A few years ago we spent a couple of weeks roaming around Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and the land surrounding them. A few days ago we returned from a trip where we spent several days each in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai with brief stops elsewhere in Thailand, Vietnam and Okinawa. Among other things, it means that we have visited many Buddhist temples filled with persons offering their prayers.
From the little I know about it, the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized in four truths and eight ways that have a common thread. Life is tragic because humans desire too much and are too easily driven by their passions. The way to happiness is a life in which meditation and contemplation lead toward the elimination of desire. In the meantime, life is to be lived in moderation – not too little, not too much, and without expectation. The goal is to seek release from the tragic cycle of life and rebirth by achieving an ultimate state of enlightenment in which one’s final death leads to unbeing in oneness with whatever oneness is.
That’s a pretty crude summary and no doubt any observant Buddhist would take exception to it, but I’m more interested in what I observed and was told about Buddhist prayer as offered by ordinary people. It begins with the observation that the Buddha’s disinterest in the idea of God per se has allowed a multitude of gods form every culture where Buddhism took root to have their place, often a very important place, in the worship life of the community. The second observation is that every time I asked someone to describe the nature of the prayers being offered I got the same answer. We, or they, are praying for wealth, good luck, healing, happiness, abundance, romance, promotions, and especially desired material possessions, a new motor scooter perhaps. Honoring Buddha while propitiating ancestors and the local gods might bring hoped for answers to one’s prayers.
It seemed to me that there were some real conflicts between the basics of Buddhist teaching and the heartfelt prayers being offered. One of the most colorful examples of that was an enthusiastic young Communist Party member who explained to us his understanding of the Buddha’s core teaching and then went through an elaborate ritual of prayer that he hoped would make him a very rich millionaire. Marx and Buddha may have had little in common, but they both had to wonder what this kid was thinking.
I wonder, though, how different that is from the usual prayers offered up by many Christians? We are taught, I hope, that prayer is a form of communion with God, a holy conversation that leads us a little farther toward perfection as followers of Jesus Christ. But as a practical matter, prayer seems more often to be a verbalized to-do list for God that, if God would be so kind as to answer according to our desires, life would be so much more pleasant.
I suspect that the Buddha would very much like the prayer we were all taught: the prayer in which we seek to honor and keep holy God’s name, be agents of God’s will on earth, receive from God whatever spiritual and material nourishment is needed for the day’s work, receive forgiveness as we offer forgiveness, and to be delivered from the evils of this world. I wonder what he would think of the prayers we actually offer. At least we don’t have the sort of synchronistic religion that sets up local gods along side the Lord God Almighty, right?