Why do we pray? We might think that if we do the Buddha, or God, or the deity will look kindly upon us, bestow blessings, protect us. We might believe that if we don’t, the deity won’t like us, might even punish us. But the purpose of prayer is not to win the approval or avert the wrath of an exterior God.

To the extent that we understand Buddha, God, the deity, to be an expression of ultimate reality, to that extent we receive blessings when we pray. To the extent that we have faith in the boundless qualities of the deity’s love and compassion, to that extent we receive the blessings of those qualities.

Sometimes we project human characteristics onto things that aren’t human. For example, if we sentimentally think, “My dog is meditating with me,” we’re only attributing that behavior to the dog; we’re imagining what it’s doing. When we anthropomorphize God, we project our own faults and limitations, imagining they’re God’s as well. This is why many people believe that God either likes or dislikes them depending on their behavior. “I won’t be able to have this or that because God doesn’t like me—I forgot to pray.” Or worse, “If God doesn’t like me, I’ll end up in hell.”

If God feels happy or sad because we do or do not offer prayer, then God is not flawless, not an embodiment of perfect compassion and love. Any manifestation of the absolute truth, by its very nature, has neither attachment to our prayers nor aversion to our lack of them. Such attributes are projections of our own mind.

To understand how prayer works, consider the sun, which shines everywhere without hesitation or hindrance. Like God or Buddha, it continuously radiates all its power, warmth, and light without differentiation. When the earth turns, it appears to us that the sun no longer shines. But that has nothing to do with the sun; it’s due to our own position on the shadow side of the earth. If we inhabit a deep, dark mine shaft, it’s not the sun’s fault that we feel cold. Or if we live on the earth’s surface but keep our eyes closed, it’s not the sun’s fault that we don’t see light. The sun’s blessings are all-pervasive, whether we are open to them or not. Through prayer, we come out of the mine shaft, open our eyes, become receptive to enlightened presence, the omnipotent love and compassion that exist for all beings.

Even if we aren’t familiar with the idea of praying to a deity, most of us feel the presence of some higher principle or truth—some source of wisdom, compassion, and power with the ability to benefit. Praying to that higher principle will without doubt be fruitful.

However, it is very important not to be small-minded in prayer. You might want to pray for a new car, but how do you know if a new car is what you need? It’s better to simply pray for what’s best, realizing that you may not know what that is. A few years ago, a Tibetan woman traveled overseas by airplane. When the plane made a brief stop en route, she got out to walk around. Unfamiliar with the airport, with the language, and with foreign travel, she didn’t hear the announcement of her departing flight and missed it. This probably seemed disastrous at the time, but not long after takeoff the plane that she missed crashed, killing most of the passengers.

We pray for what’s best not only for ourselves, but for all beings. When we’re just starting practice, our self-importance is often so strong that our prayers remain very selfish and only reinforce rather than transform self-centeredness. So until our motivation becomes more pure-hearted, it may be beneficial to spend more time cultivating lovingkindness than praying.

With proper motivation, prayer becomes an important component of our practice because it helps to remove obstacles—counterproductive circumstances, imbalances of the subtle energies in the body, confusion and ignorance in the mind. Even in listening to the teachings, we may mentally edit what we hear, adding more to them than is being said or ignoring certain aspects. Prayer offsets these hindrances.

The mind is like a mirror. Although our true nature is the deity, what we now experience are ordinary mind’s reflections. Enemies, hindrances, inauspicious moments—all of which appear to be outside of us—are actually reflections of our own negativities. If you’ve never seen your image before, looking in a mirror you’d think you were gazing through a window, encountering someone altogether independent of you. It wouldn’t seem to have any connection to you as you passed by. If you saw there a horrible-looking person with a dirty face and wild hair, you might feel aversion. You might even try to clean up the image by washing the mirror. But a mirror, like the mind, is reflective—it only shows you yourself. Only if you combed your hair and washed your face could you change what you saw. You’d have to change yourself; you couldn’t change the mirror. Prayer helps to purify the habits of ordinary, small mind and ignorance of our true nature as the deity.

When we pray in the context of deity practice, we sometimes visualize the deity standing or sitting before us in space as an embodiment of perfection, whereas we ourselves have many faults and obscurations. But praying to the deity is not a matter of supplicating something separate from ourselves. The point of using a dualistic method, visualizing the deity outside of us, is to eliminate duality.

When we visualize ourselves as the deity, we deepen our experience of our own intrinsic purity. Finally, in the completion stage of practice, when the form of the deity falls away, we let the mind rest, without effort or contrivance, in its own nature, the ultimate deity.

Thus we begin with an initial conception of purity as external, only to internalize it and ultimately to transcend concepts of inner and outer. This awareness of the nature of the deity increases the power, blessings, and benefit of our prayer.

If the nature of the deity is emptiness, you might wonder why we pray at all. There seems to be a contradiction here. How can we say, on the one hand, that there isn’t a deity, only the reflection of our own intrinsic nature, and, on the other, that we should pray to it? This makes sense only if we understand the inseparability of absolute and relative truth.

On the absolute level, our nature is buddha, we are the deity. But unaware of this, we’re bound by relative truth. In order to make the leap to the realization of our absolute nature, we have to walk on our relative feet, on a relative path. Because absolute truth is so elusive to our ordinary, linear mind, we rely on an increasingly subtle, step-by-step process to work with the mind’s duality until we achieve recognition. Prayer is an essential part of that process.

Red Tara Dedication Prayer

Red Tara is one of Chagdud Tulku’s root practices, which he and his Sangha use daily.

Throughout my many lives and until this moment, whatever virtue I have accomplished, including the merit generated by this practice, and all that I, will ever attain, this I offer for the welfare of sentient beings.

May sickness, war, famine, and suffering be decreased for every being, while their wisdom and compassion increase in this and every future life.

May I clearly perceive all experiences to be as insubstantial as the dream fabric of the night and instantly awaken to perceive the pure wisdom display in the arising of every phenomenon.

May I quickly attain enlightenment in order to work ceaselessly for the liberation of all sentient beings.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .