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Do buddhists believe in the power of prayer?
June 17th, 2013 (November 21st, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Do buddhists believe in the power of prayer?
e.g. for someone seriously ill
On Valentine's eve, I posted —in the "Buddhism and Meditation" community— about the concept of 'soulmate' and the fact that Buddhism does not reject this notion as un-ambiguously as it might be naïvely believed

In line with my previous post on avoiding the naïve rejection of religious narratives and myths I think it is interesting to consider the question of prayers.

Buddhism accepts the efficacy of prayer, while also rejecting it.

It accepts it because any intention (in particular if you act on it, i.e. reinforce it) will have (karmic) consequences. A priori, the consequences are more on the person praying than anyone else, but separation is a delusion, so they will affect the environment (a classical case is: if the prayer 'works', a lot of people will appropriate the belief that praying works… if the prayer doesn't 'work', a lot of people will claim your 'religion' is ineffective).

If the person you pray for believes in your prayer, this belief itself will affect them. From a scientific point of view, some may be tempted to call this a 'placebo' effect (i.e. an effect 'self'-generated by the 'receiver' of the prayer, rather than 'truly' caused by the prayer… whatever that means!), but the fact remains that the placebo effect is a scientifically-measurable effect!!! Call it "positive thinking" or whatever, the fact is that statistically it is measurable and significant.

Now, why would Buddhism justify that it may work (via karma and via inter-dependence) but also warn about it, or reject the 'ultimate' efficacy of 'prayer'?

The belief in permanency is a root of suffering: Buddhism asks you to pay attention! If praying works (be it by 'placebo' effect… who cares? it works!), then great! But if it doesn't work, please accept that it doesn't work, and try differently! One may note that 'works' or not is itself not permanent… It is context-dependent, and it might work at some points in time but not at others… Buddhism asks you to "see things as they are". Typically, there's no point (from Buddhism's perspective) to claim "prayer should work": prayer owes you nothing… there's no 'should', there's only "what is": if it works, great! if it doesn't, try something else, don't get stuck!

The implicit belief behind a prayer is that you can choose a life without suffering, without trials, without dissatisfaction… The first noble truth says otherwise. Typically, yes, some prayers will work, but some won't and dissatisfaction both with the result and with the unreliability of prayer will exist. This is another aspect of accepting "things as they are": we age, we get sick, we die… That's part of the 'deal' and to engage with it (without getting upset by it) requires to accept this fact. This is relatively well understood nowadays in palliative medicine: therapeutic harassment might indeed reduce the quality of life during the last days of a person, without even extending the life significantly! Some facts you cannot change by prayer, and some you can. Maybe the fact you want to change is not what can be changed (in the current context and circumstances… Maybe it would have been possible earlier, but this time has passed now, and there's no point regretting it, that's just adding insult to injury)…

Overall, the belief in prayer is itself a cause of karmic continuation, i.e. a root of perpetual dissatisfaction. It may provide local improvements, but doesn't change the overall fact that "life doesn't happen as we'd like it to." It may postpone some suffering, but sometimes it will actually increase the suffering overall…

The intention behind the prayer might be selfish (you pray for the person, but because of what this person brings to you) and that's not so great for your own suffering.

The intention behind the prayer might be wholesome (compassion wanting to alleviate the suffering of another, regardless of your own) and that's good karma and will play positively one way or another but it's still karma. It's still a belief —in 'control' over life— that will suffer contradiction sooner or later and generate dissatisfaction. This may be a dissatisfaction you're willing to take, out of compassion, for the benefit of others. In karmic terms, this would point towards rebirth in the God's realms.

Just don't delude yourself that it'll get you into a state with no death or no dissatisfaction. Impermanence reigns. Just remember that prayer will not always work, and that when it doesn't it will be unsatisfactory and that the 'solution' will be to try something else rather than to cling to the idea that it 'should' work (for whatever reason you believe would justify so, e.g. "I have good karma so it should work" which is a reification of karma and a delusion).

It is a classic in Buddhism that 'emptiness' (or "lack of essence") prevents us from relying on permanency, but also allows change to happen, i.e. allows efficacy in the first place!

Prayers are empty: they're not silver bullets (independent of the context), but they participate in causality… You don't need to believe in a super-natural power. If you believe in science, the placebo effect is proven, the effects of "positive thinking" on health recovery are proven… so there's nothing ridiculous if you feel like praying: it may not work as the myths say it works, but it may work nonetheless!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
The question was initially asked by +Eddy Kwok  in "Buddhism Q&A" community.
4'08'' video (Tibetan Song by Tenzin Kunsel - Phayul Dren Lu): a 'traditional' Tibetan song, "Phayul Dren Lu" ("home sick")… Almost all current Tibetan singers sing this song one day or another. What does it say about Tibetans, but also about us, when "home sick" becomes a 'traditional' Tibetan song?