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National Prayer Day

May 3, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Today is National Prayer Day and I’d like to offer a few thoughts about prayers from a Zen perspective.  At first it might seem impossible to imagine how a Zen Buddhist, who strives to experience the non-duality of life, would offer a prayer to something or someone the way that Westerners have been taught to do in Hebrew School and Sunday School.  As Zen practitioners we are taught that Buddha is not something outside of ourselves to worship.  When we bow to a Buddha statue on an altar we are really bowing to emptiness.  Katagiri Roshi recited the following gatha in front of his altar:

Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature.

The bodies of one’s self and others are not two.

I bow with all beings to attain liberation.

To manifest the unsurpassable mind and return to boundless truth.

So perhaps we should look not so much at the words of a prayer, but more toward the state of being in prayer.  Is there a state of being in which the words of a prayer, whether eastern or western, flow as naturally as the breath.  If so, what is this state, and how do we make contact with it? 

The early Christians called this state “the heart.”  In his discussion on the three levels of prayerful attention, St. Simeon, The New Theologian, said “Keep your mind in the heart, trying by every possible means to find the place where the heart is, in order that, having found it, your mind should constantly abide there.” A prayerful life does not consist of memorizing ancient formulas but in finding the place in ourselves that naturally and spontaneously expresses itself in prayer.

In Buddhism,  this place is known by different names: Original Nature, Buddha Nature, the Self, and Great Mind.  The Japanese character for “great” should not be understood as comparatively bigger than something else; that would limit its scope. If your mind is related to something outside itself, it is small mind.  Instead we should understand “great” as that which contains all things; it is the “mind that exhausts all of the world in the ten directions.”

But we should not be deluded in thinking that we are already the Great Self that includes all things just as we should not think that we know how to find the place of the heart.  We need to see that our ordinary, conditioned, sense of “I,” our life story, is not that Self; it is not our original nature.  In the West, we have the idea of microcosm, which is expressed in statements such as, “God created man in His own image.”  But what is often overlooked is that we are not yet that person.  Or to put in the way that we are taught in Soto Zen, we need to see that we are that person, but we are not yet aware of it; our delusions cover up who we really are.

So, if the point of praying is not in memorizing ancient formulas, why do include them in our services?  Can the words themselves, if recited in a collected emotional and mental state, in a specific bodily posture, act as a bridge to the heart or the Self? What would happen if we sit or stand quietly and feel the truth of the words? Can prayer be viewed as an upaya, a skillful, provisional means of finding the heart?

So, our discussion of prayer leads us to the question of how can we find the place in ourselves that already knows how to pray.  So today, I won’t pick up any prayer book or Zen Center Chant book.  I will stay with this question.  What better way to observe National Prayer Day?



From → Zen Buddhism

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