43 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 1: Paradox of Prayer in a Nontheistic Spiritual Tradition
45 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 3: Prayer for Personal Transformation

This is the second episode in a three-part series on Buddhist prayer. Buddhism is a nontheistic religious tradition, in that no part of the religion is dependent on the existence of, or belief in, supernatural beings. However, throughout its 2,500-year history, many – if not most – Buddhists have engaged in some kind of prayer.

Read/listen to Buddhist Prayer Part 1

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Review of the Three Reasons Buddhists Pray
A (Belated) Definition of Prayer
3) Prayers to Obtain a Positive Result: Physical or External Events
The Pirit Potha, or Book of Protection
Aid-Seeking Prayers in All Types of Buddhism
How Prayer Works If It Doesn’t Depend on God
If You’re Skeptical About Prayer for Physical or External Results
Sources

 

Review of the Three Reasons Buddhists Pray

Last week, I introduced three basic reasons Buddhists pray. To briefly review: The first reason is Buddhists may also believe in God, gods, or supernatural beings of some kind. They may belong to another religion as well as being Buddhist, or they may retain the theistic beliefs typical of their native culture. Some Buddhists also relate to certain Buddhist historical or archetypal figures in a theistic way, imbuing them with self-existence, consciousness, immortality, and spiritual power. Doing this is a matter of personal choice, in that such theism is not incompatible with Buddhist practice.

The second reason Buddhists might pray is to express gratitude for, or devotion to, what they consider sacred. Such devotional prayer is believed by Buddhists to be beneficial to the person offering the prayer, regardless of whether the object of their prayer is able to listen or respond. Devotional prayer can open the heart, strengthen humility, and prepare the mind for Buddhist meditation, among other things.

Last week I discussed these first two forms of Buddhist prayer in detail. This week, I’ll talk about a third form of prayer, which is when Buddhists pray for real, positive results of some kind, whether for self or other. Such prayer can be of two basic types:

  • Aid-seeking prayer in order to affect the outcomes of physical or external events, such prayers to avert disasters, overcome illness, or have good fortune.
  • Aid-seeking prayer to gradually transform our own practice, experience, or behavior.

In this episode, I’ll focus on the first type of prayer – aimed at influencing physical or external events. This is such a rich topic that I’ll have to finish up next week with an episode on the second type of aid-seeking prayer, where we work on cultivating a sincere hope or wish for personal change or transformation instead of relying solely on self-discipline or willpower – especially when those methods have failed us! This is honestly my favorite kind of Buddhist prayer, and I’ll be glad to have a whole episode to focus on it.

A (Belated) Definition of Prayer

Before I get to the discussion of Buddhist prayer for a positive result, I want to respond to listener who left a comment on last week’s episode asking, “How do you define prayer?” Sorry I didn’t answer that question right at the beginning!

I may define prayer differently in the future, but at the moment I think of it as a conscious “turning toward” what Huston Smith calls “a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite.”[1] Depending on the person, the “more” may be God, or a supernatural dimension reflected in multiple divine beings or spirits, or just a sense of an order, mystery, or beauty in the universe that provides an inspiring or encouraging background for our daily lives. I talked about Zen’s approach to “the more” in Episode 8 (It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God).

If prayer is just a conscious “turning toward” the Ineffable, prayer can obviously take many forms. Like most spiritual practices, a particular example of prayer can fall somewhere on a spectrum between concrete and formless. At one end of the spectrum, prayer can be explicit, literal, and externally focused. It may follow established forms, and be addressed to forces perceived as more powerful than us. Such prayer may be done with clearly defined expectations about obligations or results, and even be performed without really “meaning” it – just going through the motions. At the other end of the spectrum, prayer can be formless and internal, and beyond words or concepts. It may simply be a momentary, inner reorientation away from the smaller concerns of our lives toward what is Greater.

Prayer can be valuable wherever it falls on the spectrum from literal to formless, external to internal. Depending on your religious background and personality, you may be somewhat suspicious of concrete forms of prayer. Such prayer can encourage people to rely on external powers to help them – instead of, as the Buddha said, disciplining themselves to “follow the path of practice”[2] that leads to the result they want. Still, even fairly simple, literal, formulaic prayer can positively affect the person offering the prayer, and perhaps the people around them. It’s also possible for prayer on the other end of the spectrum – a formless, wordless, inner experience – to end up being rather limited because it all takes place in our mind instead of being enacted physically. We may be able to hold on to a sense of self-concern or pride when we aren’t willing to speak our prayer or engage in ritual action. In short, all forms of prayer can be useful.

3) Prayers to Obtain a Positive Result: Physical or External Events

Back to our discussion of the third type of Buddhist prayer: prayer to obtain some kind of positive result for self or other. As I mentioned earlier, there are two types of prayers that fit in this category, and first I want to talk about prayers to influence physical or external events. In particular, I’m referring to such prayers done by Buddhists when they don’t have a strong belief in God, gods, or other supernatural beings. Obviously, if a Buddhist happens to believe in such beings, they may address the beings in prayer and ask for support or intercession. What’s of interest here is Buddhist prayer to produce tangible results – such as recovery from an illness, or plentiful rain for crops – when it’s more or less independent of any theistic beliefs.

Some proportion of Buddhists have engaged in such prayer since the beginnings of Buddhism over 2,500 years ago. As I mentioned in the last episode, the Buddha gave instructions for how his remains were to be enshrined in burial mounds so the faithful could visit them and pay respects. Early on, these mounds, or stupas, were perceived by many as having great spiritual power. Some felt that simply being in proximity to the Buddha’s relics could have positive effects on their spiritual practice, health, or well-being, and saying a prayer for positive results at a stupa just might make those results more likely.

In addition, there are a couple of places in the Pali Canon where the Buddha recommends saying aloud particular verses in particular circumstances, and when people do so, there are positive effects. For example, in the Angulimala Sutta, the disciple Angulimala is troubled by the sight of a woman struggling with a breech birth. The Buddha instructs Angulimala to go to the woman and say, “Sister, since I was born in the noble birth [that is, got ordained as a Buddhist monk], I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be wellbeing for you, wellbeing for your fetus.”[3] After this statement, the Pali Canon says, “there was wellbeing for the woman, [and] wellbeing for her fetus.” Another Pali Canon sutta (Atanatiya Sutta) recounts how the deities of the four directions (a.k.a. the four great kings) gave the Buddha a chant for protection against various supernatural beings who might wish him or his monks harm. The Buddha then says to his monks, “Learn by heart, monks, the Atanata protection, constantly make use of it, bear it in mind. This Atanata protection, monks, pertains to your welfare, and by virtue of it, monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen may live at ease, guarded, protected, and unharmed.”[4]

The Pirit Potha, or Book of Protection

Based on these reports of efficacious recitations from the original, canonical Buddhist scriptures, a whole compilation of Pali Canon passages and suttas were eventually compiled into the Pirit Potha, or Book of Protection, in Sri Lanka. Some of the Pali texts included are foundational teachings of the Buddha, and some are passages like the one from the Angulimala Sutta, which has been recited for pregnant women ever since in the hopes of safe childbirth. I wasn’t able to find any information on exactly how old the Pirit Potha is, but it has been widely used throughout southeast Asia since the 14th century.[5] In his essay on this Book of Protection, Piyadassi Thera writes about how the text is still used today:

“…The Pirit Potha — is the most widely known Pali book in Sri Lanka. It is called The Buddhist Bible; it is given an important place in the Buddhist home, and is even treated with veneration. In most houses where there is a small shrine, this book is kept there so that the inmates may refer to it during their devotional hour… In the domestic and social life of the people of Sri Lanka pirit ceremony is of great significance. No festival or function, religious or social, is complete without the recital of the paritta.”[6]

A paritta means “protection” or “safeguard,” and in my research, I discovered there are apps you can download to your smartphone with recordings of monks intoning texts from the Pirit Potha in a traditional style. On the app web pages are comments about how useful the apps are for modern Sri Lankans all over the world who may not be able to get a monk to come do a chant for them!

Aid-Seeking Prayers in All Types of Buddhism

Over the millennia, in all the places Buddhism spread – including southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and now the West – Buddhists have prayed for the well-being of people who have died and those who are suffering for illness or other difficulties. They have prayed for protection from misfortune and disaster, as well as for positive results like worldly success and long life. And it’s not just lay people who have done this – monastics have actively engaged in the practice as well, in all lineages and sects of Buddhism.

My own Soto Zen tradition has a rich tradition of prayers and rituals done for positive results. According to Duncan Williams’ book on the subject, “The Other Side of Zen,”[7] in Tokugawa Japan, Soto Zen monks regularly performed prayers and rituals for the benefit of the dead, faith healing, and the creation of talismans for protection. Even in my own Zen center, we chant Buddhist scriptures and then dedicate whatever “merit” is generated by doing to so anyone who is in difficulty. This is one of the passages we chant:

“May the merit of [our practice] awaken the heart of compassion and understanding all over the world, and thereby relieve suffering and ignorance. We pray that all beings may prosper and all misfortune cease.”

While such prayers aren’t the main focus of our practice, and people aren’t required to participate in them or believe in their efficacy, but they’re still an undeniable part of our religious tradition.

How Prayer Works If It Doesn’t Depend on God

I could spend several episodes on the countless fascinating forms of Buddhist prayer, but let’s get to the main question: “How do nontheistic Buddhists think their prayers will have any effect if they don’t believe any sentient supernatural beings are going to hear and answer them?” Before I address that question, though, it may be helpful to consider what Buddhist prayer is not by returning for a moment to Piyadassi Thera’s essay on the Book of Protection:

“…it is interesting to observe the prevalence, in Buddhist lands, of listening to the recital of the dhamma or the doctrine of the Buddha in order to avert illness or danger, to ward off the influence of malignant beings, to obtain protection and deliverance from evil, and to promote health, prosperity, welfare, and well-being. The selected discourses for recital are known as ‘paritta suttas,’ discourses for protection. But they are not ‘rakshana mantras’ or protective incantations found in Brahmanic religion, nor are they magical rites. There is nothing mystical in them.”[8]

What does Piyadassi Thera mean by saying there is nothing mystical in Buddhist parittas, or verses of protection? To answer this, let’s consider the nature of “rakshana mantras” and “magical rites.” These non-Buddhist “mystical” prayers or rituals were believed to have power in and of themselves. Enacting them gave you some amount of power over supernatural forces or beings, so you could strongly influence them – or even force them – to do what you wanted. The Buddha expressly forbid his monks to practice magic; although at the time most people, including the Buddha, believed in certain kinds of supernatural powers, he didn’t want monastics showing off to lay people, or distracting them from the Dharma (which had nothing whatsoever to do with such powers).[9]

Parittas and other kinds of Buddhist prayers and rituals, on the other hand, are more like the prayers for aid as typically conceived of in theistic traditions: Open-handed wishes expressed with the hope of a positive result, but not an incantation expected to directly cause a particular outcome. In other words, in Buddhism, as in theistic traditions, there is a sense of some greater power or order than the individual, which can either oppose or support an individual’s desires.

For nontheistic Buddhists, this “greater power” is boundary-less and undefined. It doesn’t have to be anthropomorphized or described, nor seen as having a consciousness, will, or agenda. Instead, the greater power more like a universal order we take to be self-evident. Just as there’s a law of gravity, there are laws of moral causation. Things like truth, love, and compassion are seen as having their own spiritual power. Aspiration, moral restraint, and self-discipline have positive effects not just on ourselves but on the people and the world around us. It’s possible to generate “positive” spiritual energy through beneficial practices that help us align with the universal order and make our lives go more smoothly. Prayer is one such practice.

It’s important to note that most Buddhists who engage in prayers for positive physical or external results don’t think too much about the mechanics of how such prayers might end up having an effect. While I spoke earlier about generating positive spiritual energy and aligning with the universal order, for the most part Buddhists remain agnostic about the details – as opposed to developing elaborate theories or practices related to what spiritual energy is composed of, or how it can be perceived or harnessed, or how it’s affected by diet or the stars. That’s not to say individual Buddhists or even sects haven’t speculated about such things, but in general such matters have remained peripheral in Buddhism.

What’s believed to make a Buddhist prayer effective is the state of the pray-er’s mind and heart. Ideally, a prayer for oneself is made with humility, and prayer for the benefit of others is made with sincere generosity instead of sneaky self-interest. The power of any offering or prayer is primarily increased not through cleverness or the details of ritual, but by it being performed by someone with a calm mind, spiritual insight, a spirit of renunciation, moral purity, and self-discipline – and these are virtues obtained through Buddhist practice. Even admiration of these virtues has merit, so many Buddhists who would never brag about their own practice of Buddhism seek to increase the efficacy of their aid-seeking prayers by supporting Buddhist institutions and monastics, offering devotional prayers, or by asking ordained Buddhists to pray on their behalf.

If You’re Skeptical About Prayer for Physical or External Results

To skeptical, nontheistic Buddhists and others, prayer for positive physical or external results may seem pointless or even hypocritical. It certainly valid to ask, “If Buddhism isn’t dependent on any way in belief in what you can’t verify for yourself, through your direct experience, why confuse or pollute it with prayers that imply we’re supplicating some kind of greater power? Why pray as if we believe our words travel over some kind of invisible energy network in order to act at-a distance on things like the growth of cancer cells or weather patterns?”

The good news for skeptics is that you don’t need to adopt Buddhist prayer in order to practice Buddhism, or believe in any way in its efficacy. As long as you can accept the differing ways of others, for the most part other Buddhists will tolerate yours.

However, it’s possible to respect the power of prayer for physical or external results without buying into some idea of mysterious action-at-a-distance, or of miraculous powers over the forces of nature. We can easily observe how things like truth, aspiration, and generosity generate positive effects in the world, and, with humility, we can acknowledge we can’t perceive all of the effects of any particular action. Is there a ripple effect of our sincere prayer that reaches all the way to someone suffering from cancer, for a moment giving them more strength? Maybe.

Usually, even skeptics have to admit how acts of kindness or compassion can have powerful and surprising effects. In the Ahina Sutta of the Pali Canon, the Buddha says that a monk who recently died of a snakebite while practicing in the forest had been bitten because he had failed to suffuse the four royal tribes of snakes with loving-kindness, or metta. “Had he done so,” the Buddha said, “that monk would not have died of snake-bite.”[10] The Buddha then gives his monks verses to recite in order to protect themselves from harm. After stating good will for each of the four tribes of snakes, the verses go on:

“I have good will for footless beings,
good will for two-footed beings,
good will for four-footed beings,
good will for many-footed beings.

May footless beings do me no harm.
May two-footed beings do me no harm.
May four-footed beings do me no harm.
May many-footed beings do me no harm.

May all creatures,
all breathing things,
all beings
— each & every one —
meet with good fortune.
May none of them come to any evil.

Limitless is the Buddha,
limitless the Dhamma,
limitless the Sangha.
There is a limit to creeping things:
snakes, scorpions, centipedes,
spiders, lizards, & rats.
I have made this safeguard,
I have made this protection.
May the beings depart.
I pay homage
to the Blessed One,
homage
to the seven
rightly self-awakened ones.”[11]

You can interpret this kind of Buddhist prayer at any level from the concrete and externally-focused to the formless and internal. Is loving-kindness an external force you can call on with a particular recitation in order to influence the behavior of snakes? Or is this prayer pointing us toward the fact that it’s possible to reach such a profound state of stillness, self-transcendence, and awareness with respect to all beings that you can harmonize even with a snake – to perceive its presence, read its mood, understand its fears, and adapt your behavior to communicate nonviolence instead of threat? If you’ve ever experienced a dramatic transformation of your circumstances through a formless reorientation of your attitude in this way, the question may occur to you, “What’s really the difference?” The formless experience is profound and transcends our limited sense of self, while the concrete practice can support and inspire our inner work.

It’s completely legit to engage in aid-seeking Buddhist prayer without speculating about how it might help. In terms of the universal order of things, it certainly can’t hurt.

Read/listen to Buddhist Prayer Part 3


Sources

Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2010.

 

Endnotes

[1] Pg. 3 in Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
[2] “Ittha Sutta: What is Welcome” (AN 5.43), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.043.than.html.
[3] “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html.
[4] “Atanatiya Sutta: Discourse on Atanatiya” (DN 32), translated from the Pali by Piyadassi Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.32.0.piya.html.
[5] Swearer pg. 28
[6] “The Book of Protection: Paritta”, translated from the original Pali, with introductory essay and explanatory notes by Piyadassi Thera, with a Foreword by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/piyadassi/protection.html.
[7] Williams, Duncan Ryuken. The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.
[8] Ibid
[9] Episode 33: Supernatural Powers and Events – Pali Canon – http://zenstudiespodcast.com/shakyamuni-history6/#supe
[10] “Ahina Sutta: By a Snake” (AN 4.67), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.067.than.html.
[11] Ibid

 

43 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 1: Paradox of Prayer in a Nontheistic Spiritual Tradition
45 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 3: Prayer for Personal Transformation
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