In the West, the notion of prayer is largely ignored in Buddhism. After all, most Buddhist don’t pray to or for anything. Buddhist practice is often seen as the opposite: aspiring to let go of everything.
As Robin Kornman explains, the view on prayer is different from school to school. Theravada Buddhists tend to pray, but not with the expectation that anyone is listening. Mahayana and tantric Buddhists pray to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Whether those figures are literal beings is the subject of much discussion. It also comes down to the question of what or who Buddha is. If we are praying to a Buddha or a bodhisattva, is that a person or an idea? Self or other? These questions are discussed in depth in Buddhadharma‘s forum, Do Buddhists Pray?.
Briefly, here are thoughts on why we pray, from three Buddhist teachers:
Praying to connect with compassion
From “If It Sounds Too Good to Be True,” by Mark Unno
It’s easy to forget that the ultimate realization is boundless compassion and oneness. When we put our palms together, it is not just one pair of hands meeting palm to palm. Paying close attention, it is as if we can feel the gentle touch of our teacher or the Buddha herself, her palms gently caressing the back of our hands, helping bring our palms together, teaching us the feeling of boundless compassion and wisdom. In that moment, whether we live or die, achieve health or not, become “enlightened” or not becomes secondary to knowing the power of buddhanature is fully present—that everything we need is between our palms as we bow, that the working of great compassion is already unfolding, here and now.
We can call that prayer if we like.
Praying to understand the self
From “The Paradox of Prayer,” by Jan Chozen Bays
Many teachers… do pray. But in a nontheistic religion, this raises some questions: to whom? to what? In daily Zen practice, it seems that often we are praying to our self—both our individual-limited-lifespan self and our larger self of boundless-interbeing. We aren’t praying for personal material gain; rather, we are praying in order to turn our hearts and minds toward the positive qualities of compassion and clarity. We are voicing an aspiration that we become able to extend compassion and wisdom to ourselves and others.
Praying to discover awakenment
From “An Invitation,” by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
So what does it mean to pray without the limitations of our individual preferences? It means we’re praying for a deep unconditional wakefulness not based upon the preferences of the ego. Just in asking we experience a mind full of awe and humility. We allow life to touch us and feel the longing to move forward with compassion and love.