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Prayer in Buddhism

Prayer in Buddhism

You may have noticed by now, that I tend to avoid writing on some of the more “religious” topics of Buddhism. Instead, I have focused more on the easily experienced and obviously practical truths in Buddhist practice. Not this time, since I recently came across something that I really wanted to share.

Yesterday, I reviewed the book, Footprints in the Snow, by Chan Master Sheng Yen. As a biography, it was very interesting, but it also had some of his own philosophy and teaching experiences in it. Toward the end of the book, he tells us how he explains prayer to Westerners. Below follows what may be the clearest, most logical argument for prayer that I have seen. As with all things Buddhist, you can believe it or not according to him. Be sure to notice that he’s perfectly willing to accept that any given ‚Äúmiracle‚Äù may just as well be ‚Äúcoincidence”:

Recitation, or prayer, is another element of the Chan practice that I teach. The power of prayer cannot be explained by psychology or science. When we pray, we generate power. In Buddhism, we say the relationship between the person who prays and the object of prayer is like the relationship between a bell and the person who rings the bell, or a mirror and the person who stands before the mirror. The bell won’t ring without someone to ring it. The mirror does not make a reflection without someone standing in front of it. The being – the object of prayer- can only have power if people have faith in it. It’s the same as in Christianity. You are saved only if you have faith. On this level, Buddhism is no different from that in Western religion. Faith is what gives people its power.

On another level, Chan practice generates mental power. For example, when a mother thinks about her child all the time, the child may begin to think that he should write or call her. He seems to sense her need even though he didn’t hear from her directly. This kind of mental power is universal; it happens in the East and the West. And that’s just the power of one person. Consider what can happen when a thousand people recite the Great Compassion Dharani together; the power generated may create a substantial reaction, ripening causes and conditions until change occurs.

People may come together to pray for money to buy a piece of land for a monastery, for example (which actually happened in Taiwan when we were trying to find funds to purchase the land for Dharma Drum Mountain, our monastery and Buddhist University there). It is not as if the Bodhisattva Guanyin gave those people the will to buy that land. It’s the power of the mind that praying to the Guanyin generates that leads to the result, although the causes and conditions need to be ripe for the results to occur, no matter how many people come together to pray.

Chan does not encourage individuals to use recitation to ask for specific results. When Chan masters ask for something, it’s not just for themselves; it’s for everyone. For example, if there is a terrible drought, with the land all cracked and dried up, local officials may ask a a monk to ask for rain. There are many examples when a Chan master asked for rain, and rain came. Westerners think this is outright superstition. I agree that it is indeed possible that such occurrences are pure coincidence; that when you pray for rain and rain comes, well, it was simply time for it to rain, with or without the prayer.

Still, the nature of what I do and teach cannot be explained by psychology or a science. Enlightenment in Chan cannot be manufactured in a laboratory or measured by a machine. Enlightenment can only be known by direct experience, just as the warmth of a cup of tea can only be understood by the person drinking it.

(Sheng Yen. Footprints in the Snow. Doubleday. 2008. p. 182-83).

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