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12. Prayer and Devotion

Although it is difficult to cross over the storm-swept sea of passion,
those who live in accord with the well-taught Way, arrive at the beyond.

Dhammapada, verse 86

Question: Does prayer have any place or any part to play in Theravada Buddhism?

Ajahn Munindo: I am happy this question has been asked. Although prayer might appear to belong to forms of spiritual practice quite different to this one, it is a dimension of spiritual work that personally I feel we are not wise to dismiss. I can say for myself that for many years now hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t offered up some prayers. Although I may not have sat in formal meditation every day, I never forget my prayers. In other words I consider prayer life to be essential. I can’t imagine living this life without a conscious engagement in this way.

How does one talk about something so mysterious and intensely personal? It is difficult to say what prayer is, or how we learn about it. During my Protestant upbringing there was a general assumption that everybody knew how to pray. We sang hymns, I heard the Bible readings and the prayers during services, but nothing was said about how to enter into a conversation with the ‘divine principle’. We were told, ‘Ask and ye shall be given.’ But how exactly were we to do the asking?

More recntly I had a conversation with a Christian monk who came to visit us. He lives the life of a hermit just north of here, in the Scottish Borders. We talked about the joys and sorrows of the monastic life, and about the people who came to visit him at his humble abode. I asked, “Do you ever teach them how to pray?” He gave a brilliant reply. “Oh no,” he said, “prayer is not taught – it is caught. It’s like a disease. You catch it off someone else who has it.”
I immediately knew what he was talking about, having lived around traditional Theravada Buddhists for five or six years in Thailand. There was something that one might call a prayerful attitude towards practice, which I do feel that I ‘picked up’ there.

I wasn’t altogether conscious of this dimension when I loved there, but a few years later, when I was on solitary retreat in this country and having a very difficult time, I discovered that there was a voice within me which wanted to speak out. During this period I had put myself on a solitary retreat for two months. Other than the fortnightly recitation of the rule, which I was obliged to attend, I wasn’t going to see anybody for two months. I locked myself in a small room at the top of Chithurst House and covered the windows with tracing paper so that I received daylight but no view of the outside world. All this served the purpose of bringing about great intensity, which I thought of course I could handle. I had a few things to learn. One of those things was the value of prayer. The only things comparable to prayers that I had as a part of my Buddhist practice were the reflections that we do in the morning and evening chanting. When I started to give voice to the verses that I had been reciting daily for years, I found I was speaking them with feeling. Something within was quickened and uplifted, so that I was able to say these things and mean them. ‘May I abide in well-being, in freedom from affliction.’ ‘May I be free from suffering. May all beings be free from suffering.’ To say those things with conscious intent was truly gladdening. I remember it inspired me to look a little further and in so doing I began to come up with my own words. That was a significant step on a path towards a meaningful prayer life, which I recognise with hindsight to have been something of importance that was missing from all the spiritual exercises that had been a part of my life as a monk up to that point.

The Dynamics of Prayer

To find our own words to express our innermost wishes can be of great significance when it comes to finding out how to take responsibility for our own hearts. It opens a pathway whereby we connect with that which is deepest within us; all aspects of our being are gathered together, focusing intent. It is also a way of investing a form or an outward gesture with spiritual power. When I light incense, I silently make this prayer, or some variation on it: ‘May the fragrance of the truth permeate all aspects of my being, activity of body, activity of speech, activity of mind.’ When prayer is made with feeling and emotion, made with intention, because body, speech and mind are all involved, there is power in it. In that moment of offering something is done. I can’t say precisely what this something is, but it is of relevance to the path. In connecting consciously with that which one longs for, beyond the realm of casual concerns, one’s life is given direction. Mindful prayer, informed by wise contemplation, is a way of revealing our most treasured aspirations and allowing them to guide the rest of our life.

When I lived in Thailand, I noticed that there was something in common between the Buddhist monks and the Christian missionaries in their use of a particular word. The Thai Buddhists often discussed the importance of making adhitthan, which is the Thai version of the Pali word adhitthana. In Theravadin Buddhism, adhitthana means a conscious determined intention to practise with effort and dedication. Thai Christians used this very same word – adhitthan – when they talked about prayer.

My prayer life as a young person came with an understanding that there was some almighty authority out there who was somehow responsible for everything that happened, and that if you had a ticket you could get a privileged relationship with this character, and he could do what you wanted – if you asked nicely. The Thai Buddhists don’t have that idea at all. That is not part of their conception of reality. After a few years as a Buddhist monk I came to realise that, without having to believe I was talking to an all-powerful figure who I had to obey and appease, I was able to give voice to the heart’s wishes in a genuinely meaningful way.

The heart longs to speak and be heard. Some of you may be acquainted with the bible where it says, in Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths have I called unto thee, oh Lord. Lord hear my voice: May Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint.’ I believe that the heart’s longing to be heard is most naturally served by engaging in prayer. For those of us who were brought up as theists and learned to pray in that context, but later, feeling unfulfilled, withdrew from that form of religious expression, it can be an uncomfortable and difficult prospect to begin to pray again. Picking up a prayer life against the background of such associations can bring serious reservations, even fear. I recall having to deal with a strong fear that I might end up losing my faith as a Buddhist and return to being a theist. As things turned out, that testing was part of the process of finding my own way into a prayer life again.

By exercising careful mindfulness one can allow such fears without necessarily believing in them. Just because we’re afraid something’s going to happen doesn’t mean that it will happen. Just because you feel guilty about something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done anything wrong; just because you want something doesn’t mean that you’ll be happy when you get it. We’ve all seen how delusive apparent reality can be. When I began to offer up my own prayers in a conscious way I had to bear with my fears, but at the same time I was also aware of an emerging sense of gratitude in being able to give voice to these deep longings. Eventually the worries and doubts subsided and I found a natural lightness and ease in what I was doing.

One evening I was leading the community at Chithurst when a prayer group from a local church came to visit. After I had given a talk I asked if there were any questions. One of the group put up their hand and said, “What good do you do for anybody else? You don’t even pray.” I replied that I prayed every day. She responded, “Well, how can you pray when you haven’t got a God?” What I found myself saying was, “The sun shines whether or not it has anything to shine on.” The sun just shines, that is its nature, and likewise it is the heart’s nature to speak and express itself. It is not necessary to believe in an external ‘other’ receiving us.

This incident helped me to come to a clearer understanding of prayer from the perspective of Buddhist practice. I came to see that in my practice the orientation of attention was inward, whereas the person who had asked the question was focused on the object of her supplications, that is, a perceived Almighty. I wasn’t expecting intervention from above in the way she was. When I pray it is for the sake of the heart itself. The heart prays because it needs to if it wants to become free. Our hearts are speaking all the time, but are we listening? We have deep concerns, we have deep longings; with skilful attention we can enter into a dialogue with this dimension of ourselves and in so doing be enriched. The mysteriousness is welcoming and inviting. It is our own true heart with which we are engaged. We don’t need to be afraid.

Insight Practice

Insight (vipassana) meditation practice entails investigating all phenomena according to their characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self, with the aim of letting go of our tendency to cling to them. If that is the totality of our practice, however, we may try to let go of everything but still find that there’s a cold dark contraction within that doesn’t want to let go.

Equipping ourselves with mindfulness and non-judgemental here-and-now awareness, it is possible to find our way into an intimate dialogue with the dimension that theists might call ‘the divine principle’. For me the divine principle is symbolised by the Triple Gem – the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. In my own devotional practice I refer to it as Lord Buddha, Lord Dhamma and Lord Sangha because I find the word ‘Lord’ meaningful. To me the word ‘Lord’ carries the positive meaning of that which rules over: the overriding governing principle.

In traditional Buddhist countries nobody ever says, ‘Buddha said such and such’. This would be to bring among common, ordinary things something that is held in the highest possible esteem. Instead one always says Lord Buddha, or, in Thai, Phra Buddha Jao. Phra Jao means a Lord or God. Similarly, both the Dhamma and the Sangha are referred to in Thailand as Lord Dhamma and Lord Sangha. This is not simply child-like naïveté – this is to qualify these realities with words that raise them up as worthy of veneration. Heart matters are more important to us than casual concerns. If we don’t get to read the newspaper one day, so what? We like to read the newspaper or drink coffee in the morning, but we can do without gratifying these casual desires, which are ultimately of trivial significance. But our heart’s longings – if they go unattended to, there are serious consequences.

There has been a general trend in our culture over the last few decades towards a philosophy of relativism. The outlook of relativism is that there is no objective good or bad – there are only personal preferences. This is reflected in our day-to-day language: we have lost the usage of words that once testified to the fact that we held certain things as sacred and worthy of our deepest respect. In prayer – as a personal and private matter – we have the opportunity to give expression to these feelings that we all have in our hearts. It’s a conversation with a higher principle – an intimate conversation.

Prayer and ‘merit’

The Buddha made it very clear that if we make the right kind of effort in the conduct of our body, speech and mind, we generate an active potential that he referred to as puñña, which is rather ineloquently translated into English as ‘merit’. Puñña is a living force of goodness. In most schools of Buddhism it is a common practice to dedicate the wholesome potential one has generated to particular individuals or to all beings. We can think of this as either blessing or prayer.

I appreciate how, for many, the concept of ‘merit’ smacks of materialism and is off-putting. However, we can sometimes learn from a material metaphor. For instance, in order to start a business we have to generate potential to get it up and running. The potential in this case is capital – we need to have accumulated sufficient savings of our own or have secured a loan from a bank. This preparation is not the business itself, because we are not yet doing what we have set out to do or realising the result of the business that we want to run. Yet without the potential that capital stands for, we can’t run the business – that’s the reality. The same principle holds true spiritually.

If out of unawareness we have come to a condition of selfishness, isolation and loneliness and we wish to see our condition transformed, we may wonder where the necessary force or energy will come from to effect this transformation. Whether we are lay or monastic Buddhist practitioners, a lot of our practice is concerned with generating the accumulated momentum required for that transformation. This is one way of understanding puñña.

The act of dedicating puñña is aimed at purifying our effort. Despite doing our best, without our noticing it, there can be a steadily increasing sense of ourselves as being somehow spiritually superior to other people. This sense of accumulated benefit can, if we are not careful, increase our burden of conceit. When we dedicate any puñña that we may have generated by wholesome conduct we are making the gesture of giving it away. We pray, ‘may the goodness resulting from my practice today, bring benefit to all beings’. When we do this, the focus of our attention is on the heart itself; it is not outwardly directed, concerned with what effect this gesture might have on the ‘world’.

The Buddha told this story: There were two acrobats who travelled from village to village, performing tricks as a way of earning a living. As part of their act the older of the two would hold a ladder on his shoulders while the younger scampered up and performed. They were obviously aware that they needed to maintain close attention; otherwise it could have been dangerous. One day the older one spoke saying that he thought for the sake of keeping their act on the road the younger one needed to pay closer attention to what he was doing down below on the ground. He in turn would apply closer attention to what was going on at the top of the ladder. The younger one respectfully listened, but then said he felt it would be more effective if instead of watching each other they paid closer attention to what each one was themselves doing. That way, he said, there would be benefit. The Buddha’s comment on this was that the younger one had it right. If we are each more careful about what is ours to be responsible for, then we actually benefit each other.

At the end of each day I find it wonderfully rewarding to dedicate the merit of my practice. It is not my place to worry about whether by making these wishes anyone else feels better. I am focused on doing what I can to reduce the tendencies of greed, aversion and delusion in my own heart. So I dwell on the thought, ‘May this act of dedication bring benefit to my teachers – to Ajahn Tate, Ajahn Chah, and all those teachers I’ve lived with; Ajahn Sumedho, without whom the monasteries in Britain wouldn’t exist; the monks that I’ve lived with, my mother, my father and the people that I care about, and those that I don’t particularly care about; everybody who’s ever lived here at Ratanagiri, who are living here now and will ever live here in the future.’ The contents of the prayer can differ from day to day but the important thing is generating a genuine sense of well-wishing or loving-kindness to all people and all beings, without exception. I am not doing this because it is ‘a part of our religion’. To make this gesture at the end of the day lightens the burden of self-centredness.

Ancient Practices

Our Asian teachers may not have explicitly taught the necessity of cultivating an attitude of devotion, but they certainly demonstrated it themselves. There are a number of instances I can remember when I saw certain gestures that really cut right through any doubts or confusion I may have had about the overall attitude I should be keeping in my day-to-day practice.

When I was a new monk and visiting Wat Pah Bahn Tard, which is the monastery of Ajahn Mahaboowa – renowned as one of the most ferocious and mighty masters of the present Theravada Buddhist Forest tradition – I was waiting in the eating hall in the early morning, before we all went out on alms round together, when the Venerable Ajahn came in. I expected that he would probably start snapping orders to the monks, and then rush off on pindapat – he had a reputation for being very gruff and very fast. But what did he do? As he quietly entered the Hall, the first thing he did was humbly kneel before the shrine and bow with the most gracious prostrations that one would ever wish to see. I wondered, “Why is he doing that? He’s supposed to be enlightened. I mean what is he doing bowing to graven images?”

This uninhibited expression of his devotion was a natural part of his disposition. He had grown up with that sensibility, as Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Tate and other eminent monks had. The same is true in Burma. At the monasteries of the various well-known and Venerable Sayadaws, you will see numerous well-kept shrines with monks, nuns and laity alike offering respect by way of candles, flowers and incense. Before and after sitting meditation they always mindfully bow three times in devotion to the Buddha, their teacher to whom they know they owe so much. This is so normal, so close to them that they just take it for granted. Addhithan, making determinations, generating these conscious wishes from a deep place within is thoroughly natural, and this, I feel, is one of the essential nourishments of the contemplative life. Many followers of vipassana teachings in the West that I have met report a lack of warmth, joy, well-being and wholeness in their life. Perhaps their spiritual diet lacks some important nutrients.

Silent prayer

So I think prayer does have an important place in Theravada Buddhism. This Way is about getting to know the nature of our own being, so that we’re at one with our hearts and attentive to its truest longings. The heart longs to return to its original condition of purity. To become more conscious of that dimension of our heart is an important point of practice. The reflections and ritual verses of contemplations that we all recite together in the monastery are a safe place to start to pray. Then, if we feel inclined, we can begin to say our own words. What does your heart want to say?

When we kneel before the shrine – that which symbolises perfect wisdom, perfect compassion and perfect freedom for us – and we express our good wishes for all beings – the bronze statue, beautiful and serene as it is, is not listening to us. We are not asking the Buddha to grant us any favours. Rather, beholding an image of the Buddha helps configure the ‘divine principle’ in our minds and creates the appropriate inner space – a sacred place – in which we feel totally free to speak and in which we can feel perfectly received.

There is a touching passage in One Dharma by Joseph Goldstein. He refers to an interview with Mother Theresa, in which the interviewer asks:
“When you pray what do you say to God?”
“I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just listen.”
“Well, what does God say to you?”
“God just listens.”
There was a pause in the interview, and she added, “…and if you don’t understand that, I am afraid I can’t help you.”

That’s the essence of it. We all have within us the faculty of intuition, which, if we listen to it, can guide us towards our true home, where we trust that unshakeable peace lies. Our hearts already know the Way. Prayer and devotion put us in touch with the heart and its natural wisdom, allowing it to gently lead us on that journey.

Another question this evening asked: “Being here on retreat I’ve remembered what I had forgotten about being present, and now I am afraid that when I leave here I’m going to forget it again and become caught up in all the many responsibilities and challenges. How can I effectively remember this presence?”

I think prayer is one way of remembering. If we wish, we can quietly, reverently, offer up this prayer: ‘May the goodness of my practice support me in my aspirations to be present in every moment of my day, no matter what’s going on.’ Prayer helps.

I am grateful for the questions you have asked this evening.



© 2005 Aruna Publications