Do Buddhists Pray?


Prayer has been central to my life for as long as I can remember. I was sustained as a Christian by two kinds of prayer—contemplative prayer, in which I would seek a quiet place alone with God, and intercessory prayer, in which I would raise up to God the concerns of family and friends. Now that I am a Buddhist, contemplative prayer has become meditation, seeking a quiet place where I can be fully aware of myself and in touch with my Buddha-nature.

But what about intercessory prayer? Friends and family are still in need; and now, as a Bodhisattva-wannabe, I’ve taken on an additional concern for all beings. Who do I pray to now? Is it praying anymore if I don’t recognize a god who can answer prayers? Should I be offering up my prayers to the universe, to nature, to Buddha? I know the answer to the last one is “no,” I’m just making a rhetorical flourish.

But these are not rhetorical questions, people! I need answers. I feel the need for an outlet for the love, compassion, and concern that I feel for others, both those I know and those I don’t. Right now, I just feel confused and uncertain. When I detect a prayer welling up inside of me, I don’t know what to do with it anymore.

What does it mean now if I pray, “I hope Joe beats the cancer that is making him so ill”? Who is listening? Am I doing him or me any good?


10 responses »

  1. “Every thought is a prayer; every thought creates. Every emotion is a prayer; every emotion creates.” – Caroline Myss I believe your compassion for others, either for a close friend/family member or for ‘all sentient beings’ goes to the same place it went in the past when you had a recepticle or destination in mind. It is the generation of a creative, not destructive force in the universe and can therefore only do good.

  2. Maybe this will help. I also was brought up Christian but have had a lifelong interest in Buddhism. When I feel like praying, I do it as giving affirmations to the One Mind. The only difference is that one must think of all sentient beings and that the affirmation is for the good of all sentient beings, as well as for the individual. You can pray that Joe beats the cancer but leave it up to the One Mind to decide if the affirmation should ‘go through’ as it were. That is what I do, anyway.

  3. You don’t say which sect of Buddhism you have joined. Buddhism is a very diverse religion with many different sects or denominations. Some sects do indeed direct prayers of petition, either to the Gods or the buddhas/boddhisattvas. (Who might be considered the same, depending again on which sect it is.)

    If it’s Tibetan Buddhism that you’re practicing, then it would be the deities of Bon – the shamanic religion that existed in Tibet before Buddhism, and which was syncretized with Buddhist beliefs and practices to create Vajrayana, the traditional Buddhist practice of Tibet.

    If you are following Pure Land Buddhism, or some other branch of Mahayana, then you might direct prayers of petition to Kwan Yin / QuanYin/ Guanyin / Kannon – the Chinese Goddess/Bodhisattva of compassion. (She has her origins in the ancient Chinese deity known as “The Queen Mother of the West” but she was later syncretized to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.)

    Her qualities of wisdom, compassion and mercy have made her an especially popular deity, often compared to the Virgin Mary. Kwan Yin has many worshipers today, including many who are not Buddhist, but who follow some other kind of spiritual path, such as New Age, Neopagan or Goddess worship.

    A few links on Kwan Yin:

    Kwan Yin iconography:

    Blessings ~

  4. Pingback: Buddhists Do Pray! | dharmabeginner

  5. i have struggled with this issue, too – wanting to pray, but not know “who” to direct prayers to. the above replies, as well as your subsequent post, “Buddhists DO pray” have helped. Thank you!

  6. I understand the impulse to pray and find the responses above beautiful in their compassion and empathy. But I have concerns, too, about ex-Christians, like me, forcing Buddhism into New Age and/or Judeo-Christian concepts. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion/philosophy, therefore, there is no savior god, there are no deities to pray to. The buddhas, including Kwan Yin/Tara, Avalokiteshvara, et al, are meant to represent aspects of ourselves that we meditate on to expand those qualities, like compassion, in ourselves. There is nothing in what the Buddha taught that allows for or expresses a belief in intercessionary prayer, just the opposite, in fact. The alternative to coming back lifetime after lifetime in the Hinayana tradition is enlightenment and extinguishment; in the Mahayana tradition, enlightenment and either extinguishment or becoming a bodhisattva, which is not becoming a deity. Please be aware that when we pray to Bon spirits/deities or transcendental oversouls, etc. that we do so not in the tradition of Buddhism, but outside it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad — obviously your intentions when you do so as you describe them are heartfelt and well-intended — it just means you’re not doing so in line with Buddhist beliefs. That’s fine; we humans seem to desire that sort of connection (and control) greatly, we can accept that in ourselves and then let it go. The Buddha’s big departures from the Hinduism in which he was raised were that he rejected the idea of a “soul” (anatman; Hindus believe in the concept of atman or soul) because of his comprehension of dependant origination and his concomitant understanding that there was no panoply of deities or even one deity. Walpole Rahula’s What The Buddha Taught is an invaluable aid to understanding what came down to us from the Pali Canon without the cultural overlays each country added on to its particular version of Buddhism. I in no way intend this to come off as critical of what has been written in earlier comments; I offer these observations because I too struggled with these issues, but was guided back to the teachings by some great local teachers who have devoted their lives to Buddhist study and meditation. It threw me into a tailspin for awhile, but I’m now happy to do vipassana meditation throughout the day (“Every step a prayer”) understanding that I am working on myself and my issues, looking for insights, not speaking to an external deity. In quiet, reserved time, I do shamatha meditation to balance that with taming the mind. So difficult! So worth it! In metta, Cynthia

    • Those are great thoughts, Cynthia. Thank you for sharing them. A connection I had not made earlier is with the practice of tonglen, despite having read so much about it in the writings of Pema Chodron. Then this morning Sogyal Rinpoche brought it up in a lecture I was listening to. If breathing in the pain and suffering of others and breathing out love and healing is not prayer, I don’t know what is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s