The most basic Buddhist prayer is “may all beings find peace,” which expresses the positive mental state of lovingkindness. It is not a prayer directed to some higher power outside the meditator, but the articulation of an attitude; at a deeper level, an aspiration; and at a still deeper level, a commitment. Lovingkindness is cultivated by the inner expression of this “prayer,” so that the meditator not only feels the peace of an open heart, but also in order that the meditation itself is not just another act dominated by narrow, selfish aims. In the earliest Buddhist literature, such basic prayers are called brahma-viharas (“the grounds of a spiritual person”), because they are the basic underpinning of a spiritual life, turning the activity that follows into a spiritual one. Such prayer is not particularly Buddhist at all, but expresses the basic attitude of spiritual life.
Prayer, as we use the word in common English, primarily means a request for help from a power that lies beyond. Because this word has a positive association with spiritual life and conveys the notion of heartfelt striving, translators of Buddhist texts chose it to convey the distinctly Buddhist meaning of the Sanskrit word pranidhana (or pranidhi). This Sanskrit word, which literally means “to set something down in front” (of yourself), gives the essential meaning of a Buddhist prayer. It is a statement to yourself about what you aspire to. It presupposes a process of self-evaluation, because if what you aspire to is not attainable it is purposeless, like aspiring to be president too late in the race. Since freedom from suffering and the attainment of peace is a basic human aim, whether a person is capable of attaining the state of freedom, or whether a prayer to attain freedom is in vain or not, is one of the first questions addressed by Gautama Buddha. It is well known that Gautama suggested that everyone who thought about suffering and its cause would find the path to freedom eventually. The most basic Buddhist prayer in this sense, then, is great renunciation—the wish to attain a state of peace untroubled by the suffering of the world. This is the prayer that the Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha, first felt stirring when he saw suffering, old age, and death outside his palace, and the commitment that he made when finally he sat beneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and vowed never to rise again until the state of freedom was attained.
All Buddhists accept that the prayer Siddhartha made to himself was not a prayer made in vain and that his attainment is open to all. We might say that Siddhartha’s great renunciation, his aspiration or prayer (in the sense of the attainment he set before himself), is the first uniquely Buddhist prayer, beyond the basic prayer “may all beings find peace.” It led him to the state of peace beyond all sorrow, to enlightenment. Such an aspiration is usually termed Siddhartha’s “great renunciation,” not his “great prayer,” because calling it a prayer forces unacceptably the usual meaning of the English word prayer as a request for help.
It is not insignificant, I think, that devotion soon creeps into the spiritual lives of Buddhists and it is not a sign of degeneration from an ideal when it does. An authentic spiritual life needs good works and a strong dose of philosophical inquiry, but if it is not underpinned by an authentic sense of devotion, it remains merely unwordly (“not pleasing to God,” to borrow the Judeo-Christian locution).
No doubt the spirit of early Buddhism, and indeed of normative Buddhism down through the ages, has been one of personal endeavor in a world largely free of miraculous intervention. But without some sort of faith and devotion, it is hard to conceive of a sincere admiration for the Eightfold Path as a way to freedom, for the Sangha (community) who follow that path, and the Buddha who taught it. Very early Buddhist texts stress faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The Mahayana literature of the Northern Buddhists—China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and so on—describes numberless celestial bodhisattvas like Avalokitesvara (Kwan Yin), and Buddhas like Amitabha (Amitofo) living in different paradises—pure Buddha realms “distant from here as many world systems as there are sands in the river Ganges.” These bodhisattvas and Buddhas have been the object of devotion of Buddhists for centuries, especially in Southeast Asia, where they still believe that saying the name of a bodhisattva or Buddha with devotion is an essential Buddhist practice. This Buddhism is known as Pure Land Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhist prayer operates much as it does in the more familiar Judeo-Christian context.
Educated Pure Land followers hope that through their devotion and recitation they will be able to find a way to enlightenment in Buddha’s Pure Land. The less educated simply believe that in that Pure Land they will find salvation. Both despair, to an extent, of their own capacity to get out of this cycle of endless retribution, and they believe that a bodhisattva or Buddha has a special power to help. It is these two—despair at one’s own capacity and belief in another’s special power to help—that define authentic prayer in the usual sense of the English word. Such prayer is a central practice of Pure Land Buddhism, so it is not anti-Buddhist or a degeneration to include it in one’s spiritual life.
A particular feature of Pure Land devotion to celestial bodhisattvas and Buddhas is the recitation of the name or spirit of a Buddha like a mantra. Om Amitofo—the mantra of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is heard on the lips of the faithful throughout Southeast Asia, and Om mani padme hum—the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is always on the lips of Tibetans.
One of the main roles of mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is to function as a vehicle for the faithful to repeat the name of God. They are the prayers of the faithful, spun out of prayer wheels and peeling off prayer flags in Tibet to be carried by devotion to their destination—the ears of a compassionate one. Over time the mantra itself, originally the vehicle of devotion, became the source of the blessing, and its reverberating sounds became a power of the logos itself. Like the power of the sacred Daimoku of the Soka Gakkai followers of the Lotus Sutra, mantra becomes a Buddhist prayer without needing to be directed beyond itself.
Recollecting the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha with faith and reciting the names of the Buddha as a mantra is not limited only to Northern Buddhist schools. It has been a central practice of Buddhists down through the centuries.
Of course, just devotionalism with no intellectual or social content has its own limitations. The hesitation on the part of some well-educated Asians to see anything beyond devotionalism in Buddhism stems from the widespread recitation of the names of Buddhas by the elderly. This is the only Buddhism, along with offerings to monks, that some Asians have ever seen. The practice of meditation in modern Western Buddhism, which is low on devotion and high on meditation, is a new and sometimes more relevant aspect of Buddhism for these people, allowing them to reevaluate an authentic part of Asian culture so often disparaged by earlier colonials and Communists.
The basic prayer of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhicitta, the thought of enlightenment. The bodhi, or enlightenment, in the Sanskrit word bodhicitta is the enlightenment of Shakyamuni, and the citta (thought or mind) conveys not just the notion of receptivity associated with the English word mind, but also the idea of a motivating force. “Mind is the one that goes first,” says an early Buddhist verse identifying mind as the motivator, and bodhicitta, thus, is the motivation that leads the person to seek enlightenment. In this sense it is a pranidhana, or prayer, because enlightenment is “set down in front of” the person as the goal to attain for the sake of others. Bodhicitta as a prayer is conveyed lyrically in the aspiration of earlier bodhisattvas:
May I be medicine for those who are sick,
a partner for those who are lonely,
a bridge for those who need to cross over,
and a light for those who are blind.
Every prayer, every aspiration for the peace and well being of all, is included in the basic prayer of bodhicitta because the state of enlightenment it seeks is ultimately beneficial to all beings. It includes the prayers to be able to take care of every ordinary need of all beings and their every happiness, fleeting though it may be. This basic prayer of Mahayana Buddhism was supplemented by long lists of prayers at the end of sutras and other holy books, which are often rendered into English as “the dedication of merits.” All the good that has been accumulated by the writer or that can be accumulated by doing the practice explained by the text is bundled together, so to speak, and turned over (the Sanskrit word for dedication, parinama, means “to turn over”) for beings to be free from suffering, poverty, or, in the case of the Medicine Buddha texts, from sickness.
By using the Buddhist notion of the interpenetration of worlds and the emptiness of all things, prayer is taken to its furthest limits. If one prayer is good, infinite prayers are better. If a prayer from one mouth is good, prayers from infinite mouths are better. If a prayer directed to one Buddha is good, a prayer directed to infinite Buddhas is better. On each atom of the universe, like a mirror in which all the other atoms are reflected, there are Buddhas, as many as all atoms in the universe, surrounded by an infinite number of bodhisattvas, and on each atom I stand surrounded by an infinite number of others worshipping and praying to those Buddhas. And all the good of that is increased as much as it can be increased and turned over for the well-being of all. The Dalai Lama’s favorite prayer, written by Shantideva, ninth century Indian author of A Guide to Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, conveys the sentiment of this greatest of prayers:
For as long as space endures may I remain
to work for the benefit of living beings.
It is a noble prayer, one we might all want to make.
Through the merit of this may I quickly
Realize the state of Tara
And establish each living being
In her enlightened State.
—Usual Tibetan dedication prayer at the end of practice
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find new hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.
May the frightened cease to be afraid
and those bound be free;
May the weak find power,
and may their hearts join in friendship.
—Prayer to produce altruism said by the Dalai Lama in Central Park, New York (1999); Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-caryavatara 10:21-22
Ordinary beings are unable to escape this burning house.
With deep conviction, without even a single moment of doubt,
calling Amitabha’s name as few as ten time or even once we
will surely be reborn in his Pure Land.
—Shan-tao (614–81 C.E.), who brought Chinese Pure Land to its highest point
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