Prayer in Zen

Someone asked me, “What about prayer? Or perhaps, what do you think of prayer in the context of buddhism at large, the zen tradition and your own life?”

Here’s my answer:

Prayer is a funny thing to me. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, so I don’t have a whole lot of experience with praying.

A lot of people assume prayer has absolutely no place in the Zen tradition. But that’s not entirely true. For example, a lot of the ceremonies we do have a prayer-like element. We do Well Being Ceremonies in which we dedicate the merit of our practice to the healing of sick people, and we chant their names. 

Maybe that’s the difference between usual praying and praying in the Zen tradition. That dedication of merit. The idea is that you collect a certain amount of cosmic brownie points (merit) for having done good things. In a Zen style prayer, you’re giving away the merit that would be yours in order to help someone else. It’s less like begging a rich person (God) for a hand out and more like giving away something precious for the sake of someone else.

I never really believed in this stuff until I read a book called Lotus in the Fire. It was by a Zen practitioner who had cancer. It was about how his practice had helped in his struggle with the disease. It was very graphic and I would never read it again. Much too scary!

However, there was a part of the book in which he wrote about a time when he was in a coma. Within the coma he heard chanting. After he came out of the coma he found out that his Zen group had been chanting for his recovery. He had a few other stories like that, too. Somehow the chanting and well-wishes really did reach him. So now I believe!

I don’t think prayer is useless the way an atheist might. I don’t dismiss or reject it. On the other hand, I’m somewhat cynical when I hear some people talk about the “power of prayer.” It’s not that I completely disbelieve that prayer can have power. It’s just that I think some folks use the idea of the “power of prayer” for their own personal gain. Like televangelists who ask you to send items to them so that they can pray over those items for you. As if their prayers are especially potent or something.

I believe in God. But my concept of God is not much like most people’s concept of God. I don’t think God is up there listening to my prayers and that he might do magic tricks to make the things I ask him to do happen.

Yet I think that sometimes these wishes we send to others do have a subtle effect. “Subtle” doesn’t always mean “small” either. They might have a great effect. But that effect might be difficult to perceive.

I’m glad people pray. I think prayer is generally a good thing.


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