Prayer in Buddhism

February 19, 2007

A friend recently passed to me a question about prayer in Buddhism. The question seemed to stem from the following passage in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i-Íqán:

The traditions established the fact that in all Dispensations the law of prayer hath constituted a fundamental element of the Revelation of all the Prophets of God—a law the form and the manner of which hath been adapted to the varying requirements of every age. (p39)

There is a common perception that prayer does not exist in Buddhism, which is one of the accepted religious "dispensations" in the Baha'i teachings. So could this passage possibly be wrong?

It is a good question and a terrific opportunity for exploring the "form and the manner" of prayer.

I first turn to my recent experience of a Buddhist monastery. Rev. Heng Sure, the head monk — I'm sorry that I do not know the proper title — offered up a chant before the noon meal, a portion of which I've typed up:

Now we render these offerings to the Pure Dharma Body, Vairochana Buddha,
To the Perfect Reward Body, Nishyanda Buddha,
To the Myriad Transformation Body, Shakyamuni Buddha,
In the Land of Ultimate Bliss to Amitabha Budddha,
To Maitreya, Honored Future Buddha,
And in all times and places to each and every Buddha,

Now, I do not yet know what Rev. Heng Sure would say (but I will ask him) . If prayer is defined as "speaking to God," then perhaps this does not qualify. But if prayer is understood as spiritual communion and dedication to the ultimate ground of being — that underlying meta-reality which pervades this material world — then this chant in my mind would certainly qualify as prayer.

In this category I would also include the mantra I heard coming from the Buddha Hall at another point during the day, a steady mantra that included vows for peace (I do not know the content of this mantra). One more point — though I do not know the context for their use, I now recall hearing that day part of a discussion about "Buddhist prayer beads" that are beloved by a Lutheran friend's grandson.

The Wikipedia entry on prayer in Buddhism gives an excellent overview of prayer in different forms of Buddhism, saying "Prayer is seen mainly as a powerful psycho-physical practice that can enhance meditation," but also noting that "... the Buddha emphasised the primacy of individual practice and experience. He said that supplication to gods or deities was not necessary." Sokka Gakkai International, a Buddhist organization with a large presence in North America, has an interesting article on the nature of prayer in their form of Buddhism.

In short, it appears to me that prayer is alive and well in Buddhism. Without delving into specific texts from Shakyamuni Buddha or other Buddhas, it is clear that the "form and manner" of prayer was adapted to the needs of the day and age.