Prayer comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and it’s part of every major religion’s practices. But prayer in Buddhism is much different. Because Buddhism is nontheistic, it is a mind-centered religion, so there’s not anything or anyone that Buddhists pray to. Though depending on the school of Buddhism and the country Buddhism is in, prayer is sometimes directed to a certain Buddha or Bodhisattva asking for help or guidance.
Actual prayer in Buddhism is very different than prayer in other major religions. Prayer in Buddhism should only be directed to ourselves. Because Buddhism is a self-liberating path, Buddhists can’t rely on anyone or anything for enlightenment, just ourselves. Prayer should not have any “wants” or “needs.” Instead, prayer should be a self-reminder of what we’re praying for. If we’re trying to cultivate compassion, we should pray for the courage and dedication it takes to cultivate and generate compassion in a chaotic society. Not praying to anyone, but praying to ourselves to remind and encourage ourselves to hold on to compassion even in the most difficult of times.
In some Asian countries, we will see statues of Avalokitesvara with a sign saying “The Wish-Fulfilling Bodhisattva.” This is very incorrect. The Buddha had said many times that if we wanted something, only we can create the causes and conditions to obtain it. We can’t be praying to Avalokitesvara saying, “Avalokitesvara bodhisattva, please help me get money… help me get well… help me with the courage to ask this girl out.” No! Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is not there to help us get rich, get laid, and magically get well! That’s not how it works.
In prayer, in any religion, should not be for asking for something. That defeats the purpose of prayer. Prayer should be the means of helping you concentrate on something so you can find the solution yourself. Why would you ask god, buddha, or a bodhisattva for money if all you’re doing is sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games? Like everything else in life, we must apply effort and dedication so we can achieve what we want. Like a job interview, we can just go in and “wing it.” That’s definitely NOT get us the job. Instead, we must research the job description, the company, the benefits, etc. if we want to impress the interviewer. There is work involved to get the job to give us work!
We cannot have blind-faith and pray to anything or anyone for something we want. That just makes us lazy. If we want something but put no work into making it happen, then we’re lazy and we will never accomplish anything.
So Buddhist prayer is about reminding ourselves to cultivate the characteristic we want. If we pray to a Bodhisattva, each bodhisattva has a specific attribute that we can pray for. Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion – we pray for the ability to cultivate and practice compassion in difficult times. Manjushri, the bodhisattva of great wisdom – we pray that our practice will gain us great wisdom towards our enlightenment. Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva that saves beings from hell, we pray that we will have the courage and ability to save people from their own demons and difficult times. This is Buddhist prayer.