and prayers that
intentionally utilize cognitive processes to facilitate psychological and
spiritual growth. These include meditations designed to cultivate the
four divine virtues, previously referred to, of lovingkindness,
compassion, joy at the happiness and success of others, and
equanimity. These meditations involve the repetition of phrases, such
as “May I be well, may I be safe, may I be happy, and may I be
peaceful.” It is suggested that the phrases be directed first toward
oneself, and successively to family, strangers, enemies, and all

While such meditations may appear similar to petitionary or

intercessory prayers in Christianity, they differ in that their purpose is
to develop within oneself and to recognize in others the innate
qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. And
cultivating these virtues helps to transcend the illusion of
separateness between oneself and others and to experience the
reality of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, of all
mental and physical phenomena.

Prayers of gratitude, praise or adulation also exist in Buddhism, but

again they are expressions of appreciation of the interdependent web
of all reality and of the personal and profound experiences of grace.
In Christianity, such an experience is generally attributed to the grace

of God, while for a Buddhist, it is simply an experience of grace, an
experience that can not be willed by the ego. When a Buddhist gives
praise or thanks, he or she is simply expressing gratitude for life and
for the mystery of life as it unfolds within oneself, rather than giving
thanks or adulation to any external or anthropomorphic being.

Perhaps, the Boddhisattva Vow best characterizes the guiding

purpose for the various Buddhist meditations, chants, prayers, and
other spiritual and mindfulness practices, including how Buddhist
practitioners strive to live their everyday lives. The Boddhisattva Vow
is a vow of compassion for all beings, for oneself and others, and is
reflected in the following expressions:

“May I attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.”

“I vow to help all beings become enlightened before I do.”
“May my spiritual growth benefit all beings.”

May you be well, happy, harmonious, and peaceful.


*Charlie Day can be contacted at 515-255-8398,, or to
discuss Buddhism, meditation, spirituality, or personal spiritual
practices. 10-7w10-8.