Buddhism: The Paradox of Prayer

Lord BuddhaDo Zen Buddhists Pray? This question was raised recently among Zen teachers online when someone in a drought-affected area requested that others join in a collective effort “beseeching the blessing of rain in any way that speaks to you.” The ensuing online conversation made it clear that there is no “party line” regarding prayer. One teacher called prayer “well meaning superstition,” akin to rubbing crystals or sacrificing goats; however, the same person later confessed to praying hard when his child was critically ill.

Another teacher worried that if we pray for a resource like rain to fall in one dry area, we might effectively be asking for the rain to be diverted from another area. It turns out that’s not the case, but it would entail more water evaporating from oceans and lakes, which could then result in violent storms and flooding. Cause and effect are complicated. A scientist whom I consulted on the question advised, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Many teachers answered that they do pray. But in a nontheistic religion, this raises some questions: to whom? to what? In daily Zen practice, it seems that often we are praying to our self—both our individual-limited-lifespan self and our larger self of boundless-interbeing. We aren’t praying for personal material gain; rather, we are praying in order to turn our hearts and minds toward the positive qualities of compassion and clarity. We are voicing an aspiration that we become able to extend compassion and wisdom to ourselves and others.

We pray to be able to turn obstacles into fuel for enlightenment. We pray to cultivate a mind like a lotus, growing pure and upright out of the muddy water of delusion.

We also know that there are invisible presences all around us. There are comedies, tragedies, soap operas, rap music, and 911 calls in the room, but we can’t hear them if we don’t have the right receiver, such as a radio, computer, cell phone, or tv. The range of light and sound that our human bodies are able to perceive is quite narrow. It seems entirely possible that there are many unseen forms of existence surrounding us. Perhaps they dwell in other dimensions of spacetime. Why not be humble and ask them for assistance? our asking makes us a receiver, a vehicle through which they may be able to move and act.

If our practice at Great Vow monastery is any indication, prayer is alive and well in Western Zen. We hold chanting services four times a day in which the word “pray” comes up again and again. We pray for the well-being of a list of people who are ill and for serene transitions for those who have recently died. We pray that the world be free from violence, war, and disasters. We pray for assistance from all the enlightened and holy beings who have come before us. We express our deep gratitude to our dharma ancestors and pray that their vows will be fulfilled through us. We pray to maintain steady practice up until the time of death and beyond. One chant begins, “our deepest prayer is to be firm in our determination to give ourselves completely to the Buddha’s Way so that no doubts arise, however long the road seems to be” and ends with “our further prayer is not to be extremely ill or to be suffering at the time of departure… So that we can quiet the mind to abandon the body and merge infinitely into the whole universe.”


Buddhists at prayer
Prayer or spiritual discipline – or simply “Buddhist practice”? Prayer is approached differently in the many Buddhist traditions

We pray with meals. We reflect with gratitude on all the beings whose life energy has flowed into the food in our bowls, sacrificed so that we might have more abundant life, and we pray that all beings will be as well nourished as we are. We pray to be able to turn obstacles into fuel for enlightenment. We pray to cultivate a mind like a lotus, growing pure and upright out of the muddy water of delusion.

Before beginning our work, we pray that our labour will purify our hearts, benefit the earth, and help free all beings from suffering. We pray that we will cultivate, accomplish, and manifest the enlightened way together.

We do not pray to a person or god named Buddha. We pray to the whole that gives rise to, and has agency through, the many. We pray that enlightened qualities become our continual way of living, bringing benefit to us and all we encounter. We direct metta toward our self, silently asking, “may I be free from fear and anxiety. May I be at ease. May I be happy.” Once we are replete, we turn those prayers toward others. We also recite vows, which are a kind of prayer-wrapped intention. “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them… The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.”

In that act of vow we find humility, and in humility, we again enter prayer. dainin Katagiri roshi, in Returning to Silence, wrote, [F]inally you say, “Please.” Please make me simple. Please make me free. The moment that you call, saying “please,” is called Avaloki­ teshvara. There is no subject who is calling and there is no object you are calling upon. Because the one who is calling upon something is simultaneously what one is looking for. That is Avalokiteshvara.

The prayer is not directed at ourselves, yet we are the place where the prayer is answered.

Our purest form of daily prayer is zazen. In zazen, the restless activity that separates us from everything-that-is settles. Boundaries dissolve and we become light and transparent, completely receptive. Heart and mind become clear and open. Then each breath is the sacred, original breath, moving across the face of the earth. Sound, light, and touch are the play of existence arising endlessly out of emptiness. There is nothing lacking, nothing to ask for—except that everyone else be able to experience this perfect ease.

When everything becomes a unified whole, how can there be anyone to pray to? Living in awareness of the continual gift, of the outpouring of all that exists, from the bottomless font of the unknowable—is that not a quiet and delicate form of prayer?

Zen practice continually asks us to find ease in the tension of paradox. We have nothing to pray for or to, and we pray continuously—at the same time. We pray to no one, and we pray to and for everything. There is no sense to it, but this is our practice. As an elder teacher said recently after performing a long rain ritual dedicated to the well-being of plants, animals, and all living beings suffering from drought, fires, and famine, “this is like wise, foolish men filling a well with snow. It is meaningless, but we have to do it.”


Lord Buddha
However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them;
However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them;
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them;
However incomparable the Buddha-truth is, I vow to attain it.

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