Most Western Buddhists were raised in one of the three Semitic religions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. All three of these hold prayer as their principal spiritual method. This left many of us with a bad case of prayerphobia. We turned to Buddhism for its meditation, its lofty philosophy, its colorful tantric yogas, and its zany Zen poetry.
Traditional Buddhists, however, do pray. Any visitor to the monasteries and meditation centers of Asia can testify to this. For example, in Dharamsala one may witness the Dalai Lama and his monks performing some ritual involving chanting, much of which could be classified as “prayer.” The same scene with different monk faces can be seen in Japan, Korea, or Sri Lanka.
Prayer in Buddhism, however, is quite different from prayer in the Three Bigs, allowing those of us with prayerphobia to live comfortably with it. Firstly, it is practiced somewhat tongue-in-cheek. That is to say, it only becomes a “Buddhist” practice when it is coupled with awareness of the void nature of the three circles: the person praying, the prayer itself, and the act of praying. All three of these lack true existence or self-nature—that is to say, they have no inherent value or status. When, for example, a Tibetan recites a prayer, he/she should simultaneously be holding awareness of the void nature of these three circles of prayer. Should he/she fail to do so, the practice is not Buddhist.
Secondly, prayer is not quintessential or central to Buddhism. All Buddhist practices fall within one of two categories: “root” and “branch.” Root practice includes the three higher trainings—ethics, meditation, and wisdom—and/or the six Bodhisattva perfections—generosity, discipline, gentleness, joyous energy, meditative focus, and wisdom. Prayer is not listed separately, for it plays a secondary and thus dispensable role, in the sense that one can achieve enlightenment without it.
What is the place of these prayers within the overall Buddhist structure? Essentially they belong to the type of peripheral meditation practice that is known in Tibetan as shargom, or “arousing meditation.” This contemplative method is defined as a process of arousing various thoughts in the mind and then briefly meditating on them. For example, one verse of a prayer by the Seventh Dalai Lama reads, “May I always view all living beings as having been a loving mother to me in a past lifetime, and always treat them with only love and respect.” These words are the launching ground for arousing a brief meditation on love and compassion.
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