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.

hands in prayer
Photography by Jeri Coppola

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.

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