A Buddhist Understanding of Prayer
by Tarchin Hearn
This essay was originally written in 2006 at the Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre. It has been edited and re-formatted for Green Dharma Treasury.
I often receive requests for prayers. Please pray for someone. Please hold someone in your prayers. To tell you the truth, the more I’m asked this, the more I find myself pondering, what does it actually mean? With a sense of the ineffable mystery of the universe, what does it mean to pray for someone? Surely we are not being asked to join in mere petition. Begging for mercy or for help – pleadings of desperation pouring forth from sadness and fear of imminent loss. Prayer as bartering, a kind of marketplace exchange. Prayer as anger or righteous indignation. It’s not fair. We want justice. Prayer as the outflow of desperately needing to DO something when we have run out of other things to try. Prayer as payment, I’ll do this and you give me, or him, or her, health or success or whatever. Prayer as control; tweaking the DNA, fine tuning the microtubules, reprogramming the cosmic computer in a preferable way.
All of this trying,
all of this efforting
outflows of pain and sadness and
the messy wreckage of broken connections.
Of course, there is also prayer as celebration, co-mingling and falling together, tumbling through the sharp door of grief into an ocean of love. We mould each other, teach each other, shape each other; cajoling, pleading – reverberations of feeling and memory. What a blessing! Each moment; uniquely fresh, never-to-be again-ness. Alive to this – suchness resting – you reminding me and me reminding you of all that is precious; a bursting gratitude for having danced with each other in a way that was with no other.
Surely prayer that heals – even in the face of dying – is a mystery of aliveness, an unfathomableness described with four tiny letters; l, o, v, e. Linking, coupling, grieving, celebrating, discovering, losing, laughing and lightening; living together, merged and mingled. A felt need for prayer is life’s invitation to all of us. It’s the knock on the door, the message on the answer machine. An enticement to drop the pretence, the falseness and façade. Drop the procrastination, the game playing, the toeing of the party line, the keeping up with the Jones, the fear of being different, the fear of failure – the fear of being real! Let us have the courage to ask each other for prayer, for help, for upliftment. Let’s send out the invitations and then, resting in trust, let us dance abundantly with all that joins us.
In this context, perhaps it does makes sense to pray for someone, especially when they are not capable of praying themselves. This is a mystery, a place of guardian angels, of sambhogakayas and inexplicable linkages. It is intimate and personal. Remembering you, a fellow way-farer on the path of living; an adventuring, struggling, pioneering-through-illness friend. Appreciating the multi-dimensional vastness of your being: biological, ancestral and historic along with the environmental circumstances of your journey. Joining these memories to the piercing screech of blackbirds as they distract a morepork from their territory and the evening breeze gently rustling the limbs of the trees. Breathing with the thought of you while opening to the perfect weaving of lifetimes and lifelines – becomings and unbecomings in countless realms and dimensions. This is my prayer, your struggle tugging my heart, drawing my mind to what is eye moist and wondrous. Perhaps even better than praying for someone is to pray with someone. Isn’t that what we are doing? We touch each other drawing forth awakeness, amazement and sometimes blessed peace, and sometimes all of these together! Ah, you are weaving me into the world. Humming with the birthing/dying mystery of countless beings, immense gratitude explodes in all directions – a profound embracing.
In the last few months, so many people, have reverberated through my being as prayer. People I know, friends of friends, people I’ve heard about, creatures, species, water sheds and ecosystems. The years go by. The list gets longer; this listing of gain and loss, this blessing of mystery, this savouring and celebrating of each vast, boundless, intermingling. We pray together, we live together, we struggle together, we love together, we feed all beings together.
E, Ma Ho!
May all beings join in the banquet!
But – let’s not get totally carried away. Sometimes we forget. Do you know what I mean? Blessing seems gone. Loss is all around. How then can I pray?
At times like this:
Pray with your body. Feel the tensing and relaxing of your muscles as prayer, the beating of your heart and the tides of your breathing as prayer, the movements of digestion and elimination as prayer. Enjoy and explore your posture as prayer, sitting as prayer, standing as prayer, walking as prayer, and lying down as prayer. Pray with all your activities, working as prayer, playing as prayer, exercising as prayer. Pour the nectar of exquisite attention into whatever you are doing, moment by moment, so that, that too becomes prayer. Prayer without ceasing. Life without ceasing.
Pray with your voice. Sing, chant, call out all the names of all the beings you love. Speak from your chest, from your belly and feel the resonance of your voice loosening all the fibres of your being. Let the murmur of poetry and wondrous things ride on your breath, cadences of deep caring, choralling down into the marrow of your bones. Let your talking stop and surrender into the great silence. Listen to the whisper of your heart-knowing, a symphony of cells, a dancing of intelligence. All around, spiders, trees, birds, and landscapes; myriad beings, talking, broadcasting, weaving you into their weaving. We see each other. We hear each other. We respond to each other. We are not alone. Communication – the activity of coming into union. Our languaging together is the prayer of the universe. Your every whisper – the prayer of ‘as it is-ness’.
Pray with your mind. Release into stillness and feel the motionless motion of knowing the world, and – being known by the world. Allow the gates of memory to fall open and enter the mandala of your life. Thanking where thanks are due. Forgiving when forgiveness is needed. Peacemaking when peace is right. Celebrating all the ordinary miracles that somehow were taken for granted. Blessing and supporting where blessing and support are needed. Letting go of regret. Letting go of ‘yes buts’. Letting go of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and things not accomplished. Let your mind be a prayer and allow yourself to dwell in the beautiful and the life affirming.
Day by day – body, speech and mind,
living life abundantly,
generously and humbly.
In this way perhaps our entire life
It’s one of those mornings; five-thirty a.m. and luminous. The light is rose-ing salmon grey-pink, silhouetting the peaks, a celestial water colour washing the canvas of my mind, transforming a chill metal-blue dawn into a visual symphony of saturated colour. The air is dense. Everything is so extraordinarily still, it seems, that by simply opening a space of caring, I can feel pin prick crystals, emerging one by one, billions of them, a gloaming of frost falling silently into our world, clothing the blades of grass, the bracken fronds and marble leaves.
Bellbirds, tuis, blackbirds, grey warblers and south island tomtits are waking, one bird, and then the next; a squeak, a twitter, a stretch of silence, a peep, another silence, then a raucous chatter; arpeggios of liquid clinks and bloonks, until avian breakfast chatter is bouncing up and down our little valley. Everyone’s talking! Light, colour, stillness, exuberance, fluid breath, feet planted in the earth; it seems the whole world is blessed. Resting in this pristine wonder, thinking of you, thinking of me, sharing this holiness, savouring the luminosity. Surely the knowing of such a moment, this absolute ordinariness, this perfection of everything – just as it is – surely this is the very heart of prayer.
A single beech leaf;
blushed gold, pastelling incrementally to a viridian hint of summer long gone;
pausing in a moment of perfect levitation
then changing pace and direction,
zigging and zagging,
falling down the staircase of the sky
and thwapping ever so delicately into a waiting puddle.
Imagine the limpid surface; intimately, effortlessly, echoing a golden leaf
spiraling ever bigger and clearer,
details of veins and ragged edges,
turning in space.
Does the puddle have any kind of aqueous expectation?
A tiny almost imperceptible thwap
pushing the surface tension, liquid drum skin stretching earthward
then springing outward,
a flawless catch and rebound,
concentric rings of mirror-like crystal
a rippling world observed by fantail and the
sparkling of my neurons in breath-holding recognition of something miraculous.
Surely this too is a kind of prayer?
sitting on the porch of Triple Gem … a bowl of becoming,
petals of knowing opening and closing within and around.
River sound swooshes and hums with the light,
pine auras of blinding whiteness, individual needles,
some neurotransmitter has turned up the magnification!
as if from nowhere,
a harrier . . . two harriers!
(Everything has become slow motion.)
Hovering, gliding, sliding on the dense thickness of frosted air,
rising in the waves of warming light
while visions of far away friends
and yogis in meditation
and earthworms wrapped in their dark warm beds
and micro-organisms in the stream
and each separate leaf and needle
all of us and all of this
an elegant tapestry of beauty and meaning.
Surely this is prayer in action.
A medium size fly is buzzing in the sunlight
exploring the wall of my hut,
seeking whatever flies seek on pristine wintery mornings.
His eyes are so big!
Where did he spend his night?
Something feels immense and perfect
life thrumming as the earth turns
and illumination races down the face of Jones’s ridge.
a waking of newness.
a heart glow of breath-catching gratitude,
a perfect eternal moment,
a life worth living,
Surely knowing this is the blessing of prayer.
may all beings be well
may all beings be happy
all is blessing
(Please feel free to share this essay with your friends.)
© Tarchin Hearn www.greendharmatreasury.org