The Power of Prayers in Mahayana Buddhism

A candle used in Mahayana Buddhism in a copper cup.

Praying is a religious practice that many very different traditions have in common. Scientific studies show that prayers can positively affect the person who is being prayed for, nevertheless, the role that prayer plays in each religion varies.

In the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, many prayers must be recited regularly by those who take the commitment of practice upon themselves.

Other religions, such as Native American religions, use prayers as a means of communication with God and of connection with the divine strength of the Great Spirit.

Table of Contents

The Beginnings of Prayer

Praying is an ancient practice that can be traced as far back as there are records of civilized life on Earth. Some of the oldest records of prayers is found in ancient clay tablets written in cuneiform scripture from Sumer.

Sumerian prayers seem to consist mainly of formal worship praises to the different Sumerian gods, who represented nature and its powers. The Sumerian gods are different from the gods from some other religions. They were very humanized personifications of the elements and cosmic influences, instead of the perfect virtuous beings found in other cultures.

Native American prayers express a whole different relationship between humans and the supernatural powers venerated by them. In the prayers available in English, it is impossible to overlook a sublime sense of love and deep reverence. The intimacy felt between those native people and God is evident even for the outsider.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many prayers which are recited in different occasions and for different purposes. Some of the Buddhist prayers are transcriptions of Buddha’s words, while others are the compositions of highly accomplished masters who have attained high levels of realizations.

In Buddhism, prayers can be recited either as a means of familiarizing one’s mind with the teachings, purifying one’s mental-continuum, making the mind suitable to understanding the profundity of the Dharma, developing discipline, helping others at the time of death, protecting one’s mind, dedicating merit to all sentient beings, among other important functions.

The Trinity of Praying

Like many aspects of Buddhism, the act of praying is considered to have relative power by itself. The configuration formed by the quality of the mind of the person who prays, the object prayed to, and the object prayed for all play a role, adding on to the power of this practice. 

Since the object prayed to and the object prayed for must be apprehended by the mind of the person doing the prayer, the most important factor is the quality of the mind of who is praying.

Purposes of Prayer in the Mahayana

Before any Mahayana Buddhist practice, there will be motivational prayers aimed at preparing the mind and placing it in the correct context before engaging in study, meditation, rituals, or any other practice. Aspirational prayers, on the other hand, have specific scripts that move the practitioner towards the development of qualities that are not yet present; be it concentration, wisdom, compassion, or any other quality that may be necessary for the purpose of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.  

Many Buddhist prayers summarize the main points of the teachings in the particular order that each one should be developed. Some other prayers are elaborated displays of the actualization of the meaning of the teachings. At the end of their spiritual practice, Mahayana adepts recite dedication prayers to make the merit created by their endeavour available to all beings, as a means of reminding themselves to not become attached to their virtuous deeds.

When other people are sick or die, many prayers are done in order to make the connection with the continuum of consciousness of the deceased/sick person, and benefit their minds. Many prayers are carried out for the weeks that follow to help the consciousness of people who die to pass through the intermediate state between death and rebirth.

Another commonly found format of Buddhist prayer is the praise to the masters of the lineage, which can be long, listing one by one in chronological order.

Full-time Mahayanists commit themselves to the recitation of many prayers for periods that can last for years, even decades. In this way, practitioners brainwash themselves with the words of the Buddha and other enlightened beings, becoming saturated with the positivity expressed in them.

Only Prayer is not Enough

One remarkable feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the extent to which the path is expounded, with every minor detail being elaborated exhaustively. At the same time, the path is only considered coherent within the recognition that it exists based on dependent origination.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, often states that prayer alone cannot change things, and that there must be action. At the same time, for practitioners of the Mahayana path, prayer is an essential tool to get acquainted with the path.

Tibetans have a privileged connection to Buddhism, even though they’re often portrayed as blindly following it against Buddha’s principle of validation through investigation. Nonetheless, the legacy of Buddhism in Tibet is unquestionable.

To illustrate this, there are accounts of Tibetans who survived the Chinese brutal invasion of their country on how their friends and relatives would ask their murderer to wait for them to make a prayer before being killed in order to not die with afflictive emotions, such as anger or hate.

Science-based Prayer

There are some scientific studies aimed at investigating the effects of praying on one’s health, as well as the effects of intercessory prayer (praying on another’s behalf). There seem to be a relationship between prayer and health from the scientific viewpoint, such as emphasized in the work of Dr. Marilyn Schlitz.

From the Buddhist perspective, there are many elements in the act of praying that are intertwined differently in each individual. Using Buddhist prayers out of their original context can be a means to make a connection with the dharma, and therefore beneficial. Nonetheless, Buddhist prayers have more specific purposes the more advanced on the path one gets.

Buddhists are encouraged to pray while developing their capacities, to meet their spiritual guru in their next lives, and for the long lives of the teachers. This can be seen as a way to remain active in situations that are largely out of one’s control.

Interestingly, scientific studies show that spiritual meditations have a greater power to mitigate anxiety and stress in comparison to secular methods. It seems that religious practices have the power to increase pain threshold when engaged in regularly.

Prayer and Karma

The degree to which an individual can benefit another can be measured by a variety of factors in Buddhism. Two conditions are determinant: the past karma and the present karmic potential.

Past karma speaks of imprints left in one’s continuum of consciousness from previous lives that cannot be measured in any way by an ordinary person. The present karmic manifestation can be played with.

According to that principle, if there’s a karmic connection between two people from previous lives, there may be a bigger possibility of one benefitting the other through prayers.

Masters and realized practitioners have a bigger potential to benefit others by means of their realizations. It is possible to make a positive karmic connection with enlightened beings by offering objects of enjoyment, for example. When realized masters pass away and go into paranirvana, we can pray for them in order to invoke the qualities of their presence and get inspired.

The Ultimate Purpose of Buddhist Prayers

Very few people are naturally more aware of their actions and mental dispositions. The biggest majority of us have a flickering awareness that comes and goes depending on the time of the day, the surroundings, and the lifestyle we choose. Actions engaged while not being fully present and aware are thoroughly influenced by past habituations according to Buddhism.

Past karma can only fully ripen when a set of conditions are met. Buddhist prayers serve to break the habituations which allow negative past karmic imprints to come to fruition. By interrupting the chain of karmic obscuration through the power of our full awareness we are freed of negative outcomes.

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