Some of human civilization’s oldest surviving literature relates to prayer, from Sumerian temple hymns to ancient Egyptian incantations to the gods. And today, all of the world’s major religions have some element of prayer. Christians, Muslims, and Jews pray to God, while Hindus can choose from a variety of gods toward which to offer their supplications. Externally, Buddhism looks to be no different. Visit a temple or monastery in almost any Buddhist country, and you will find throngs of visitors, palms pressed together, reciting words before statues of the Buddha. And for those familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, we have what are translated into English as prayer beads, prayer wheels, and prayer flags.
The act of prayer has three factors: the person making the prayer, the object prayed to, and the object prayed for. Thus, the question of prayer in Buddhism is rather complicated. After all, in a non-theistic religion with no creator being, who do Buddhists pray to, and what for? If there is nobody to bestow blessings upon us, then what is the point of prayer? For Buddhists, the essential question is, “Is it possible for someone else to eliminate our sufferings and problems?”
Simply praying for change is not enough. There has to be action. – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
The Buddha said that nobody, not even the Buddha himself with all his wisdom and ability, can eliminate all of our problems for us. It is impossible. We have to take responsibility for ourselves. If we don’t wish to experience problems and suffering, then we need to avoid their causes. If we wish to experience happiness, we ourselves need to create the causes of happiness. From the Buddhist point of view, we can achieve this by following pure morality and ethics. It is entirely up to us to change our behavior and attitude to create the kind of life we want.
Who Do Buddhists Pray to?
When we see people prostrate to statues, offer incense at temples, and recite verses in halls, what are they asking for and who are they praying to? While there might be people thinking, “Shakyamuni Buddha, please may I have a Mercedes!” or, “Medicine Buddha, please cure my sickness,” most Buddhist teachers would say that these kinds of prayers likely have little benefit.
Instead, in Buddhism, we pray to Buddhas and bodhisattvas for the inspiration and strength to work on ourselves so that we can create our own causes of happiness, as well as benefit others as much as possible. It’s not that they wave a magic wand and, all of a sudden, we have some special power to do it, but by thinking of their example – they act as our role models – we are filled with the confidence, “I can do this!”
Buddhist prayer activities, such as the recitation of sutras, the repetition of mantras, as well as visualization of deities, are all about connecting with our own inner capacity to develop constructive emotions such as compassion, enthusiasm, patience, and so on, and to engage in constructive actions of helping others.
A well-known practice is the Seven-Limb Prayer, which contains within it the essence of the entire Buddhist path. There are seven parts, each of which has a specific effect:
(1) I prostrate to all you Buddhas who have graced the three times, to the Dharma and to the Highest Assembly, bowing down with bodies as numerous as all the atoms of the world.
(2) Just as Manjushri and others have made offerings to you, the Triumphant, so do I, too, make offerings to you, my Thusly Gone Guardians, and to your spiritual offspring.
(3) Throughout my beginningless samsaric existence, in this and other lives, I’ve unwittingly committed negative acts, or caused others to commit them, and further, oppressed by the confusion of naivety, I’ve rejoiced in them – whatever I’ve done, I see them as mistakes and openly declare them to you, my Guardians, from the depths of my heart.
(4) With pleasure, I rejoice in the ocean of positive force from your having developed bodhichitta aims to bring every limited being joy and in your deeds that have aided limited beings.
(5) With palms pressed together, I beseech you Buddhas of all directions: please shine Dharma’s lamp for limited beings suffering and groping in darkness.
(6) With palms pressed together, I beseech you Triumphant who would pass beyond sorrow: I beg you, remain for countless eons so as not to leave in their blindness these wandering beings.
(7) By whatever positive force I’ve built up through all of these that I’ve done like that, may I remove every suffering of all limited beings.
- The first part of the prayer is prostration. We prostrate to the Buddhas as a sign of respect to everything they represent: compassion, love, and wisdom. Prostration, where we place the highest part of our body – the head – on the ground, also helps us to overcome pride and cultivate humility.
- We then make offerings. Many Buddhists offer water bowls, but the object itself isn’t very important. What is important is the motivation of giving – our time, effort, energy, as well as possessions – which helps us to overcome attachment.
- Thirdly, we admit our shortcomings and mistakes. Perhaps sometimes we are lazy or selfish, and sometimes we act in very destructive ways. We admit these, regret them, and move on with a strong determination to try and not repeat the same mistakes. This is part of overcoming being under the influence of negative karmic impulses.
- Then, we rejoice. We think of all the good things we ourselves have accomplished, and all of the incredible constructive work done by others. We also look at the great things done by the Buddhas. This helps to transform jealousy.
- Next, we request the teachings, which creates within us a receptive state of mind. We’re saying, “We want to learn, we want to create happiness for ourselves and others!”
- We beseech the teachers not to depart. In this previous part, we are open to the teachings, and now we want the teachers not to leave us, but to teach us until we reach full enlightenment.
- Finally, we have the most important step, which is dedication. We dedicate whatever positive force we’ve created so that it may benefit ourselves and all other beings.
As we can see from this prayer, the aim in Buddhism is not for some external being to swoop down and save us from all of our troubles. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” In other words, the Buddhas show us the way, but we need to put in the effort ourselves to overcome attachment and unawareness, and to develop the limitless constructive potentials we all possess.
While externally, Buddhism has the trappings and rituals of prayer, the idea is not to petition an external being for assistance in our daily lives. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas are perfect role models, who show the path from where we are now, to full enlightenment. By praying to Buddhas and bodhisattvas, we derive inspiration from them and awaken our own inner capabilities: the limitless compassion, love, and wisdom that we all have the potential for inside of us.