An American Lama's Thoughts on Prayer

Happy holydays! May every day be a good one, just being alive as the sun dawns.

Every morning I wake and take a moment to appreciate the lovely view from my bedroom window. And every day, as I take in the stillness and beauty of my little pond and surrounding woods, I wonder: Who made all of this? Wordless gratitude fills my heart and mind, body and soul each day as I begin my morning ritual, and I sense the sacred Presence transcendent over all of us yet immanent in each and every one of us, by whatever name or image-ing.

Where'd it all come from, and where's it heading? The unspeakable potency of this ancient, timeless mystery instantly makes me feel grateful, standing awe-struck right amidst the miracle and amazing grace of it all. Immediately I feel enveloped in what a Christian mystic once called the cloud of unknowing, and know I don't really need to know. In this state I sit naturally to meditate, in the very heart of the matter, at home and unalone. This is what I term co-meditation, implying meditating with. All my lineage teachers and gurus are there, all the enlightened ones and spiritual benefactors, the entire invisible array. This co-meditation embodies sublime solitude and sacred silence. You too are invited and welcome to join, any time, any place spirit happens to find you.

Prayer and classical chanted liturgy plays an important role in Tibetan Buddhism, although it was not much emphasized by the Buddha himself 2,600 years ago in his basic mindful awareness-cultivation teachings. Sometimes I like to enjoy indulging my natural, innocent penchant for looking up to someone or something by praying and contemplating in a theistic manner. It makes me happy and fulfills my inner needs and longings, and-momentarily, at least, "All is well and all shall be well in this, the best of all possible worlds." I'm sure many of my friends and readers can relate to this, one way or another. In fact, most western Buddhists are a lot more theistic in their thoughts and feelings than they might think. I pray in many ways, and not necessarily as my parents did or as I learned in synagogue growing up. Or even as found in sacred books and Scriptures. There are so many ways to kneel and worship, as the good poet-saint Rumi sings. Who can limit this radiant/buoyant spirit? "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul" (Nicolas Malebranche).

Personally, I like to co-meditate with my higher, inner power and sacred source by simply awakening in the Presence. After all, how long does it take to wake up? Only he is truly alive who is truly awake. It feels a little exposed and vulnerable to share the intimate details of my spiritual life, but people have been asking me for years and years; and now that I approach the latter stages of life, perhaps it's time to get more real and stop hiding my light under a bushel. It could be illumining.

Simply making the resolve to awaken in the Presence invokes That for me. It's not very complicated. Of course this is quite personal and may not work well for everyone. I'm one man alone before the Ultimate, and that's my true existential situation.

I have visited, prayed, chanted, bowed and meditated in many, if not most, of the great houses of worship of this evanescent world. I resonate with the idea that a sacred space is one which feels larger inside than outside -- for it makes us feel that way, too. In that moment, that experience, is one's inherited acre of heaven, our backyard nirvana and inner citadel, just as one's own home is greater than the architectural wonders of the world -- or at least should feel so.

The ultimate aim in Buddhism is freedom from delusion and its attendant suffering. The path of awakened enlightenment is one of daily, moment-to-moment spiritual awareness practice, and the compassionate life that is naturally ensured as we find our selves interconnected and interdependent with others and the entire universe. The purpose of Buddhist prayer is to consciously focus our attention, refine our intention and elevate our altruistic enlightenment aspirations, thus awakening our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion and wisdom -- rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is actually a form of contemplation akin to meditation, and a practice of inner reconditioning and deconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and orients our hearts and minds, body and soul, energy and spirit toward the blessings and wonder of life. Christian "centering prayer" is very similar to Buddhist meditation.

In Western terms, Buddhism is known of as a non-theistic tradition. Across the spectrum
of the different Buddhist lineages, there is no reference or recourse made to a creator deity. But then, who do Buddhists pray to, and what do they pray for? Buddhists pray for blessings from Buddhas, lineage gurus and Bodhisattvas (beings who live to serve). And, being human, they pray for many of the same things people pray for in other religions: for healing, safety, for light and strength, for understanding and for ordinary things as well.

People may ask, "Isn't this all imagination?" which is a very good question. I believe it is up to those of us who are interested to answer it.

At this holy time of year I send my warmest wishes and prayers for your health and well-being and share with you my favorite anonymous prayer:

I am the place where God shines through
He and I are one not two
He needs me where and as I am
I need not think nor fear nor plan
If I can be relaxed and free
He'll work his plan of love through me