Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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4 thoughts on “Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

  1. I guess I find prayer unproblematic. It’s an integral part of my daily practice, although certainly not all of it. That it has limits is unsurprising, everything does. I took HH to be cautioning against an over emphasis on prayer, to the exclusion of action, rather than cautioning against prayer itself.

    One frequent distinction I’ve heard is that Buddhist prayer is aspirational rather than intercessionary. However, Tara and Medicine Buddha practices just to name two, are frequently explicitly intercessionary even if we understand the deity to be a projection of our own mind reaching its potential for enlightenment.

    My own practice changes over time, I hope evolving into a more effective vehicle for making my way on my spiritual path. At any one time, a particular practice can be beneficial, neutral or detrimental. In my view, this is true of prayer as much as any other practice.

    1. Yes, the deciding factor is your state of mind during practice. As far as the sort of intercessory or petitioning prayers, I think for some they can reinforce the urge to look for enlightenment outside of themselves, a slippery slope. Thanks for leaving your comment.

  2. Prayer can/is used as a tool, just like meditation. In buddhism, It’s like an exercise in self-transformation as everything else.

    Prayer beeds come to mind. Buddha defined meditation as “repeated recollection” of dhamma. What better tool than a prayer beed, or mantra. It is not the only tool, but vajrayana folk used/use prayer quite effectively.

    Buddha was a doer, not a go to a cave and pray eternally kind of guy. From this context, prayer does nothing….only “doing”. Karma yoga came from early Buddhism. Bodhisattva literature is full of “doing” for others…. appreciate dalai lama is really taking this to task.

    Great topic/article.

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