Why pray?

By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.

Pebbles-in-water501There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.

This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.

Prayers and blessings

You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.

The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.

This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.

It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.

I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.

This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.

Buddha is not outside our mind

Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.

Homs Syria
Aleppo, Syria, February 2016. We need enlightenment.

So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.

We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.


So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.finding happiness

My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.

Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.

Look in the mirror

Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years pebble in wateraway from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.

So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.

Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

32 thoughts on “Why pray?”

  1. I realize this article was originally posted quite sometime ago but I keep returning to it again and again because it is so important to me. This advice to realize that blessings, Buddha Nature, etc. are already present and to remove ME from meditation has helped immensely. It is heart advice that applies to all meditations, not only to mahamudra meditations. And implicit in this advice is the tangential advice: that intellectual understanding of Dhama is not the same as realizations. These are attained only through experience, and we need confidence to actually meditate and gain that experience! THANK YOU, for this post and the blog!

  2. I love the Liberating Prayer, I find it so soothing. Sometimes if I’m having trouble sleeping, I run it through my mind and it helps quiet my frantic thoughts

  3. Everyday, such beauty and kindness. May you remain with us for a very long time 🙏

  4. A teacher who was guiding a retreat last Summer pointed out that the inherently existent self wants to MAKE the very subtle mind manifest so it can own it and say “LOOK WHAT I DID!” This insight illustrated the absurdity of the self I normally see and cherish very clearly and helped me a lot. Of course the very subtle mind cannot even be noticed as long as the gross mind is manifest and enjoying all the elaborate marching bands and fireworks it is accustomed to. 😄 If I think relying on that self is going to be any help to me (much less cling to it and defend it like it’s my only hope), I’m barking up the wrong tree. The only logical alternative is relying on those who have already done what I wish to do – enlightened beings and their limitless blessings.

  5. What a beautiful article!! Such a skillful and clever way to explain why we pray. Thank you so much!!

  6. What a beautiful article. I feel that as long as I regard prayer as somewhat ‘separate to’ me, I will always keep it at a distance. I will always miss the beautiful opportunity prayer affords me to actually ‘do’ something when facing suffering. Unsurprisingly, it seems that as I develop more refinement in my recognition of sufferings, I begin to naturally discover more and more opportunities to pray.
    Perhaps this is related to why Geshe-la tells us that ‘prayer’ in Sanskrit translates as ‘wish path’? When I think of ‘wish path’, I find it very easy to connect to a bigger experience of prayer. Prayer as imagination, light, or love. Prayer as mantra, as gratitude, as request, as song. Prayer as breath, as action, as enlightenment.
    I also find it interesting that we use ‘path’ in other phrases, like ‘path to enlightenment’. I got a bit curious with this for a while, and after considering our beautiful definition of enlightenment, played with supplementing ‘prayer’ for ‘enlightenment’. I really enjoyed the result 🙂 It seemed to me, that from this point of view, it would be easy to imagine why Geshe-la might encourage us to recognize that “our job is to pray”.

  7. I find all your articles helpful but in each, there’s one particular point that stands out for me. In today’s post, it’s that Buddha (peace, happiness) is already within my mind. I realized that during meditation, I’m always seeing his image floating “out there,” and I’m trying to bring him closer. Thank you for this understanding.

  8. Dear KL,

    I re-met you in NYC the last time you were in (on a Tuesday morning) after class. I want to say how much I am enjoying and deepening my practice from your posts. Your writing is so beautiful, heartfelt and wise. It touches me deeply. Thank you for giving us your gifts in that way.

    Love, Dale Kurow


    1. Thank you for a very generous comment, Dale! We were ships passing in the night if i recall, and I totally recognize you from your photo 🙂

    2. Hello Dale. Yes Luna’s writings are beautiful and complement perfectly what we have learned every Tuesday morning from Kadam Morten. I’m living in Columbia Maryland but I am so happy to connect with you and my New York sangha through Luna and Kadampa Life.

  9. Nice tip…looking at an image of a favorite (but…but…”favorite?” oh no!!!!) enlightened being as if we’re looking in a mirror. We so so so need to get our self-defeating minds out of the way (for the benefit of all, oh BTW), and this seems like a truly nifty method for helping ourselves to do this. “Help yourself.” Never a bad instruction. Many thanks.

  10. Hey Luna..
    I face one obstacle with clarity of mind and subtle impermanence, it reduces my attachment, anger and ignorance but I also go blank in establishing how things do exist. Things are mere appearances to mind, so sentient beings are as much mere appearance as say an image. An image that is just my mind in aspect and hence, is neither an object of attachment, nor an object of compassion. It seems like the same principle should apply to sentient beings too since they too are just mere appearances to mind. I am able to meditate on and generate compassion when I relax this analysis but I would like to understand deeper on how sentient beings exist and function to be objects of compassion. I’m also curious about how the reasoning used by Buddha to cut attachment with the mind-only school did not also end up cutting compassion as well along the same lines of reasoning.
    Thank you.

    1. Illusions still differ. As Shantideva says:

      Different types of cause
      Give rise to different types of illusion.

      (more about that in this article https://kadampalife.org/2013/06/16/all-the-worlds-a-stage/)

      Unlike images, sentient beings have minds and therefore they experience happiness and suffering. And because they are not outside your mind, your superior intention taking responsibility for them can be even greater because they ARE your responsibility.

      1. Thank you for explaining this! I always wondered how I could possibly help every sentient being! Now I understand that since they’re part of my mind, I can just imagine them happy! Is that a correct understanding?

        Also, define clarity. Is it wisdom without delusion? If my goal when meditating is clarity of the mind, what exactly should I be concentrating on?

        And last question, what are the your seals? I don’t recall hearing about those.
        Thanks Luna! 💗

        1. That is where we start, imagining them happy based on wisdom, it is called correct imagination. Clarity is the conventional nature of the mind, it means formless. Check out the meditations on Mahamudra to find out more about that.

  11. Dear Luna- Just want to say just how much I admire and love your writings. The clarity and bliss come through. You function as a supreme sangha jewel for me. Heartfelt thanks and blessings to you.. Xxx

  12. Fantastic article! It’s so easy to get bogged down in ordinary thoughts when we sit down to meditate, and this makes us feel that we just can’t do it. If we practise in the way you describe it becomes clear that anyone and everyone can practise meditation successfully. 🙂

  13. My comment is that I love the prayers deeply in the very depth of my heart 💙 through the breath I emerse the self into the very center of the meaning of the prayers 💙 in this vast ocean of love I am one with all that is was and will be and yet not pushing or pulling to be anywhere but in joy and peace a clear understanding of the twinkle in Trijangs eyes ☺ a little joke as I pass through that yoke 😀

      1. Yes very much so 🙏 and very very beautiful 💙 I always end up with the giggles too as I have an affinity with endless compassion and the joy the teaching brings when we embrace the lineage gurus X 🙏

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