A student questions the practice of repeating a prayer over and over.
“It became meaningless words after a while. To put my heart into the practice I feel I would rather do something like sending loving thoughts.”
It is interesting just how much emphasis the Tibetan Buddhist tradition puts on recitation of prayers. Many Westerners have found this a great disappointment when encountering Tibetan Buddhism. It is quite common to be given so much recitation to do that one ends up with no time to actually do any formless meditation.
Trungpa Rinpoche really broke the mould in a radical way when he followed the Japanese tradition in this respect and got his students doing a lot of formless meditation, both on a regular basis on their own and even more unconventionally (for Tibetan Buddhism) doing it in groups in the shrine room. Generally speaking, Tibetans do not do formless meditation sessions together. If they do it at all, they do it alone and I have even heard tell that if you are caught doing it alone in the monastic setting, you might very well get ridiculed for trying to do ‘high’ practices that you are unqualified for.
I have known Tibetan teachers to refuse to sit in silence with Westerners who wanted to do formless meditation in their presence, because they didn’t believe that anything would be going on. They would prefer to recite mantras or prayers with the group, because then it’s sure that something is going on!
That is just how Tibetan Buddhism has grown up. There is no doctrinal reason for it. There is no reason to think that recitations are inherently a more powerful practice than formless meditation.
Personally, all my teachers within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition have encouraged me to do the formless meditation as much as I can and have from the beginning given me all the instructions I needed for doing so.
Nevertheless, I have to admit, they do still tend to suggest a lot of recitation. If I say I would prefer to do more formless practice and sutra reading and Bodhichitta practice, they do not say there is a problem with that. It seems to just be a habit to assume that the best way to get people to focus on the practice is to give them some target number of recitations to do.
They would justify this by saying that there is a lot of adhishtana and connection involved in that. It accumulates lots of punya and purifies lots of karma. Well, all Dharma practice accumulates punya and purifies karma and nothing does so more effectively than Bodhichitta. There is no better connection and no greater adhishtana than Bodhichitta.
So, going back to the original question, I think one should always do the practice that comes most strongly from one’s heart, the practice that one has the most confidence in. We don’t need lots of different practices. Doing different practices might be good because they wake us up and make us feel confident, but in essence they are all the same practice. I don’t think you will find a Tibetan who doesn’t know this.
Nevertheless, I think there is a sense in which having targets to aim for galvanises energy sometimes and helps to keep oneself going. In the absence of any tangible sign of progress such as deepening faith, compassion and understanding, it’s a rough and ready rule of thumb. At least there is some sort of measure of what is going on. Possibly it grew partly out of a need for monks to be able to tell their sponsors what they were doing for them. I think that is why you get so much of it in Tibetan Buddhism.
I think an important aspect of the idea is that of building up confidence, in the sense of feeling one has really done something significant that one can then dedicate for the benefit of others. It gives the opportunity to practice shila. You make a commitment and resolve to do a certain number of recitations. You do it as best you can. Then you dedicate the punya of having done it for the Enlightenment of all beings. That is the pattern.
Then you can be more specific if there are particular things that you want to ‘pray’ for. You resolve to do a number of recitations for a particular purpose such as a request for prayers for someone. Sometimes it is expressed even more specifically than that, as if a certain number of recitations will produce a certain effect. Maybe this kind of statement increases faith and confidence for some people.
Sometimes Tibetan doctors do this. They suggest a certain number of prostrations or recitations in order to cure a certain sickness. It seems to work sometimes, I have to admit. So what can one say? Nevertheless, I must say I find all that sort of thing a bit over the top and I take it with a pinch of salt. I think Reality has to be more subtle and complex than that. Well, of course, maybe it is and the joke is on me!
I should add here that I am not trying to suggest that recitation cannot be a deep and effective practice. Trungpa Rinpoche was very impressed with the little book “The Way of the Pilgrim” and the Eastern Orthodox practice of the Jesus prayer. He felt there was a close affinity to Tibetan Buddhist practice in this.
Lama Shenpen Hookham
Bodhichitta: Awakened Heart or Mind itself
Adhishtana: sustaining power, grace, blessing
Shila: discipline, making a commitment
Punya: merit, power of goodness arising from good deeds