We see the word prayer through our own mental structures—not to mention the structures of obliviously colonializing translators. As Western Zen practitioners (and, one might argue, even as Western-influenced Eastern practitioners), we practice against a background of Judeo-Christian prayer styles. We enact our Zen practice in the epistemological space that combines elements of Western religion with those of Eastern religion, in a cultural frame that includes prayer as supplication and communion. For many of us, the word prayer conjures up Cotton Mather, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Martin Buber, and Thomas Merton. Moreover, in Asia, Buddhism arose amidst local deities and the customs of supplication and offerings of various pantheistic traditions. Thus throughout the Zen tradition there is the paradox of a cultural impulse toward prayer, with its implication of duality on the one hand, and on the other, the absolute Dharma of the One Body, of the empty nature of the self, and the interconnection of all things. How can we understand the difference?

I think of Issa’s great haiku, written on the death of his child, musing on the Buddhist truth that life is as impermanent as a drop of dew:

The world is a dew drop,
Yes, the world is a dew drop,
And yet, and yet . . .

We can share in Issa’s perplexity: There is the clear teaching of impermanence and of the ignorance and the absurdity of clinging to any thing, and yet there is also the grief we feel in the face of loss. They stand together in this haiku, as prayer stands in the midst of emptiness. Two seemingly contradictory experiences coexist without conflict, right here.

It seems our minds have a natural way of being able to contain different systems of knowing, to hold them at the same time, in different modes, and to be able to switch back and forth from one to the next, as when one tends to a grieving person with appropriate ritual and condolence, and at the same time gives the healing teaching of emptiness and impermanence. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form.” In the world of form there is prayer and bowing, and yet, all of this is also emptiness where there is no prayer, no bowing. We experience both the dry, spare part of our practice—the side that recognizes the emptiness of all creations, the impossibility of “one” praying to an “other,” and we experience the sweet, sentimental side of the practice wherein we offer “sweet cakes, rice, and tea” to our dead loved ones.

How do we imagine a prayer that is offered without separation? An offering, a supplication, without an addressee? It is like a moan of pain or pleasure, it is “just praying.” Prayer just for itself, just for the act of praying, then, is a way of connecting to the deep ocean of being that we all are. It is a way of offering our bows, our incense, our flowers, to the ineffable reality of the moment, to the absolute reality of this experience. It is praying, offering, supplicating, memorializing, blessing, using all the ritualistic communications in our possession to express that which is not separate from us, that which we are.

Prayer seen in this way is an upaya, a skillful means to express reverence, gratitude, desire, mourning; to implore, to ask prajna to guide us. Prayer helps us to pay homage to that which is larger than we through which all is interconnected and interrelated. That great oceanic state of being, that instant of time in the vast aeons of time, meets right here in this “snap!” instant of time; all the aeons of past and future collide in this “snap!” instant; they crowd into this snap, which can hold them all.

How? We place our whole mental attention, on just this moment, and this situation. With narrowed focus, the breath deep and full, the tongue pressed against the upper teeth, the ego falling away, we perform acts of bowing, of offering incense; with mind and mouth we express key phrases like “mind-mind-mind,” or we talk directly to someone who has died, or actualize the feeding of hungry spirits by offering food. By focusing intently on the concern at hand, we commit body, breath, and mind to healing. We “pray” the intention. We “send” our aspirations for healing out of our minds and bodies into the great karmic universe, sent out to work with all the other karmic forces in the universe. Prayer can be a thought, an intention, a concern of healing or gratitude or reverence, an articulating and sending. Simply by saying my cousin’s name every day, I create a web of concern and intentional wish that he may be soothed from the horror of the brain tumor taking his life.

Within this fervent wish for relief from suffering there is the direct attention of the mind; of course, even this is yet another constructed reality, and yet, and yet.

A Healing Prayer
Used by Sensei O’Hara and her Sangha

The absolute light, luminous throughout the whole universe, unfathomable excellence penetrating everywhere, whenever this devoted invocation is sent forth it is perceived and subtly answered. We dedicate these merits to:

All buddhas and bodhisattvas in the realm of Prajna Wisdom; to the guardians and protectors of the Dharma worlds and their relations throughout space and time; to all ancestors of this community and to all beings in the Dharma worlds.

May penetrating light dispel the darkness of ignorance, let all karma be resolved and the mind-flower bloom in eternal spring. We pray for the health and well being of:

All those afflicted by diseases of body, mind, or spirit;
All those working towards the healing of those afflictions;

We especially pray for: [officiant reads the sick list]

May they be serene through all their ills, and may we realize the Buddha Way together.