What Are the Functions of Prayer Within Buddhism?

Buddhists pray to develop compassion and wisdom within.
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Prayer has been a part of the human religious experience since the origins of humankind. It is often an expression of gratitude and humility for the gifts and generosity bestowed upon people from God. Buddhist prayer is not only an expression of gratitude for precious human life, but it is also a practice of inner transformation; the creation of a state or condition conducive to the development of compassion, knowledge and wisdom.

1 Types of Buddhist Prayer

In Buddhism, prayer can take on many forms depending on sect or region. The most common method of prayer all Buddhists practice is meditation. During meditation, a Buddhist may pray for the happiness and well being of all sentient beings or she may focus her attention on one individual who needs help. Other forms of Buddhist prayer include bringing offerings of flowers or incense to temples and shrines, circumambulating holy sites or chanting verses from ancient texts. Tibetan Buddhists make prayer offerings by creating detailed works of art, called mandalas, out of colored sand, and Zen Buddhists are known for their rock gardens of peace and tranquility.

2 Awakening Buddha Nature

In Buddhism, prayer is primarily utilized for its internal purposes. It is practiced to awaken the practitioner’s inner bodhichitta, or Buddha nature. This concept can be defined as the fundamental compassionate vital energy; an enegry that is as much present in the cosmos as it is within the individual. The process of prayer aids the practitioner in uniting himself with the cosmos by awakening this inner energy and consequently tapping into otherwise unused sources of wisdom, empathy and knowledge. The various types of meditative Buddhist prayer serve to calm the mind; bringing it to a state conducive to developing a strong and compassionate heart.

3 Prayer as Gratitude

In addition to the inner functions of prayer, Buddhists pray to express gratitude and devotion towards the Buddha. This gratitude is directed to him not because he is perceived as a God, but rather because Buddhists want to give thanks for his teachings. He is praised for providing a path to enlightenment; an escape from the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Prayers of gratitude are also offered for teachers, ancestors and great Buddhist leaders within the tradition of the practitioner.

4 Orientation Towards the Goal

The meditative quality of prayer in Buddhism plays an important role in assisting the practitioner to set his intention towards the main goal; the development of kindness and compassion and the relinquishment of the material world. Through prayer, Buddhists aim to detach the mind from worldly interests and selfish concerns. In this way, prayer functions to free the mind from mundane thoughts, worries and anxieties so that the practitioner can reorient himself towards attaining enlightenment.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.