July 21, 2010

Thoughts on Buddhism and Prayer

I remember being very young and being given my first prayer wheel.  I wasn't given any explanation or  instruction aside from that it "had blessings in it" and that I was supposed to spin it clockwise.  I don't recall ever spinning the wheel for anything in particular, but I do remember spinning it like crazy, over and over, for years, "just because."

Then, in about first grade, as I had been learning more and more from my classmates about this magical all-powerful fellow in the sky named God, who frankly, sounded a bit far-fetched to me, I was inevitably asked if I prayed.  My mind flashed to my countless hours with my prayer wheel, and for a second it seemed as if I had stumbled on to some common ground with my young Christian friends. I blurted out "Yes! I pray all the time!"  Then, however, I was asked,

"Who do you pray to?"

"Who do I pray to? Ummm... I just spin this thing."

"What do I pray for?" they asked.

"Ummmm... I just spin this thing."

Before long, this illusion of common ground evaporated, and it was at this young age that I, like many others, fell into the stereotypical and untrue belief that "Buddhists don't pray."  The term "Prayer wheel" became nothing more than a poor translation that was eventually replaced by the more correct "Mani Wheel"  and in the years that have followed, while I may have spun many a wheel as well as engaged in a number of other potentially parallel activities such as "invoking", "visualizing", or "setting intention", I definitely never "prayed" again.

This week, the most recent issue of the Snow Lion Publications Magazine and Catalog came to the office, and among its many fantastic articles is the piece "Prayer, Awareness, and Choosing Enlightenment: An Interview with Anam Thubten." Anam Thubten is a highly regarded Tibetan Buddhist teacher, founder of the Dharmata Foundation, and the author of the acclaimed book No Self, No Problem. (About a year ago, he visited us here in the Tricycle office.)

The interview got me thinking about my relationship—or more appropriately, lack of a relationship—with prayer.  I see now that by getting trapped by the "Buddhist's don't pray" stereotype, which is no doubt caused by nothing more than semantics and cross-cultural confusion, I probably missed out on some opportunities to practice—better yet, to pray—along the way.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Jeff Cox: Sometimes when I'm troubled, I'm moved to pray. But as a Buddhist I don't think of it as asking God for something. What is your view on the purpose of prayer?

Anam Thubten: There are many ways to understand prayer. It means something different from person to person—and even for the same person, it might be different at different times.

To me, prayer is an act of devotion, and a non-conceptual, powerful method of dropping the ego mind of control, fear, doubt, and anger—right in the moment—and realizing the Buddhamind or bodhicitta. It is an act of surrendering everything to that great work of the universe—beyond anyone's control—and trusting in the grand play of the universe. When you trust in it, you feel released from the fear and insecurity and accept—not acceptance like we are trying painfully to accept something we don't appreciate, but true acceptance with trust.

The object of prayer is not so important in Buddhism, even though there are lots of deities and benevolent spirits. Buddhism teaches that deities such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara are not outside of oneself—they are an expression of one's true nature, the emptiness, the source of all things, the absolute truth.

JC: So praying to Chenrezig is a way of calling on your own inner strength to help make circumstances go in a better way?

AT: Absolutely. In the Tibetan tradition, we have these three buddhas (or bodhisattvas), Manjushri, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani. Manjushri symbolizes intelligence and wisdom, Avalokiteshvara symbolizes love and compassion, and Vajrapani symbolizes strength, courage and power. They are all expressions of what we truly are; each of these principles is an inherent property of our basic nature. So when we pray to them, it is an act of invoking those inherent enlightened qualities present in all of us. In the ultimate sense, there is no object that is being prayed to-there is no separation between the object being prayed to and the person praying.

Click here to learn about free print or digital subscriptions to Snow Lion.

Click here to read "How a Tomato Opened My Mind," a short piece by Anam Thubten from our Fall 2009 issue.

Avalokiteshvara/Chenrezig, from the Tricycle Gallery.
©2010 Rubin Museum of Art (HAR 40)

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