By Kellie Schorr
When a Christian friend posted on Facebook about a sorrow she was experiencing, the words “prayers” and “praying for you” filled her feed.
In a situation like that I usually write “sending love” or “I am with you”—not because I’m not praying, but because I don’t want there to be confusion in their mind (or mine) about what I’m actually going to do. My friend was not satisfied with my “sending love” and even less interested in those little pressed together emoji hands, the ones that Christians think means prayer and Buddhists use as an e-bow. She sent me a private message.
“Do Buddhists pray?” She asked.
“I don’t pray the way you pray, but I do pray.” I answered.
“Will you pray your way for me?”
“Yes, I will.”
It’s hard to talk about whether Buddhists pray because the word “Buddhist” is a mosaic. We have different practices, diverse ideas, and histories that range from abusive spiritual environments to apathetic feelings about the whole thing. Across lineages, we bring all the shapes together to make a picture of compassion in this world. Still, subjects like prayer often fall in the cracks between the pieces.
Most cultures throughout history employ some form of prayer in their experience, but when people in the West use that word it is typically the folded-hands-bowed-head-ask-God-say-Amen type found in the Christian tradition. Like “Buddhist” the word “Prayer” is a mosaic of preference and purposes. To get a handle on what it means, theologians often teach prayer by using the acronym ACTS. It is the best way I’ve found to explain Buddhist acts of prayer to a Christian culture.
A – Adoration
Christian prayer functions, in part, to show their love for God. As a non-theist, I have no God and no one to pray to, but I do have many things I can express my love toward. For those Buddhists who say mantras, such as the Green Tara mantra, adoration is a key aspect of their practice. There is something connecting and hopeful in repetitions of adoration that is a kind of prayer. Almost all Buddhist praise teachers and cherish the wisdom they learn from them. We adore dharma (and a good cup of tea).
Because Buddhists don’t have the concept of sin, we don’t really need to confess, and yet, I find that Buddhists do it all the time—we just use different words for it. In Buddhism, we apologize when we realize we have been unskillful with one another. In meditation and contemplation we break the illusion we are perfect or always right. We admit wrongs. We seek to amend any harm we caused. We don’t hold our errors out to a deity or another person for absolution, but we do take them out and offer them on the path of learning so that we may walk better with ourselves and one another.
T – Thanksgiving
Gratitude. So much gratitude. Christians thank God for what they have or experience. Buddhists cultivate gratitude as an antidote to greed, the first of the worldly poisons. Being thankful for our circumstance, no matter what it is, extinguishes the hunger for deeper, better, more. We learn how not to be driven by need or dissatisfaction, but to be thankfully present in the moment at hand.
Asking. This is the part of prayer most people are wanting you to do when they ask you to pray. It’s the part I never liked as it seemed to reduce the whole spiritual act into some sort of never-ending shopping list. It’s also the part Buddhists turn inside out. Asking becomes giving; sending up a prayer, becomes bringing in the pain.
Prayer for Christians is triangular: Susie is hurting. Sam sees that pain and prays to God saying “Susie is hurting, please heal her.” God is responsible to respond to Susie. Between the pain and the payoff is Sam—a sort of mid-point in the process who acts as a hopeful messenger.
For Buddhists, prayer is much more direct.
Metta (the loving kindness mantra) and Tonglen (the act of giving and taking) are as close as Buddhists get to traditional prayer. Metta is more general, but still linear. Sam thinks of Susie and with loving kindness gives his best vision.
May Susie be safe
May Susie be well
May Susie be happy
May Susie live with ease
In Tonglen, we open up our very heart to the pain of another. With meditative concentration, Sam thinks of Susie and the pain she is experiencing. He breathes in, taking her experience into his conscious awareness. He feels her pain, her fear, her isolation. He breathes out, giving his love, his peace and his comfort to her. It doesn’t matter if Susie is in the same room or across the world. Sam is feeling what she feels in a personal, real way. He is reaching across a chasm in that moment to bond with her experience and share his strength with her. It is a deeply interpersonal act, embodying the universal Buddhist belief that we are connected one to another.
So. do most Buddhists pray? In some way, yes. Do they need a deity in order to do it? No.
Prayer, at its best, is not about communication; like some heavenly game of “telephone.” It is about connection—being together, walking through life’s experiences with one another, offering our compassion, our vision, our peace.
“Will you pray your way for me?”
“Yes, I will.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
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