By John Lee Pendall
I was still an innocent Catholic kid when I first slipped into a meditative absorption… thing.
The church was completely silent as we all knelt with the host dissolving on our tongues. That sounds weird. Scratch that—as the flavorless wafer dissolved on our tongues. There may have also been wine involved even though I was only 10, but it’s okay because it wasn’t actually wine—it was the Blood of Christ.
Kneeling there, surrounded by the quietly devout, awash in incense and humbled by the old wood, cavernous room, and the multi-colored light streaming in through the stained glass, I prayed. But it wasn’t the way I was taught to pray.
I imagined a temple full of golden light. And there He was standing in the center of it: Jesus. I’d walk up and kneel down before him and he’d place a hand on my head. Then I’d pray that everyone I loved was happy and healthy, and that people all over the world would be fed and settle their differences. The church would disappear, and I’d be in that inner room with God. Joy rose up within me—happiness and peace beyond anything I’d ever derived from the external world.
Time seemed to stop; there was no difference between seconds, minutes and hours. When the priest broke with a bell and a, “Peace be with you,” it was like being teleported back into this world.
Some Buddhists visualize—or even imagine communicating with—Bodhisattvas when they meditate. That’s a type of shamatha (tranquil abiding) meditation. Most Buddhists throughout the world take Refuge in the Three Treasures, chant, use mantras and make offerings to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other beings.
Tonglen and loving-kindness meditation are very close to prayer. Just like prayer, we’re sitting and wishing for something to happen—in that case it’s that all beings are happy, filled with joy, free of suffering and totally enlightened.
In Zen, we frequently recite the Bodhisattva Vows, offer any merits we’ve acquired through practice to be distributed to all beings, and resolve to stop doing stupid things. This is all prayer. Some, more hardline atheist-Buddhists might disagree, but it’s definitely prayer. If you had no knowledge of Buddhism and walked into any temple or Zen center during a ceremony, you’d think they were praying. If you practiced an Abrahamic faith and you saw someone meditating you’d probably think they were praying.
The main difference I see between Buddhist prayer and Christian prayer is that Buddhist prayers are:
1) meditation aids
2) not about God
3) all about others
Unless you’re a Nichiren Buddhist, you’re not asking for personal benefit or worldly things. We’re just putting our intention out there and wishing all beings well. We’re not asking an all-powerful God to do it—we don’t really know what we’re asking—we just hope. This crafts a tranquil state of mind that’s great to meditate with and it evens out our behavior off the cushion as well.
Some Buddhists do actively pray to and worship specific beings.
Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) is the most widely worshiped Bodhisattva. Her name means, One Who Hears the Cries of the World. People all over the world ask Guanyin for help with everyday problems that cause suffering. That’s because one of Guanyin’s vows was to listen to people and help in anyway possible, and to not become a Buddha until all the suffering in the world has come to an end.
I don’t know a lot of Westerners who pray to Bodhisattvas, but some do, and I think that’s fine. If someone needs that to practice, then by all means use it, but I do think it can be a hindrance when people get attached to such things or consider them the entirety of the practice.
The Buddha considered clinging to rites and rituals to be a major stumbling block for practitioners.
I’ve tried pretty much every Buddhist practice that I can get my hands on, and many of them open up a state of mind that’s identical to the one I stumbled on in church all those years ago, minus the cardboard wafer and bottom-shelf wine. Even though I’m a stubborn skeptic by nature, I’ll never really understand how people can say, “Buddhism isn’t a religion.”
Yes, it’s totally a religion because if you’re doing it right then it feels, well, religious. You’ll have that ancient feeling, and that profound stillness and bright clarity that things like reason and rationality just can’t provide. The difference is that it’s not a religion with a God, and that we’re not just blissing out but investigating our minds. A Christian can ask God to show them the truth and take it on faith.
For a Buddhist, faith means believing that if we look for it on our own and then test it to make sure it’s valid, then we’ll certainly find it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".