On a warm Sunday afternoon, warm enough to be lazy, I sat in a somewhat awkward lotus position with Venerable Lee, a respected elder at a Buddhist Monastery on east coast of Prince Edward Island. We faced the Northumberland Strait and the warm sea breeze, touched with a hint of salt greeted us as we embarked on a journey to pray together. A Muslim and a Buddhist.
The act of praying is as old as thought itself, perhaps older. From the first recorded prayer of Adam (as), the reliance of humans on prayers has evolved, as has its meaning. Wheth- er a person believes in God or not, prayer appears to be a force among us, acknowledging a reality greater than the abilities of self. In Islam, a person prays to Allah the Gracious, in Buddhism, the concept varies.
There are three main Buddhist traditions in the world today: Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan. Theravada is a Pali (1) word meaning ‘Doctrine of the Elders (2)’ and they regard only the Pali Cannon (3) as the most authoritative spiritual teaching (4). Mahayana is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Great Vessel.’ It originated around the same time as Christianity and recognizes many texts and teachings as authentic (5). Theravada is dominant in most of South and Southeast Asia while Mahayana is dominant in the East and Central Asia. Tibetan tradition is a combination of Theravada and Mahayana traditions and the primary contributor towards the spread of Buddhism in the West (6).
The view on concept and philosophy of prayer is different in each school. Theravada Buddhists tend to pray, but not with the expectation that anyone is listening. Mahayana Buddhists pray to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Whether those figures are humans, gods or literal beings, is the subject of much discussion.
Earlier in the day when we met, Venerable Lee told me that the Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion, and wisdom. It is not to supplicate external forces based on fear or desire for worldly or heavenly gains. “It is a form of meditation, a practice of inner reconditioning” he assured me. From our discussions I gathered that the Buddhist prayer is used to calm the mind, replacing the negative energy with positive, while focusing on the blessings. Venerable Lee continued:
“It is a form of meditation, a practice of inner reconditioning” he assured me. From our discussions I gathered that the Buddhist prayer is used to calm the mind, replacing the negative energy with positive, while focusing on the blessings. Venerable Lee continued:
“Prayer guides our hearts towards compassion for others and ourselves. It allows us to turn our hearts and minds towards what is beneficial for the greater wisdom.”
The theistic form of Buddhism, mostly Theravada, encourages its followers to pray for special blessings such as healing of illness, either their own or that of others. Such prayers may be directed at a greater force or take the form of meditation in which the person praying becomes the means of healing illness. It is not uncommon for a Buddhist to request special prayers by the clergy; however, the stress in all traditions is on meditation, as that is the key to self-transformation and personal healing.
As we settled in our places, with me attempting to form a lotus position, the sun warmed the inner reaches of my being and quietness settled all around us. As the tranquility grew, I heard the voice of my prayer companion gently guiding me to suppress my thoughts. As a Muslim, we are taught to focus on the meaning of the prayers we recite, to ponder upon their significance, to contemplate their meaning; and often to self-reflect when reciting certain prayers, especially those that encompass our loved ones. There is never a moment in our prayers where ‘nothingness’ comes into play. As a consequence, I wasn’t sure how to approach this prayer session.
“Let your mind settle naturally and recite the prayers from there.”
Meditation is all about not-thinking, letting the mind settle so deeply that it does not do anything. My only thought at that point was:
“That is where we are meant to pray from?”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that. The idea is to let body, breath, and mind settle naturally. Though it sounds simple, it is not easy. At first, you feel like you are doing nothing, and it takes a while to appreciate that that is exactly what you are doing. It is amazing what your mind can recall when allowed to settle. My mind started recalling events from days gone by; for example, I remembered, vividly, my visit to an aunt who passed away perhaps four decades ago, and the ‘journey’ back to the store to get milk when I forgot to purchase it on my way home on an extremely cold night. Sensing my discomfort, he gently guided me to “let it all go.” After much rebellion from the productive part of my brain, it all seemed to eventually quieten down. Calmness started rising from inside as the warmth of the sun settled on the outside. After the noise had subsided, I found myself resting deeply. Unsure if I was in a deep meditative state or sleeping, I felt a sense of clarity grow exponentially as the hands of time moved forward.
At some point during my state of meditation, from the depth of my soul grew a voice so loud and convincing that it was impossible to ignore. It was as if a thousand birds had started singing concurrently at the break of dawn and all in sync recited a prayer so close to my heart:
‘My Lord, I am in need of whatever good Thou mayest send down to me.’
An utter bliss!
Unaware of how much time had passed since our meditation session began and unable to feel any sensation in my legs, I remained immersed in the blissfulness of the prayer, and decided not to silence my mind. The recitation of this small yet profound prayer continued from somewhere deep inside me, while the tears gravitated towards the earth I sat upon. It was a pleasant and surprising discovery for me, as I discussed with Venerable Lee after the meditation; perhaps an important one. Sometimes in the drudge of our daily routine, we do not stop to appreciate the depth and wisdom found in the Islamic prayers. That day, the Buddhist meditation session became a gateway for understanding my prayers in a new light.
When you consider that current day Buddhism is a theistic and a non-theistic religion (7), the issue of prayer becomes complex. Prayer is to Islam what Meditation is to Buddhism, however, adding further complexity to the equation is the fact that many Buddhists practice traditions such as recital of texts and mantras, as well as offer aspirational and petitional prayers (8).
Curious about the origin of prayers and teachings of Hazrat Buddha (as), I turned to the books of history. Hazrat Buddha (as) appeared around 566 BCE. For the first five centuries, the traditions were transmitted orally, with the first written scriptures appearing in Pali around the time of Christianity (9). Although over the long period of five hundred years, much was lost, I found many prayers recorded by different traditions that resonated with me. I list a few for the consideration of the reader (13).
Before the start of Meditation session, a person seeking the faith is recommended to settle in solitude and recall the virtues of the Buddha in these words:
“This Lord is truly the Arahat, fully enlightened, perfect in his knowledge and conduct, well-gone, world-knower, supreme, leader of men to be tamed, teacher of gods and men, the Buddha, the Lord.”
What resonated the most was the theme, which is clearly recognizable as the first part of the Surah Fatihah, the key chapter of the Holy Qur’an (Chapter 1).
As I continued down the book of meditation, I found a prayer that stands out as a tone for the ten conditions of bai’at (Pledge of initiation). Listed simply as a prayer to Surrender of Self, the prayer reads follows:
Heedless of body, heedless of goods, of the merit I gained and will gain still, I surrender my all to promote the welfare of others.
I drove home that evening, with the sun just settling over the horizon, pondering over the different yet similar thoughts between Islam and Buddhism. I recalled with joy the teachings of my master (10) that “… the pride and elegance of Islam is that it advocates prayers … because (in prayers) exists the indisputable proof of God (11).” Knowing that Hazrat Buddha (as) was a messenger of Allah (12), a reformer of his times, I reflected upon his life and in a moment of awakening understood the simple message of Buddhism: life means aspiring to let go of everything and breathe in unity with the Universe.
- https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pali-language. Accessed: June 28, 2018
- https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/theravada. Accessed: June 28, 2018
- Conze, Edward, ed. Buddhist scriptures. Vol. 88. Penguin, 1959.
- Buswell Jr, Robert E. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp 836-41
- Buswell Jr, Robert E. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. pp 492-95
- Bishop, Peter. Dreams of power: Tibetan Buddhism and the western imagination. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1993. Bishop, Peter. Dreams of power: Tibetan Buddhism and the western imagination. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1993.
- Gross, Rita M. “Meditation and prayer: a comparative inquiry.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002): pp 77-86.
- Reader, Ian, and George Joji Tanabe. Practically religious: Worldly benefits and the common religion of Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
- Conze, Edward, ed. Buddhist scriptures. Vol. 88. Penguin, 1959.
- Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah and Mahdi
- Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as). Malfuzat, vol 4. pp. 207
- Hazrat Musleh Maud (as). Anwar ul Uloom, vol 7. pp. 52
- Conze, Edward. Buddhist meditation. Courier Corporation, 2003.
Last modified: January 5, 2019