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On Prayer

Q: I have been practicing Vipassana for twenty years but was born in the Catholic tradition. Sometimes when I am feeling particularly lost I pray to God but then struggle because from the Buddhist perspective there is no God. I question then who am I praying to. That my actions create my Karma makes sense. The problem arises when I realize I am but a ignorant human being who often is  driven by my desires and do not in fact know what is best for me.  When I experience suffering I don't want to create more and often am not sure how to now be reactive. Prayer helps me to focus on something out there greater than me that may help me to show me the correct way to proceed or what to do.

Does prayer have any place in a Buddhist practice?

A: As you know, the interesting thing about the Buddhist tradition is that one need not abandon one's original faith tradition in order to practice and benefit from Buddhist teachings and practices.  You sound like someone who has truly embraced our teachings and who is benefiting from the practice of insight meditation.

When I'm asked the question "If Buddhists don't believe in a deity, what do they believe in," part of my answer consists of the following:

Most of us have the feeling that there is something greater, larger, wider than ourselves.  This is a very wise viewpoint.  We may call it "The Infinite" if we wish.  For followers of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) The Infinite becomes personified into an all-knowing, all-loving deity (Jehovah, God, Allah).  Inherent in the Abrahamic view is the teaching that the deity exists as a separate entity and that while one can go to an after-death paradise and be with the deity for eternity, the person and the deity are still two separate things.  For Buddhists The Infinite is not personified, as this would mean there is an inherent separation which is contrary to the Buddhist teaching of the interdependence of all phenomena.  For us, The Infinite is Boundless Compassion and Boundless Wisdom which, given the interdependent nature of all phenomena, means that we are Boundless Compassion and Boundless Wisdom.  So for Buddhists it isn't necessary to pray to something outside one's self (since nothing is truly outside one's self), but rather to wake up to the Boundless Compasson and Wisdom that is part and parcel of who we are.

Certainly, from the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist viewpoints, there are celestial beings upon whom one may call for guidance; however, these beings actually represent and personify the essential qualities of the enlightened mind.  So when a particular kind of Buddhist recites the name of Kuan-Yin Bodhisattva or Amitabha Buddha, what this person is doing is actually focusing her mind so as to become one with the qualities that Buddha or Bodhisattva personifies.  In other words, she is trusting in her own Buddha-nature or Bodhisattva-nature and concentrating on it in order to actualize it in her life.  This, one could say, is the Buddhist equivalent of "prayer."  Even in the early days of the Theravada division of Buddhism there was a practice in which one concentrated on the many qualities of the Buddha in order to realize that each one of us possesses these qualities as well.

It is good to realize that one is, as you put it, an ingorant human being driven by desires.  But this is only part of the story.  On the other hand we are essentially enlightened beings and we have both the ability and the priceless opportunity to wake up to that essential enlightenment.  By focusing inward one does indeed focus on what is greater than one's self, something that can reveal to us whatever is appropriate for a particular life circumstance.  Becoming one with your essential nature means that you are one with any situation in which you find yourself, which means that you'll do the proper thing more often than not.

If you truly feel that you have a God to pray to, then pray to that God.  Buddhism has no problem with that.  If you have unresolved doubts about the existence of a separate deity, consider the nature of your true self and do your best to actualize it through the practices of meditative concentration and ethical behavior.  The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are the Buddhist blueprint for this.

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