A Prayer That Actually Works

There’s the saying common in Christian circles: “The family that prays together stays together.” There might be some truth to that, because my family is as fragmented as they come. My dad, born in South Dakota on a dirt farm at the beginning of both the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, was raised Roman Catholic, but never expressed any sort of opinion about religious topics: heaven, hell, afterlife, god, or God. I don’t recall the subject ever passing over his lips, even on his deathbed. My mom, born on a lush, tropical farm in the Mekong Delta to a woman of Cao Đài faith, is a Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhist who prays regularly and underwent Quy Y, a Buddhist lay ordination. My brother, who went to Catholic school in Vietnam and, as a 9 year old, narrowly escaped Saigon with my mom, dad, and 12 year old sister days before the airport was destroyed in 1975, ended up first with some Baptists and ultimately found refuge in the Lutheran church that his now-wife and in-laws attended. My sister ran away from home in 1981. I don’t even know what her voice sounds like, much less her religious inclinations. My wife, like my dad, is a lapsed Catholic but with a scientific bent.

As for me, I gravitated towards Buddhism as a boy, mostly because of loyalty to my mom and her culture but also because of the desire to learn more about both of them. My mom never pushed me one way or another. She has always believed it important to have a spiritual home of some sort. To this day, she suggests that my wife and I go to church – any church, any religion. To her, since I have not undergone Quy Y, I’m a religious free agent. My brother and current (then future) sister-in-law tried to get me to go to church with them a couple of times when I was a boy. Others have tried as well. It never quite clicked, probably because of the insistence on belief (unverified conclusions), which goes against my natural skepticism regarding belief systems of any kind. (Note: I regard atheism as a belief system, as it has a core belief in the non-existence of god, which carries with it its own set of assumptions.) Attachment to belief closes the mind both to possibilities and the opportunity to understand the facts of a situation. This is true whether the context is religious or not. It took me a long time to realize that it is ok to not be a believer. In American culture, there is a not-so-subtle connotation that there is something wrong with people who don’t believe in something, like a US World Cup championship run, if not a religion.

There is a distinction to be made between religious belief and spiritual teaching. Spiritual teachings, the truths regarding our nature, can be known without faith. One might argue that to understand them, one cannot simply believe, but must test them. Beliefs are to be accepted without question. Religious belief is a potential vehicle for spiritual teaching, but it is not itself spiritual teaching. It is easy, perhaps convenient, to conflate religion and its institutions with spiritual teaching, just as it is easy to conflate our bodies with our selves. Where people get stuck is when they use either religion or spiritual teaching to justify existing habits that are motivated by either fear or self-gratification rather than using them as a guidepost for changing their habits to become more selfless (i.e. liberation from fear and self-gratification). How we pray is a clue to our true intentions.

As a young boy, I learned to pray to Amitabha Buddha (Phat A Di đà), the main Buddha in Pure Land teachings, Shakyamuni Buddha (Phat Thích Ca Mâu Ni), the historical Buddha who was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, and the boddhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát), a boddhisattva in female form who is the embodiment of compassion. At home, we had two figures, one of Phat A Di đà and one of Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát. At the temple, there were three — Phat A Di đà, Phat Thích Ca Mâu Ni, and Địa Tạng Bồ Tát (boddhisattva Kṣitigarbha). I would pray at home when my mom would and whenever we would go to chùa (temple). Before praying at home, she would prepare plates of fresh fruits in front of the figures and prepare a vase with fresh flowers for the altar. She would don a grey robe from the temple and make sure there was total silence in the house. When I would pray, I would light one joss (incense) stick per figure and blow out the flame. The smoldering incense would send thin ribbons of sandalwood- and jasmine-scented smoke into the heavens. I would hold the sticks between my hands, palms pressed together, stand in front of the altar, take my pressed hands to my forehead, and recite:

Nam Mô A Di đà Phật

Nam Mô A Di đà Phật

Nam Mô A Di đà Phật

Nam Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật

Nam Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật

Nam Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật

Nam Mô Đại Bi Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát

Nam Mô Đại Bi Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát

Nam Mô Đại Bi Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát

In Vietnamese, I would pray for the safety and health of my family, especially my long-suffering mother. Praying in English, like speaking to my mother in English, always seemed wrong, even though my mother and the Buddhas would be perfectly capable of understanding my sentiments in English. After praying, I would bow three times, each bow accompanied by “Nam Mô A Di đà Phật”, and place one smoldering joss stick in a holder in front of each Buddha figure. At home, these holders were sugar dishes filled with rice. At temple, they were large metal urns filled with fine ash. It was a peaceful experience, one I feel even writing about it.

That was the only sort of prayer I would make. There was no other object of prayer. At the time, I didn’t understand why that was, or what the point of praying was. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. I knew that the Buddhas were not gods even though many people at temple prayed to them as if they were. The idea of asking some outside actor, whether god, God, or energy, to satisfy a desirable outcome always seemed too easy: an abdictation of the pray-er’s own responsibility to do what needs to be done. Things happen because the conditions for them to occur exist, not because we simply wish for them to be true. So many things outside of our control have to happen for an outcome to occur. Maybe it is this is why people pray for outcomes. All around, outcomes are the objects of prayers: getting a job, or some money, or love. Maybe the health of a loved one, or that some undesirable quality in their loved one goes away. People even pray that people either go to hell or get saved from hell! I was never strongly devoted to prayer, despite my mother’s wishes and gifts of prayer necklaces.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a week-long Vedanta retreat at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, a Hindu ashram in eastern Pennsylvania founded Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati. I affectionately refer to it as my Swami Summer Camp experience. Part of the Hindu learning tradition is a precise unfolding of the meaning and context of every word of every verse in the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, and other classical texts. During one of the discourses, something the Swami-ji said (I don’t recall exactly what) made me realize something: prayer is a means to shift one’s own mindset. Using prayer to remind oneself to be more compassionate, to see through misunderstanding, or recognize one’s own biases and assumptions is powerful because it helps you see what you need to learn. There is a Chinese proverb, “To say you don’t know is the beginning of knowing.” By recognizing gaps in knowledge, especially assumptions that we believe to be true, we can begin to understand. That insight itself caused a shift in my understanding of prayer. When praying and invoking the compassion of Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát, or the love expressed by Jesus Christ, or the clarity offered by Ganesha, if we take the prayer as an opportunity to set an intention for ourselves — to be compassionate and to love even when wronged and to see the obstacles to peace even when we ourselves create them — we take the first step in changing ourselves and leading a peaceful and fulfilled life. We accept our situation and we choose to change it. The next step is to summon courage, ignore outcome, and do the right thing, despite our ignorance, attachments, or aversions.

Prayer works when you use it to change yourself rather than hope for change to happen outside of yourself.

Prayer is not the only way to change our mindset, of course, just as religion is not the only path to spiritual understanding. Ten years ago, I rededicated myself to being more loving towards my mother and I made a commitment to change my own behavior: calling more frequently, listening more and arguing less, spending time, and removing sources of pain in her life. Over years, not without difficulty, I’ve become more patient, more compassionate, and more giving. This was all done at the time without prayer in the religious sense, but maybe if one sets an intention and cultivates behaviors in oneself, it doesn’t matter what it is called. In a way, though, I was putting into action my boyhood prayers.

Like its cousin meditation, prayer is a means of focusing one’s mind. If one takes prayer as a means of changing oneself, it becomes a powerful agent of change because each of us can work to change our own behavior and automatic reactions. Praying for an outcome, even a noble one, and wishing that some external entity will make it happen is just that: wishful thinking. Praying for clarity and praying for courage — changes in ourselves — is what leads to positive change in our lives and in the world.

As the old adage goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”

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