How do Buddhists pray? Who do they pray to?

A student writes:

I have been wondering about Buddhism and praying, and how one would go about praying in a ‘Buddhist’ way. I know from reading newsletters that you sometimes ask the Sangha to pray for particular things. It is something I would like to know more about.

Lama Shenpen responds:

First, there is the idea of being connected to reality in a very direct way. If we are open, somehow reality communicates itself to us. If we open our hearts, we somehow feel connected to the Universe and to others.

When we feel inspired, our heart opens and we feel uplifted. So the heart and communication go together in a natural way and we can link into that and call it prayer. In this sense you could think of Formless Meditation itself as prayer.

Or you might call it faith and devotion or something like that. Maybe you would prefer to use words like feeling aligned or connected to the Awakened Heart. Whatever you call it, it’s a natural and intuitive movement of our awareness that feels right somehow.

When we feel removed from this, then we feel we want to approach that way of being somehow, with reverence and yearning. There are many prayers written in the Buddhist tradition that express this sense of yearning and asking for blessing.Many of these prayers have become liturgies that are recited daily or thousands of times until they live in the hearts and minds of those who recite them. They become part of them somehow.

Pranidhanas (monlam – wishing prayers) are made by making clear formulations of what is wished for and are said in an empowered way after having done some strong practice or good deed. One makes a statement such as ‘By the punya of having done this, may such and such happen.’ So after doing your meditation practice or at the end of each day, you can think that you gather all your punya (the good you have done) together and dedicate to the Enlightenment of all beings.

Then if there are people whom you feel an especially strong need to help, you can mention them by name and dedicate punya especially for them. You can even make it quite specific such as wishing them to be well and happy, wishing them fortitude in the face of difficulties and so on.

Some people even wish for precise things such as for people to pass their exams or get the job they want and so on. Personally, I am a bit reluctant to do that because I am never sure what is best for a person in that sense. I can make more general prayers with more conviction!

So far, I have only mentioned ‘praying for’, but not the idea of ‘praying to’. Do Buddhists pray to Awakened Beings such as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? The answer is yes. This may come as a surprise to many people who have heard that there is no God in Buddhism. I don’t think it is as easy as all that to say there is no God in Buddhism. It all depends on what you mean by God, doesn’t it?

I think when people pray to God, it’s a kind of intuitive sense of there being some higher power, some force in the Universe that could respond and help somehow. I think that is what Buddhists do too.

Of course intuitions of this kind can turn into dogmatism and superstition. But this doesn’t invalidate the initial intuition. We intuit that there are beings other than ourselves when we relate to each other. We have no actual proof that everything is not just our own imagination.

So, it’s important that we intuit there really are other beings, isn’t it? It’s good to trust that and use it as a basis for following the path to Awakening. That intuition is actually our wisdom. So is our intuition that there is help coming from the side of Awakening itself. Opening to that is called prayer.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Read more posts about prayer here.

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