Do Buddhists Pray?


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Western Buddhist, being mostly converts, avoid using the term prayer. It is a word too tightly tied to the religion of one’s upbringing. Even in the Japanese Jodo temples in the US one does not hear the term prayer. Rather the priests use the term “meditation” when they call on the Buddhas for blessings or benediction.

Personally, I think that there is a place for the word prayer in the vocabulary of western Buddhism. Buddhist around the world pray. They pray to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other spiritual beings. Prayer is a very important part of the religious life of Buddhists who follow the Dharma but recognize that they are not, nor are likely to become, Buddhas in this lifetime. They are are still caught up in the Samsara of everyday life but have a connection to the Buddha. This relationship with the Buddha is expressed through prayer.

How do we, as western Buddhists who are not yet Buddhas, express our relationship with the Buddha? How do we express our gratitude, our yearning, and our wishes for others?

As Buddhists, we aspire to alleviate suffering through living the noble life taught by the Buddhas. Ideally this is a life of perfect wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, we are not Buddhas. We are only followers of the way. Our lives are lived in the space between Awakening and Samsara. We hear the Buddhas call to live lives of indiscriminate compassion. Yet we continue to discriminate between friend and foe, like and dislike, pleasure and pain.

Aware of our short comings, we call out to the Buddha. This calling out is Prayer. Prayer places our relationship to the world of Samsara within the in the context of Buddha’s measureless compassion. Prayer expresses our continual recollection of the Buddha and our awareness of our own limited and deluded natures.

Prayer is not a technique. It is not mind training. Prayer is our Heart response to suffering and affliction. Prayer is opening to the limitless possibilities of Awakening. Prayer is also our aspiration to Awaken for benefit of all beings. Prayer is the Dharma expressed through our compassionate actions in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!
Peace, Ananda

Salvation in Many Forms

Salvation comes in many forms. For the hungry, it comes as bread. For the thirsty, it is water. For the homeless, it is shelter. For the lonely, it may be found in friendship. For those of us fortunate to have food, shelter, clothing, and friends, salvation is the awakening of the heart. It is being touched by the reality of measureless compassion. Experiencing compassion which is so limitless and total that our little self is overwhelmed and forgotten.

Anyone at anytime can be saved. Both the holy and the evil can have a spiritual awakening that offers a new direction. The experience may be fleeting, possibly even unnoticed. It may reveal itself in a moment of uncharacteristic action that prevents some small harm. Perhaps it is found in a small act of kindness or love. Alternatively, the experience may be deep and transformative, leading to a new way of life.

Being in the presence of holy beings, saints and people of deep prayer, often evokes a primordial memory of the reality of pervasive and limitless love. This is the power of prayer and love. It is what Mahatma Gandhi called “Satyagraha” or “Truth Force”. It is the power that Gandhi tried to employ in India’s nonviolent struggle for independence. It does not seek victory but rather spiritual transformation. Thus, for Gandhi, India’s independence struggle was an attempt to make real the transformative power of love in world.

Clinging to Truth, which, for those of us who are Buddhist, might be called Bodhicitta, requires a certain level of discipline. This Discipline creates a life that is more in harmony with the Truth of Universal and indiscriminate compassion. It is a life of restraint and prayer that deeply values all life and all beings. Living such a life is not necessary for salvation. Awakening, touching that which is beyond self, is not caused by self effort. Salvation is a gift that is freely given. However, leading a life committed to compassionate action, forgiveness, and love, reduces suffering in the world and makes it easier for those around us to likewise be and do good.

Peace,
Ananda

The Rhythm of Daily Prayer


Lately I have been encouraging people of faith to develop a religious practice that involves daily study and prayer as well as weekly fellowship with like minded practitioners. Partly this is the result of my Buddhist training in which we constantly remember that life is precious and unreliable. None of us knows when we are going to die or face some profound suffering. Yet everyday we fill our lives with various activities, often unaware of the preciousness of human life.

This does not have to be the case. The religious life is built up in little bits everyday. Inner transformation (metanoia) is the work of our daily struggle to encounter others with compassion and love.

If you have not yet set aside time each day for study and contemplation, then here is a bit of inspiration. Over the course of a year, thirty minutes of prayer / mediation a day is equivalent to eleven, sixteen hour, days spent in contemplation! That is like going on a very intensive two week meditation retreat!

While thirty minutes a day may seem like a lot to busy people with families, it is only two fifteen minute periods of prayer / meditation a day. Very attainable. Just a few minutes first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.

The thing is, that if we are indeed people of faith, our daily business should take place around our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, often the exact opposite is the case. We try to squeeze our prayer life around the secular activities of life and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

Though Buddhist, I have been greatly inspired by the
Northumbria Christian community which has created a daily communal practice of liturgy. Members, and guest, are invited to follow their Office of Daily Prayer, no matter where they live. There is no need to abandon job and family to join the monastery, commune, or ashram. One only need join with the community in the daily rhythm of prayer.

In our own little ways we can follow the example of the Norhtumbria community and begin to structure our daily lives around the daily rhythm of prayer and the living of compassionate lives.

Namo Amida Bu!
Peace, Ananda

Does Religion Offer Hope?


A friend recently asked me if I thought that religion had anything to do with hope? I said, “yes, and If your religion isn’t offering you hope then something is wrong.”

However, as I reflected a little deeper on the question, I began to wonder how much real hope religion offers in today’s world. Certainly religion offers us, personally, much that is valuable. But does religion offer us the hope of solving the very real challenges of a world entering into the dramatic and possibly catastrophic era of climate change?

As a person of faith, I would say that the answer is “yes” and “maybe”. Religion, in theory, shows us the way. Religion offers selflessness, restraint, sacrifice, compassion, forgiveness, and faith as a response to scarcity, hardship, and suffering. It offers lives lived individually and collectively in the sharing of resources and in the care of those who are suffering. Religion offers us the only real solution to a world being consumed, quite literally, by greed.

The hope that religion offers the 21st century is found in the living of exemplary lives of compassion and concern for others. Religion must do the hard work of “saving souls” from the suffering and hellish future that will result from global climate change, war, and privation.

If we are serious about our religious lives then we cannot turn away from suffering. We must live our vows to to save beings from suffering, not in some vague philosophical way, but now, in this lifetime, in real and concrete actions. We must alleviate suffering as it exists in its many forms today, and we must work in the world to prevent future suffering. The work of saving beings, in this lifetime and on this planet, from tremendous suffering, will require heroic acts of selflessness by large numbers of individuals. It is up to us, as people of faith, to take up the work of the saints. We cannot wait for someone else to come forward and do the work. We have the answers. All that is left is to live the Truths that we all know to be true but have been afraid to accept and put into practice.

Namo Amida Bu!
Peace,
Ananda

Happiness: A Better New Yearʻs Resolution


There is a very famous story about the great Indian Saint Ramakrishna. He was quite orthodox and as such held to the belief that bathing in the river Ganges washed away all sins. Now to anyone watching the daily throng of devout Hindus bathing in the Ganges, and then observing their conduct after their morning ablutions, it would quickly become obvious that their sins had not been washed away.

One of Ramakrishna’s visitors pointed just this contradiction out to the venerable saint. Once again Ramakrishna affirmed that the Ganges does indeed wash away sins. However, he conceded, our sins wait for us on the banks of the holy river.

For Westerners, New Year’s is much like bathing in the Ganges. It is a time to wash away past sins and bad habits and start anew. We make vows to loose weight and live healthier. Maybe we strive to be nicer, or more forgiving, or generally a better person. Perhaps we aspire to accomplish some goal or project.

These are all very wonderful. Yet our “sins” do not go away. The are hanging out waiting for us in the new year. Sure we push them aside for a bit, but they are persistent. After all they are fruit of our accumulated thoughts and actions throughout our lifetime, maybe even longer. They are familiar and comfortable habits, and they are really hard to change.

It is not surprising then when we easily fall back into old behaviors. Some of this may be the result of overly ambitious goals. It is better that your New Year’s resolution be small and attainable, rather than heroic and unachievable. Real change occurs over long periods time. Persistence and patience, more often than not, win the day. Even the hardest stone is eventually worn down by the constant motion of water.

Another challenge with New Year’s resolutions is motivation. Often our motivation is too small or misplaced. By this I mean that we are seeking happiness for our selves. Unfortunately, what we think of as our selves is really very transient. Our moods and mind change from moment to moment. That goal, which seemed laudable and attainable yesterday, seems ridiculous today. We may even wonder, “Who made such a goal?” You did, of course, or at least a previous “you” did. However, the mind has changed and it is now hard to believe that it was the same you that made such a goal. Before long your “sins”, your habitual patterns, are back in your life and no real change has occurred.

What then is a solid foundation for change? It certainly is not some self building project. Yes being healthier and nicer are good things, but they are just part of your ego project which is, ultimately, the cause for all of our troubles. That which we call self is empty and unreliable. The self is ultimately not a true source of happiness. And as H. H. the Dalai Lama continually points out, we all want to be happy and avoid suffering.

The cause of real happiness is found in non-self, or that which is other than self, ie. “other people”. Buddha is other than your self. Your neighbor is also other than your self. Real happiness, is found when we look outside ourselves and concern ourselves with the happiness and well being of others. This is the beginning of the practice of compassion (karuna) and love (metta) which is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

Change from self focus to other focus is hard. Each day we must try to reflect upon the lives of others to understand their joys and sufferings. We can celebrate their joys with them and try to alleviate, or at least sympathize with, their sufferings. We will make mistakes, we will sometimes cause hurt or be unsympathetic to others. Never the less, continue to offer kindness and compassion, as best you can, to the people around you.

Over a lifetime of practicing love and compassion, your life will be transformed. Your old habits, you “sins”, will have withered from lack of attention. You will be happier and will have found inner peace and meaning. More importantly the people around you will be happier for having known you.

Begin today to make the world a more compassionate and happier place. Look beyond yourself and see what you can do for the people in your life. Sometimes all it takes is the right intention, and attention, to awaken to the amazing world beyond your self.

Namo Amida Bu!
Peace,
Ananda