Winter, 1972. Ingrid and I, along with another couple, David and Donna, had rented a small house in the interior of British Columbia. We planned to do a monthlong retreat while we waited for spring and for Kalu Rinpoche, our teacher, to visit Vancouver for the first time. It was the usual retreat mess. We woke every morning to a freezing cabin. David and I would trudge out into several feet of snow and spend half an hour splitting stovewood for the day. We took turns cooking. We practiced four sessions every day, except on days when we ventured to town for supplies. Ingrid was ill with strep throat for most of the month. David kept in touch with world news, which invariably depressed him. Donna plugged away at prostrations, nursing sore knees and sore arms. And I . . . My practice was Chenrezi, meditation on the embodiment of awakened compassion, a deity visualization and mantra practice in the Tibetan tradition. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t visualize. I couldn’t see myself as Chenrezi. I couldn’t feel anything resembling compassion for the beings in the six realms of existence. My legs hurt, and I was in constant pain. For me it was a miserable disaster—unpleasant, confusing, and disappointing. In desperation, I started to pray. I did not know to whom or what I was praying. I’m not even sure I knew what I was praying for. I just prayed.
The act of praying made a difference. It brought a little clarity and a little space into my confusion, and I found a way to continue. By making prayer a part of my daily practice, I discovered a new possibility: faith, a quiet source of strength that became vitally important to me in the years ahead and helped me many times to keep going in difficult situations. By faith, I do not mean belief in something for which there is no evidence. I mean the willingness to open to whatever arises in our experience.
Prayer is an important element in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhist practice, and there are many forms of prayer: prayers to one’s teacher, prayers to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, prayers to one’s yidam, or meditation deity, and all sorts of different kinds of prayers to the protectors. There are aspirational prayers, confessional prayers, offering prayers, prayers of praise, teaching prayers, dedication prayers, good-fortune prayers, healing prayers, and so on. The Tibetan language has different words for these different kinds of prayer, but in English, we use the one word prayer to cover them all.
My intention here is not to explain prayer but to describe it. Explanations are so very seductive. They appear to provide an understanding, yet the understanding they provide doesn’t actually help us in practice. Explanations can be problematic, even counterproductive, because they perpetuate the illusion that we can control our experience and bring about a given result through an act of will. Philosophical, psychological, and neurological explanations such as “rewiring your brain” or “praying to your true nature” all place the practice of prayer (and meditation) solidly in a conceptual framework and reinforce the tendency to approach practice with the idea that we are going to gain something from it—gaining ideas, as Suzuki Roshi calls them in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. As long as we practice in a goal-oriented framework, the harder we practice the more we reinforce that framework. As the Japanese author Keniche Ohmae said, “Rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction.”
Good instruction and good teaching do not provide explanations. They tell you what to do and, to a certain extent, how to do it, and it is through the doing that you discover how the practice works.
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