Last Wednesday, one of my youngish housemates whom I’ve known for 20 years accidentally swallowed deadly poison in a euthanasia gone horribly wrong. Victor died as he wanted to, but C ended up in the ER unresponsive, which nobody wanted.
People who loved him were praying like crazy. And that first night, straight after Venerable Geshe-la’s assistant sent me a 4am message saying he was praying, I had a vivid dream where C recovered completely and his family and friends had a meal to celebrate. I woke up feeling happy even though C still looked like death.
That day — to the growing delight of his 10 doctors & nurses and his family & friends (6 of whom had flown across the country to be at his deathbed) — he started to pull through. Just yesterday, Easter Day, a mere 4 days feeling like 4 weeks later, C was discharged from hospital having escaped the likely heart attack, brain damage, organ failure, and death; and we had a dream-like meal to celebrate. I personally have no doubt that this incredible recovery was thanks to prayers.
Why do prayers work?
It is because of our pure motivation, the powerful words of the prayers themselves, and especially at such times enlightened beings will bestow their blessings upon us, our environment, and other living beings. ~ Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso 2001
I left off in the middle of talking about the 3rd of these, the power of blessings, in this last article, Praying for world peace. So, to carry straight on …
When we develop these three types of faith – believing, admiring, and wishing faith – it is like turning on a receiver and allowing a huge amount of blessings or inspiration to flow through our heart and into the world.
I discovered an app the other day that plays radio stations ALL OVER THE WORLD. For free! At the touch of a button, you can hear people debating in Israel or drumming in Ghana. You can join the tango in Argentina or listen to the sports in Australia. And so on. It’s mind-blowing. And if an ordinary receiver is powerful enough to pick up tens of thousands of transmissions dotted through the world, why can our faith not be strong enough to pick up infinite transmissions from the all-pervasive Buddha Lands?
A more traditional example, pre-dating radios: you’re in a darkened room unaware of the sun shining outside until, one day, you open the shutters and it comes streaming in. Enlightenment is shining everywhere. So with prayer we are opening the shutters of our faith and allowing that infinite purified consciousness of all the Buddhas to flow into our own and others’ minds. If we pray and meditate inspired in this way, it becomes very effective.
And it doesn’t stop there. Our minds are limitless – at its deepest level our awareness or clear light mind is not even human, it is nonlocal, it is everywhere. The whole world is held within our mind. No awareness = no world of that awareness. Therefore, these blessings flow through our heart and into the world. The world is not “out there” – it is mere name, mere appearance. If we purify our thoughts we purify the world and everyone in it.
We have the great good fortune to have come under the care and protection of an emanation. We have met our Spiritual Guide, who has walked into our dream, and he has pointed out to us that this is all mere appearance to the mind, that this is not real. That the faults and limitations we see in ourselves are not real and the faults and limitations we see in our reality are not real. The doorway to the universe that is reality is wisdom. Wisdom is the portal. ~ Kadam Morten Clausen
We can also become emanations for others.
Stop worrying, start praying
In her recent talk on prayer, Gen-la Dekyong said:
A mind of prayer is the opposite of worry. A mind that’s praying is the opposite of depressed, hopeless, or powerless. A mind that’s praying is so active, so powerful, so confident. Holding with our mind the solution, the result we yearn for. And most people listening understand that everything is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind. So if we are holding a mind of world peace, praying for world peace, world peace must come. It is the most beneficial, non-deceptive method to respond to the tragedies we see in the world.
It is best not to underestimate the power of our imaginations. Everything starts and ends there. I think we need a vision of world peace that we can return to every day. This is one reason why the Prayer of the Four Immeasurables has been a perpetual favorite of mine because we envisage that everyone is free from suffering and its causes and so on. Specifically, for each of the four immeasurables we do four things (as explained in Joyful Path of Good Fortune). For example, with respect to the line “May everyone be happy”:
- We wish: “How wonderful it would be if all living beings were to possess happiness and its cause.”
- We pray: “May all beings possess these.” And we imagine they do.*
- We develop the superior compassion: “I myself will make this happen.”
- We request: “Please Buddhas bless me to do this.”
*This is similar to bringing the result into the path, like Tantric practice. If you are a Tantric practitioner, this is a good time to arise as a Buddha in the Pure Land, with everyone around you also enlightened. Tantra is the quickest path to both inner and outer peace.
Through receiving blessings our wishes will be fulfilled. I promise. This is our Buddhist way of helping; this is our Buddhist way of benefiting to solve these kinds of problems. I believe you will solve the world’s problems gradually through these methods. ~ Venerable Geshe Kelsang
POWER OF OUR PURE INTENTIONS
Prayers are powerful mental actions and, in general, mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than bodily or verbal actions.
The law of karma explains how all our mental actions or intentions are causes and all our experiences their effects. Whenever we sow seeds, as we are doing with prayer, we will see their results sooner or later. How long that takes depends on a bunch of things – sometimes prayers seem to have a pretty immediate effect, as with C above, sometimes not; but either way we need confidence that they work through understanding the relationship between intentions and outcomes. Prayer is not just a hope that falls on deaf ears, as someone wrote the other day when our prayers didn’t seem to stop mothers and babies from being blown up. To which I replied, prayers don’t always work instantly. Sometimes they do. Prayer is deep, though.
Whenever we pray we are therefore changing outcomes. We are changing the world. And unlike almost everything else we try to do to fix samsara, there are no bad side effects to prayer because there can be no bad side effects to pure intentions and blessings.
The stronger our compassion, the stronger our prayers. We do the Prayers for World Peace motivated by cherishing others. In the introduction Venerable Geshe-la says:
We should know that learning to cherish others is the best method for establishing world peace in general, and for our own peace of mind, in particular.
If everyone sincerely prays to cherish other living beings, then gradually through the power of this prayer, everyone will actually cherish each other. The world will then be permanently at peace, and pure and everlasting happiness will pervade the entire world.
POWER OF THE PRAYERS THEMSELVES
This final point refers more to the meaning than just the words – when we pray we can use holy words and/or we can make up our own requests, talking to our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas as if directly to a friend, asking them to help.
The prayer itself is the meaning of the words – following the meaning because we can engage in prayers without words, following the meaning with our heart. ~ Gen-la Dekyong
A Facebook friend described prayer as: “Connecting to those with more ability than us, asking them to make positive changes for certain beings/situations — and somehow this act of us asking means that they do direct the positive energy as we request! I don’t know why though!”
To which I replied: “They have no choice?! It is their function to bless.”
FB friend: “But why should they do as we ask? This is what is mysterious to me.”
Me: “It is a dependent relationship. We ask, they respond. We open the shutters; the sun can’t help but stream in.”
Gen-la Dekyong explained that when we make prayer requests to Tara, for example (see below), those requests are not passive – we are like a mother with a sick child who is begging the doctor to heal them, as Geshe-la taught.
That mind is so deep, so sincere, so loving and compassionate. The mother is pushing the doctor: “Please, do something.” We’re the same: “Please stop this! Stop this terrible new war, stop it spreading.” We not chanting “la, la la la” while thinking about other things but we’re on it, concentrated, because there’s a dependent relationship between our sincere requests and Tara’s powerful blessings that brings results. We can be completely confident in this.
Geshe-la also suggested we can do the Tara prayers called Liberation from Sorrow. As Gen-la Dekyong said:
This is because Tara is swift — as a manifestation of the purified wind element, she acts immediately. Of course she is acting already, but when we pray to her, her actions can become more powerful to fulfil our prayers and wishes. Many of the Kadampa Centers are doing Tara chanting on the 8th, so we will keep this wonderful development and specifically dedicate this to world peace. We will bring into our mind the countries where war is developing right now, and where political leaders’ decisions can affect the entire world. And while they themselves are protected and no harm comes, millions of people suffer because of one poor decision. So we pray, as Geshe-la tells us, for the leaders to be blessed with wisdom, for their delusions to be pacified etc.
Ready to pray?
What opportunity do we have at the moment to physically solve these problems? We have no opportunity. So we’re going to use our mind. We’re going to use mental action. Prayer is mental factor intention. It’s mental action. The wonderful thing about mental actions, no one can see them, and we can engage in them at any time of the day or night, whatever we are doing. We can be turning for example, to Tara, to Buddha, asking for the outer and inner conditions for world peace, praying: “We pray for every area to pacify negative attitudes, negative intentions, and for people to experience correct views, correct intentions and follow correct paths.
I just saw an interview with Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin Spokesperson, who reported a very different war to the one journalists are reporting on from the ground, one where civilians are not being murdered for example; and what was even more chilling was that he half-smiled throughout his words, so did he or did he not believe them? What can I do about this? Feel annoyed and frustrated and perhaps a little terrified? Or pray?! Zap light into his mind to dispel the darkness of any delusions he may be having? He is appearing right here in front of me. If he was inherently existent, there is nothing I could do about this. But because he is mere appearance, a dream-like projection of mind (mine and his!), nothing is fixed.
If there was peace in the hearts of the people in power right now, this wouldn’t be happening, right? So one thing we can do is to follow Venerable Geshe-la’s suggestion to pray for compassion and wisdom in the hearts of our world leaders. Really pray for their minds to change – shift things on that level. They are no more inherently deluded than we are. They have Buddha nature. If we really focus on that and pray for light to come into the darkened minds, even a little of that would go a long way.
And because we can’t do that if we hate them, we need to remember that they are not their horrible delusions of pride, hatred etc – that their delusions are as much their enemies as they are the enemies of those they are harming.
Pray, don’t worry
This is how Gen-la Dekyong summarized Geshe-la’s advice:
Don’t worry, pray. Don’t get angry. Pray. Don’t get depressed. Pray. Don’t feel powerless. Pray. Don’t feel hopeless. Pray. We can ask ourselves, when I see the images, how do I respond? Do you know that it’s a mind of anger creating the wars that we see? How can being outraged, which is the same mind, possibly be the solution?
With prayer, there is always something we can be doing. Feelings of hopelessness and fear and anger are not going to help us and they’re not going to help anyone else. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions.
But prayers can. It could be that prayers are already all that are standing between us and utter darkness.
By the way, if you want to request prayers for anyone, you might like to join the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request on Facebook.
Other responses to what is prayer and how does it work?
The only way to actually connect our minds with Buddha’s mind.
Geshe-la says prayer is defined as wish path. A wish that goes somewhere.
Prayer is mental action. Actions have effects. Because our world is not separate from our mind and actions have effects, prayers work.
True prayer is dwelling within the recognition that due to the true unlimited nature of our mind and of reality — we lack nothing. Ever. It’s the movement of the mind into that recognition, often bolstered only by faith, that samsara is indeed an illusion. It is then finding the feeling of “no lack” and “perfection” and holding the mind within it. True prayer is a bold, radical, and defiant rebellion against the gross mind, the ego and all its trappings. True prayer is trying to move the mind so far into reality, that our demons cannot follow.
Prayer can be a number of things. There are the chanted prayers done as a group or individually where it is spelled out as to what we are requesting, but mainly I believe is a mental action, a deep heart-felt desire to accomplish some goal, get help for oneself or others, a deep yearning cry, even begging to please help directed at spiritual beings/Spiritual Guide.
Connection with truth.
Connection to Holy Beings, requesting help.
If we are to train our hearts in unconditional love, we must pray, and the more “distant” the object, the more unconditional our love becomes.
Employing the power of holy beings to do virtuous things that we can’t do ourself yet.
Everything in the universe is energy and interconnected. All our thoughts and intentions reverberate throughout the entire unified field. Prayers are thought seeds that we broadcast like songs along the airwaves. Angels, guides, spirit helpers are as much a part of this interbeing as us physical beings. Our prayers, intentions and hopes, especially when spoken, are crystallized thought forms. When many create similar thought forms and energies they grow together and influence how things develop and unfold.
For me it’s a strong heart-based process – a wish that instantly connects enlightened beings with those I’m sending love to.
I like the idea of wholehearted prayer, in my case the heart connection with my spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and, through him, the Buddhas. Sometimes I beg from my heart. I was recently guided to pray as if I were a parent begging a doctor for my child’s life. And then I need to watch carefully for changes in my life, small, subtle, or large. I like the examples given by the Ukrainian priest: “Pastor Igor from Ukraine, asked to pass this message to all our prayer teams and churches: Please tell your people that because of your prayers, faith and love, God really fights our battles. Sometimes rockets go into the air without reaching our houses, and no one knows where they went.” Yes, answered prayers.
Prayer is like going home
I felt this the first time (in this life) I attended Wishfulfilling Jewel Puja.
I can wholeheartedly say it works from my own experience and am very lucky to have good examples of prayer and faith in this life from a young age — kind mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
I pray I always have faith in our Guru and never be parted from him. Geshe-la is praying for us.
A mental action that has a compassionate aspiration behind it, that ripples away on the ocean of our mental continuum to crash tsunami-like on the shore of our future experience as the bliss of freedom from suffering for all sentient beings that we prayed for.
I’ve avoided this question for a day or so. Prayer isn’t something I have really managed to define. I’ve grown up with it and it’s been a kind of refuge practice throughout my life. When I met Kadam Dharma I was delighted with the view of prayer as being a pathway to the fulfilment of our pure wishes. This made sense to me. Keeping in mind the power of mental actions or intentions to create our world I felt more inclined to believe in the power of prayer to really effect change. Since minds are not boundaried, since they are formless and continuous, they can definitely mix. Now when I pray I have confidence that my deep dharma infused wishes really do have power and that causes will be created that give rise to positive effects. It’s a marvel to me that I now get asked to pray by people who have faith in the prayers that I make whilst lacking faith in prayer! My Mum always used to be asked to pray — her associates knew that her prayers created changes. Sometimes she would talk to me about being able to sense places where there had been a lot of prayers. She liked those places. Now I know exactly what she meant.
When I think about our dedication prayers at the end of our teachings and practices (“By this virtue, may…”) then it seems like prayer is simply mental technology. When I pray in this way, I do so knowing that even the tiniest virtuous actions (like tipping someone at a coffee shop) in that moment become definite causes that will ripen as my desired virtuous effects & outcomes. This always gives me confidence and brings me tremendous comfort when samsara is flaring up in difficult or even scary ways. My faith in this technology comes from the experience that it works (in tiny daily ways like tips at coffee shops or picking up a piece of trash I didn’t drop on the street or making water offerings at my Dharma center). This gives me the conviction it takes to engage in prayer practices that require much more effort and time (or waking up in the middle of the night!). When the outcome happens or even if the seemingly fixed appearance/experience just shifts a bit, prayer can feel like magic. But it isn’t. Miraculous maybe. But maybe “miraculous” experiences are just how our experiences begin to feel when we are learning how to harness and use the creative power of our own minds? Imagine the collective power of harnessing the collective creative power of all of our minds! That’s what I’m going to keep doing.
Like Geshe-la says: “In general, prayers made by an assembly of many practitioners are very powerful and cannot be compared to the prayers of one or two people. The scriptures give the analogy of a broom. If we try to clean a floor with a few bristles we shall make little progress, but if we gather many bristles to make a broom we shall be successful.”
For myself it’s a heartfelt request for blessings to be given, to others, motivated by Bodhisattva action, and I do by way of a conversation with my root Guru or whichever Buddha I am chatting to. Also I now know as Gen-la said that prayer works because the prayers itself are not of this world — I think she meant the formal prayers we have, such as Tara, not the simple little ones I’m doing all the time at the moment.
A prayer for me functions to direct my mind with a more positive mental action, and could be something simple like “Buddha please help” which leads me to refuge with my connection to the Three Jewels; and most times it is mantra recitation or formal prayers like Prayers for Meditation, all of which direct my mind to virtuous thoughts and more mental peace.
Prayer is an expression of love when one is needed. A lot of the time when we are near death we ask Geshe- la to be sent a message to pray for us. We then believe that everything is going to be ok and mainly feel loved and protected by that person’s love. I think it’s when love is gone that’s when things get bad.
Maybe a good question could be what’s the difference between wanting world peace and praying for it? If I said to you I want world peace and just kept saying it over and over, that would be very different from saying I want you to live in a world without war and I have connected to a holy being whose path I am following so that this can become a reality. It’s also different from asking the holy being to wave a magic wand whilst we are passive and believing the holy being is like an omnipotent power.
Mantra recitation is prayer right? Prayer with rhythm, with vibration, with the power of the associated holy being mixed with our intention towards our intended goal. Using the power of the mind to create the pure world we want for all living beings.
Prayer can be requests where our mind seeks the blessings of holy beings for ourselves or others. Or perhaps prayers can be like waves or signals of mental energy which we can send out for a chosen purpose.
I heard prayer defined as “wish path” in an empowerment teaching once. That really helped me think about what prayer is and how it works. Maybe prayer is setting an intention with a pure motivation and then having perfect, unwavering conviction that (with faith & reliance) the desired outcome is definite, even if the desired outcome unfolds differently or on a different timeline than we hope for or expect? The good heart and pure motivation pieces are key pieces here because even heavy non-virtuous causes and effects have intentions that move a mind/person to act. Any decision (negative and neutral ones, too) is really just a wish. There was that documentary about social media on Netflix several years ago and this quote in it really struck me. Arthur C. Clarke said it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I read that, it made me think about virtuous actions, individual and collective karma, merit, and the function (and importance!) of our dedication prayers.
Prayer used to feel like a pleading request. Now it feels like basking in love and knowing everything is perfect.
The connection of our mind to the minds of holy beings.
Focused intention and/or request.
Praying is like according a piano, we need it to be in sync, and faith is the result of it. When we are suffering we are alone, we are not giving the best of ourselves, we feel cut from life itself. Like a broken piano with a painful sound to hear. When we pray, we let go of the suffering, and benedictions comes to us like the pure notes.
Fine-tuning requests with faith and trust that the process works, to connect with the purest minds to bring about change in oneself, others, the people and leaders of the world, etc. Prayer is haltered to Lamrim.
I was re-reminded of this just now and I think it’s worth sharing again: