The most revered place in Sri Lanka is a temple believed to hold one of the Buddha’s left canine teeth, said to have been rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre by one of his close female disciples and smuggled into the country eight centuries later in the long, dark hair of a princess. During my first trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) just as chanting began at dusk, blasting through loudspeakers throughout the city. On the lawn outside the temple, people of all ages perambulated stupas, made water offerings, and did prostrations. Using my backpack as a cushion, I sat down cross-legged next to a tree blooming with tiny yellow flowers, intending to meditate. A local couple strolling past paused and introduced themselves, apparently intrigued by the devout tourist. “When you look at Lord Buddha,” the man said, gesturing to a stone statue, “what do you see?”
I looked at the Buddha’s heavy eyelids, soft belly, upturned palms. “Unshakeable peace,” I said.
The man laughed. “You are very good. But what do you want for yourself?”
“Wishes?” his wife asked. “For your life?”
I had come to this Buddhist nation hoping to escape my worries about my particular life and come to terms instead with anatta, the nonexistence of a separate, permanent self. But here were locals telling me to think of specific things I wanted and to ask Lord Buddha for them, a practice I soon learned is much more common than meditating at Sri Lankan temples.
Indeed, prayer is integral to Buddhist practice in most Asian countries. Tibetans recite mantras to invite help from various deities, and millions of people throughout East Asia recite the name of Amitabha Buddha in the hope of being reborn in the Pure Land. The Buddha himself encouraged the practice of buddhanussati, recollection of the Buddha, sometimes as a means of comfort: “If you think of me, any fear, terror, or standing of hair on end that may arise in you will pass away” (Samyutta Nikaya 11.3). For thousands of years, the paritta suttas (“the discourses for protection”) have been recited in Theravada countries as protection against all kinds of dangers, from disease to snakes. Even the most basic Buddhist practices—metta meditation (“May all beings be happy and well”), the bodhisattva vow (“May I attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings”), and the vows of refuge (“I take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha”)—contain a spirit of invocation.
These practices tend to be interpreted differently in the West. All the American Buddhist centers I’ve been to reject the idea of a higher power, explaining such vows as an appeal to one’s best self rather than to an external source: When we bow before a statue, we are bowing to our own buddhanature. When we ask that all beings be happy, we are awakening our own compassion. There is nothing wrong with these interpretations. Yet I’ve found that entrusting myself and my loved ones to a benevolent outside force has only deepened my Buddhist practice. Participating in communal worship at temples in Sri Lanka and India opened me to a devotional aspect of Buddhism that sounds wonky in description but felt powerful as an experience. I have always prayed during hard times, but it was only in Sri Lanka that I began to combine prayer with my Buddhist practice.
The first time this happened was during the Esala Perahera, an annual parade of dancers, elephants, acrobats, and fire-breathers that features a procession of the Tooth Relic, in its symbolic form of a casket, carried in a gilded palanquin atop an elephant dressed in embroidered tapestries affixed with white lights. Ten hours before the parade was to begin, the streets around the Tooth Temple were already lined with families sitting on newspaper, passing around curry packets, babies, and bottles of water. It was close to midnight when the elephant bearing the tooth casket at last made its way along the city’s main street. The crowd quieted, people holding their hands at the center of their chests in prayer or raising babies up to be blessed, privately intoning gathas that blended into a wordless hum. As the supposedly 2,000-year-old tooth passed by, carried by an elephant whose garb was probably worth more than the combined salaries of the family I sat with, I was surprised to find myself caught up in a sense of awe and wonder in the face of something greater than myself, a greatness I trusted even—or especially—though I couldn’t make it intelligible to my intellect.
Secular, educated Americans tend to forget that reverence for the mysterious forces that order the world is a basic human instinct. The Buddha himself turned to outside forces for strength. Perhaps the most iconic Buddhist image depicts the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in meditation under the Bodhi tree with one hand touching the ground, asking the earth to protect him from the demons trying to prevent him from reaching enlightenment. And the Buddha’s basic teaching—that liberation from suffering is possible—asks us to trust that we are connected to a reality beyond self-clinging. Yes, most schools of Buddhism teach that we can wake up to this reality not through a higher power’s grace but through our own efforts. But isn’t this reality, accessible to everyone and yet incomprehensible to the ordinary mind, itself a higher power?
Awakening the enlightened mind may not be a question of self-improvement, which is never-ending; it may be a question of faith, which is always available right now.
The ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna called the “ultimate truth” of worldly existence shunyata, which is usually translated as “emptiness” or “voidness” and commonly misunderstood as nothingness. Rather, shunyata implies freedom from fixed concepts and separate, individualized forms. Beneath the apparent preeminence of surface life—my house, my body, my job—is “a state of pure ‘being’ or ‘is-ness’ . . . the primordial ground from which everything originates,” as Lama Govinda puts it. Pema Chödrön refers to emptiness as an often-overlooked yet ever-present aspect of human nature: “Shunyata refers to the fact that we actually have a seed of spaciousness, of freshness, openness, relaxation, in us.” Although shunyata is not a deistic concept in Buddhism, this seed of constant presence and openness—which underlies all forms and therefore connects all life—is at the heart of my belief in God. As the Catholic monk Thomas Merton put it, “The emptiness which is ‘pure being’ is the light of God, which, as St. John’s Gospel says, ‘gives light to every man who comes into the world.’” To me, an attitude of prayer means not only staying present with whatever happens, as Buddhism counsels us to do, but also embracing all circumstances with the belief that God—or pure being—is the true way of the world, a truth I may not ever understand.
The vastness and boundlessness of the sky—which Tibetans often use to symbolize shunyata—is the closest I can come to giving physical form to my ineffable sense of God. But I do not think of prayer as beseeching a man on a cloud for stuff I want. Much of my family is evangelical Christian, and while they have enriched my days by encouraging me to see blessings everywhere, from homegrown squash to a good song on the radio, some of their prayers are comically specific. I’ve heard my aunt praise the Lord for fixing a waterlogged cell phone. Buddhism—and life—has taught me that the essence of suffering is binding one’s happiness to particular circumstances. So how could I believe in a god that would concern itself with the weather or a sinus infection or a raise—with any temporal, individual concepts of goodness? When I invoke God, I am invoking a reality that transcends my limited sense of what I need to be OK. So I pray not that God will manipulate events to spare me from a particular situation, but that whatever arises will bring me closer to the part of myself that is never anxious, never afraid. As the yogi Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “Only contentment can make you happy—desires fulfilled breed more desires.” An awareness of this idea—which is the essence of the four noble truths—deepens and broadens my prayers, rather than restricting them to particular outcomes. The dharma has taught me that trying to manipulate my identity into particular shapes—professional, social, physical—is an endless, thankless battle. As Pema Chödrön says, “Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.”
But just because I have a cerebral understanding of this truth does not mean I am always able to act on it. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is deeply ingrained in our psyches. It takes faith to entrust my life to a radically different reality—call it God or Jesus or Lord Buddha or Truth—whose existence I believe in without any definite empirical proof. Just as Buddhism keeps my prayers from being small and self-serving, prayer helps connect me more deeply to my ideals, as represented by the Buddhist teachings. When my mind is running in a hundred different directions, grasping at one idea after another that could fix this or that lousy situation—in other words, when my mind is playing God—it helps to pray out loud, to hear myself trying and failing to make sense of things, until at last the mind is forced to acknowledge its own limits. The hopelessness of praying for specific things gives way to the vast, impersonal hope that grace is present in any circumstance. Prayer means accepting that I don’t know what’s good for me or for the world, but I trust that goodness exists anyway.
For the many American Buddhists who have converted from monotheistic religions, this surrender of the personal will to a greater, mysterious will could smack of blind obedience to the same theistic rules they’ve already rejected. Yet as mindfulness practices gain mainstream appeal, meditation risks becoming just one more item on our self-improvement to-do list, along with going to the gym and getting a pedicure. Without some faith in things we do not understand, what is the purpose of any spiritual practice? As long as we insist on helping ourselves only in ways that make logical sense, we will get better only in ways we can measure and quantify—sitting still for longer periods of time, tamping down outbursts of anger. These self-improvements may satisfy the mind, but don’t we want more than that?
It’s easy to forget that the Buddhist warning against attachment to particular outcomes applies to spiritual practice as much as it does to material things. Prayer forces me to examine the motivations beneath my desires—spiritual as well as worldly. All the disparate longings for professional success and bodily health and daily mindfulness come down to the same thing: I want to be at ease in the world, comfortable in my own skin. This ubiquitous root longing is, for me, the heart of interconnectedness. We all want to be happy. And when we are afflicted with suffering, we sense, in some inscrutable way, that it doesn’t have to be like this: there must be a way out. Buddhism offers one path of escape, but there is no prescribed set of actions one can take—meditate in this way for this long, read these books, and so on—that magically results in enlightenment. Perhaps the most liberating practice I’ve found so far is sitting with an attitude of open, honest yearning for a different way of being. Giving myself up to God is a way to stop trying so hard, to rest in the faith that I am connected to something that knows how to care for me better than I know how to care for myself. Awakening the enlightened mind may not be a question of self-improvement, which is never-ending; it may be a question of faith, which is always available right now.
According to Merton, original sin—the human impulse to bring suffering upon oneself—does not result from disobedience to God. It comes from a refusal to reveal one’s self fully, with all one’s limitations and failures: “As soon as we experience trouble and suffering we go and hide from God. This is the sign of original sin, this is what Adam did. As soon as he got into trouble he didn’t pray—he hid.” Turning to God means acknowledging my ordinary humanity. No matter how good I try to be—no matter how many Ayurvedic cleanses I do or how many hours I spend meditating—I still feel lost. I am still an imperfect human, beholden to self-centered fears and cravings. All of the spiritual practices in the world cannot save me from myself. But I don’t get to pick and choose the parts of myself that are worthy of enlightenment. Instead, I must offer my full self up to God, so that even my mistakes and sorrows lend power to the prayer for the thing I need most, which is not a new car any more than it’s a meditation retreat. If I allow myself to believe my prayers will be answered, I can’t help but concentrate all my desires into one great yearning for a peace that, as Merton puts it, “is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind and the brutality of our own will.”
A few hours after my grandfather died, I was sitting with my grandmother at her dining room table, listening to her chatter incoherently about details related to the funeral, my grandfather’s last meal, if only he hadn’t fallen out of bed and broken his hip. She kept looking around the house my grandfather had built 50 years earlier, her face taut with fear. For the first time in her life, she would have to get used to sleeping and eating alone; she’d have to learn how to put gas in the car and fix a clogged toilet. Still talking, she walked to the bookshelf and took down one of her devotionals. Her face quieted. “We may never understand our depression, sorrow, and confusion,” she read. “But we don’t have to understand. God has already answered us. He said, ‘You have my grace.’” If one is open to the possibility of God’s presence in daily life, then grace can be felt everywhere. It can be as small as a sneeze that startles you out of a stressful daymare, reminding you where you actually are, not where you fear you are.
The posture of true prayer is, for me, collapse: my mind and body give up. I don’t know where to turn, what to do. Meditation seems impossible. There is no way to reason myself out of a bad situation. This collapse—to stay put instead of running—is the first moment of healing. It is kneeling with an arrow in the center of the heart, willing to accept help in any form, not only the one I want. I will take even this pain as a sign of help, since I no longer know what is good for me. I will not wait until I have processed the wounds of childhood and learned to sit perfectly still for one hour straight and given up gluten and alcohol and lust and rage. I will not wait until I am better to show up fully for my life. I will not wait until I know God to pray. Here I am. Help.
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