What Did the Buddha Say About Prayer?

| December 4, 2017 | 4 Comments

Many contemporary Buddhists make prayer part of their practice. We will look at the early texts to see what the Buddha seems to have thought about such activities.

Ken McLeod’s article on Buddhist prayer in Tricycle magazine (may be paywalled): “Where the Thinking Stops“.

Suttas mentioned:

Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.43
Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.6

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

He posts videos at Doug’s Secular Dharma on YouTube.

Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Doug: I find the prayer hands (as you demonstrate in the image above) oddly comforting during walking meditation, but my comfort with prayer more or less ends there, as I imagine is the case for most secular practitioners. Good to know that the early texts support our doubts about its efficacy!

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes, agreed! Thanks for the comment, Jason.

      I was wondering about the thumbnail image; of course the ‘prayer hands’ (añjali or gasshō) in Asian cultures is a gesture of respect or greeting rather than prayer per se, so I was hoping to leave it a bit vague what gesture is in the image … 🙂

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Over the years, I have sometimes wished I could believe in prayer. These have mostly been occasions when I have feared for my children or grandchildren. I think when faced with a sense of helplessness. For me, other problems are more tractable to meditation. Meditation does help, but I’m afraid I can’t reach the calm acceptance of Kisa Gotami. There is a undeniable attraction to the notion that there is a God who cares for me, or a reason in the universe that works on my behalf. Lots of people find comfort in such beliefs; it seems they can do so even in the face of tragedy. Some manage to get through life “on a prayer,’ so to speak. But it still is an illusion, a form of ignorance in Gotama’s terms, that is apt to fail, especially if doubt creeps in, with disastrous consequences.

    Still, I think there is something of a continuum between crass supplicatory prayer (“Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porshes and I must make amends,” as Janis Joplin put it), and the kind of metta meditation you describe, Doug. Consider the Lord’s Prayer. It begins with something that is not quite a simple invocation to God – it prays that “thy will be done,” a strange thing to ask a all-powerful deity to do. More an expression of hope that the world unfold as it should? Then it asks for divine help to obtain material necessities (“our daily bread”), but quickly shifts to seeking assistance to live according to an empathetic moral principle (“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”) The prayer no doubt supplicates a personal saviour, but there is also a resonance with the Metta Sutta, I think. Where does this fit on my continuum? Much too theistic for me to to accept, but…..

    And I’m not sure that even the suttas escape the supplicatory attitude entirely. There may not be a saviour God in the suttas, but there is kamma. Is AN 5.43 suggesting that one should give up asking gods, or equally the Universe, to grant wishes, and instead seek the wisdom of non-attachment etc.? Or is it just inveighing against Brahminic ritual prayer: Prayer might not get you a Mercedes Benz, but good kamma just might. Here God is replaced by Kamma as cosmic justice. Of course, I’d argue that a real understanding of what Gotama was on about would make this interpretation of kamma untenable, but …….

    Where does this lead? Maybe just my night musings on belief in prayer, but it does suggest that the nature prayer, even supplicatory prayer, is actually a complicated thing.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Interesting thoughts Michael, thanks. As you say, there seems to be a continuum between “crass” supplication and something more like hope or simple prudence. We can see how the former is unwise even while maintaining the latter.

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