The meaning of prayer in Buddhism

-- Robert Kurniawan

The last and first month of Lunar Calendar is full of religious ceremonies. Traditional Chinese people give offerings to their deities and ancestors. The arriving of winter is the time for "Onde-onde" and we send the God of Kitchen up to heaven by pasting sweets to his lip so he will report all good things about our deeds.

We held a large worship table to treat our ancestors the first day of new year and we finish off the spring festival with a big feast for the living. In addition to the offerings we pray either by chanting or burning incense. What do we pray for ? We extend our appreciation to the deities and ancestors for their protection in the year passed and request similar treatment in the coming year. tradittionaly speaking, this is proper as Buddhists, let us consult what Buddhism says about prayer.

Man is not a fallen creature who begs for his needs as he awaits mercy. According to Buddhism, man is a potential master of himself and the universe. Only because of his deep ignorancedoes man fail to realize his potentiality. Since the Buddha has shown this hidden power of man, he must cultivate each grain of spirit and try to develop it by realizing his ability.

Buddhism gives full responsibility and dignity to man. It makes man his own master. Accroding to Buddhism, no higher being sits in judgement over his/her affairs and destiny. That is to say, our life, our society, our world, is what you and I want to make out of it, and not what some other unknown beings want.

Remember that nature is impartial, it cannot be flattered by prayers. Nature does not grant any special favours on request. thus in Buddhism, prayer is meditation which has self-change as its object. Prayer in meditation is the reconditioning of one's nature. It is the transforming of one's nature into something better and noble. This transformation of one's inner nature is accomplished by the purification of the three faculties -thought, word and deed. Through meditation, we can understand that "we become what we think" in accordance with the teachings of psychology. When we pray, we experience some sort of relief in our minds; that is, the psychological effect that we have created through our faith and devotion. After reciting certain verses we also experience the same result. Religious names or symbols are important in order to develop this faith and devotion.

The Buddha Himself has clearly expressed that neither the recital of religious books, nor the repetition of prayers, penances, hymns, charms, mantras, incantations and invocations can bring the real happiness of NIBANNA.

Regarding the use of prayers for attaining the final goal, the Buddha once made an analogy of a man who wants to cross a river. If he sits down and prays that the far bank of the river will come to him and carry him accross, under any circumstances, it will not ever happen. If he really wants to cross the river, he must make some efforts; he must find some logs and build a raft, or look for a bridge or construct a boat or perhaps swim. Somehow he must work to get across the river. Likewise, if he wants to cross the river of SAMSARA, prayers alone are not enough. He must work hard by living a religious life, by controlling his passions, calming his mind, and by getting rid of all the impurities and defilements in his mind. Only then can he reach the final goal. Prayer alone will never take him to the final goal.

If prayer is necessary, it should be diverted to strengthen the mind but not to beg for merit or mercy.The following prayer of a well-known poet, teaches us how to pray. However, to Buddhists, this is only meditation to cultivate the mind:

"Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain,
but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,
but for the patience to win my freedom."