By Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1996
What is prayer? To whom should we pray? Does prayer bring results?
A five-year-old boy who loved playing with his pet mouse was deeply wounded when his mouse tunneled deep into the earth and didn’t come back, but the mouse never returned. Later, when he was a college student, the same young man attended a class that began each day with a prayer. The prayers mostly seemed silly to him, such as, “I pray it will be sunny tomorrow so we can have a picnic.” But one day a fellow student came into class crying. She told the professor that doctors had just discovered that her mother had a brain tumor and might survive only one more week.
The professor stood up, looked deeply at each student, and said, “If you do not believe in the healing power of God, please leave the room. We are going to pray for Nancy’s mother.” The young man wanted to leave but didn’t have the courage. Then the professor asked everyone to kneel down, and he offered a short but very powerful prayer: “God, I thank you for healing Nancy’s mother right now. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Two weeks later, they learned that Nancy’s mother’s tumor had disappeared without a trace. Her healing was a miracle, and the young man’s belief in prayer was renewed.
Why do some prayers succeed and some not? Are there methods that can guarantee our prayers? If your prayers do not bring good results, is it because we do not have enough faith or love? In the Bible, is says that faith can move mountains. If we want our bulb to light up, there has to be current running through the electrical line.
Last summer a practitioner at Plum Village was very ill with cancer. Sister Chan Khong suggested that she pray to her grandmother, who had lived to be 97. Sister Chan Khong said, “The strong genes of your grandmother are in you. Ask them to help you transform the sick cells that are also in you.” Sister Chan Khong taught her for only fifteen minutes, but because she had a lot of faith, she understood the teaching and put it into practice. The young lady prayed to her grandmother in herself while she ate, while she walked, while she sat, and while she touched the earth.
When I practice sitting meditation, I always send loving energy to my students. Sister Dam Nguyen in Vietnam and Jim Fauss in California both have had cancer. Whether my students know I love them or not, when I send my energy to them, I am sure it arrives. What matters most is that my heart is open. I only need to touch the source of love in me and send my love in my thoughts and also in my actions. This is a basic form of prayer that can be practiced not just in church or a meditation hall, but in every act. You touch the deep source of beauty and goodness in yourself and share it. When you pray or chant the words of the Buddha or Christ, it encourages peace in yourself, in others, and in the environment. Behind it is the practice of mindful living.
All the Vietnamese Buddhists know this prayer (De Tu Kinh Lay): “I have been a victim of craving, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and confusion, living in suffering and darkness for thousands of generations. Thanks to the light of the Buddha, I now see the roots of my afflictions, and I vow to begin anew to transform these afflictions in order to live happily.” This prayer is a mirror, an effort to look deeply into ourselves and see the seeds of craving, anger, ignorance, and confusion in us. “The light of the Buddha” is our mindfulness. We look deeply into our negative habit energies, see our shortcomings, and try to transform them.
“I vow to avoid wrong actions and to take the path of goodness. I ask for the Buddha’s compassion to help me to have a healthy body and a mind free of suffering and confusion.” We pray for a body without disease and a mind without suffering, so we can enjoy peace, stability, and liberty and be released from the cycle of suffering. This prayer helps us live a life filled with health, happiness, and stability, free from craving, anger, and ignorance. We make some effort, and outside efforts follow. In fact, there is no boundary between our efforts and those from outside.
Whom should we address our prayers to? God? Buddha? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva? We have to look deeply into the nature of God, the nature of the Buddha, the nature of Avalokiteshvara. Whenever we join our palms and bow our heads, we can ask, “Who am I and who is the object of my venerations and what is the connection between us?” If we think there is no connection between God and us, that we are different from God, our prayer is just superstition.
When I was sixteen, my teacher asked me to memorize this sentence: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty.” I recited this sentence for ten years before I realized its meaning. The Buddha is in me, and I am in the Buddha. We are two, yet we are one. We are both empty of a separate self, so the communication between us is perfect. We can pray to God, because we are a part of God. We don’t need time or space. The deep link is immediate. There is electricity in our power line.
For prayer to bring results, the first condition is the establishment of communication and the second is the establishment of the electrical line, which is mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love. When we have these conditions, the power line will surely work, and the result of our prayer will be realized immediately, beyond time and space. When body and mind are in oneness, when there is concentration and understanding, you can touch the actual cells of your grandmother in you, and these cells can be transformed and healed. When you touch God, the Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in you, their energy and your energy become one. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the symbol of love. Manjushri is the symbol of understanding. Samantabhadra is the symbol of action with understanding. We cannot deny their existences. When love exists, Avalokiteshvara exists.
If God’s will decides everything, what is the use of praying? How can we change the fruit of our actions? The answer is understanding. When we understand deeply that our ancestors are in us, that there is no distance at all between our cells, our grandmother’s cells and our cancer can be transformed. The will of God is also our will, because we and God are one. If we decide to change, everyone, even those hostile to us, will change also.
To pray, we must have great understanding. If we want God, the Buddha, or a bodhisattva to do something for us and if we make a kind of program for them to follow, we may think that will make us happy. We might pray that no living beings will be killed, no trees cut, or no river polluted and we create a program for God to implement point by point. But in God’s program, there is also death. If insects don’t die, millions of acres of wheat may be destroyed. Living beings eat other living beings, and the result is a kind of balance. Do we have the insight to create a balanced environment? If we do not, our prayer may be naïve. We pray for ourselves and those we love, but if God fulfills these prayers it may cause disorder in the world. Our prayers must always go together with understanding and insight. To develop insight, we practice mindful breathing to calm ourselves and restore the peace and serenity in us.
An American doctor has said that God is like a communications satellite. Our wishes and aspirations are sent to that satellite, and then God sends back grace to those we pray for. Buddhists would call that satellite our collective consciousness (alaya vijnana). Whenever there is a transformation in our individual consciousness, there is also a transformation in the collective consciousness, including the consciousness of those we pray for. In this way, our mind is a creator of the collective consciousness. So we have to go back to our mind and transform ourselves. When we do so, it is quicker than a satellite. When you send a prayer to a satellite, it takes a few ksana (a fraction of a second) to arrive. Even light takes time. But when we touch our store consciousness and thereby the collective store consciousness, the part of God that is within us, we touch God right away. This satellite is not out in space; it is within us. As long as we have the notion that we and God are separate entities, it takes time for our prayer to reach the satellite and for God to receive and send it to the one we pray for. But in deep Christianity and deep Buddhism, we see that the one we pray to and the one we pray for are both in the same satellite, which is in us. Collective consciousness and individual consciousness exist simultaneously. When we are in touch with our own consciousness, we are already in touch with the collective consciousness. Touching the collective consciousness, we also touch our individual consciousness.
We think that those who have passed away no longer exist, but according to Buddhism, that is not correct. They are still there, everywhere, including in us. Although your grandmother has passed away, she is still in you. When you understand this, your prayers will be effective. Buddha is the nature of beauty and goodness in you. When you touch the Buddha in you, you can do what he had done. When you are angry or sad, if you touch those seeds of beauty and goodness in you, you will see more clearly. The Buddha in you helps you overcome difficulties. He helps you accept thinks that are difficult to accept. He transforms you.
If you hear that the Buddha will lead a walking meditation on Gridhrakuta Mountain and if you want to fly to India to join him, I would certainly understand. But if you practice walking meditation every day and know how to be deeply in touch with life, you will not need to fly to Gridhrakuta Mountain. Buddha is not a concept, but the true nature of awakening. You can take a step right here and now, and you are already walking hand in hand with the Buddha.
We can pray not only to God, the Buddha, or our ancestors, but also to those who are still alive. When we have difficulties, if we think of someone who has stability, joy, peace, and a clear mind, we feel supported. These living bodhisattvas have the ability to listen to us and use their energy to help us. We should pray no only to bodhisattvas who are in the clouds, like Avalokiteshvara, but to those who are alive on earth. Your own roommate may be a bodhisattva, but if you don’t hold her in high enough esteem, you will not see her. If she listens with all her heart, with all her attention and compassion, she is Avalokiteshvara. If you open your heart only to bodhisattvas in the clouds, you may miss many real bodhisattvas here who have love and care, who listen to you deeply. Bodhisattvas are people who have practiced day after day so that their insight has grown. When you walk in mindfulness and have more peace and joy, your insight is growing. It is not only the Buddha who has insight. You also have your insight. You might have been less compassionate in the past, but through the practice your compassion has grown.
I often pray to those who are still alive. There are many small Sanghas everywhere of people who really practice and transform their suffering. I feel deeply supported by them. This is real prayer. I also pray to trees, the moon, and the stars. They are strong and stable, and they can support us. Do not pray to God as a concept. Touch God in His creations. You are a creation, so you can touch God in yourself and in those around you. Let us look at The Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
“Thy Kingdom come.” The best way to chant, sing, or pray is to touch the kingdom of God right here and now. ”Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the key. The Lord’s will must be realized not only in heaven, but also on earth. Don’t wait until you reach the kingdom of God – until you pass away – to obtain stability, peace, and joy. Touch it here and now. A Zen master was asked, “Where do you find the world of no-birth and no-death?” And he said, “Right in the world of birth and death.”
“Give us this day our daily bread,” is the practice of mindfulness. We only need food here and now. “Form is emptiness” is not enough. Emptiness is also form. We always want to save for the future, but to live in the present moment deeply is most important. We have to pray throughout the day, not only before going to sleep. How can there be eternity if there is no present moment?
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Trespasses are the mistakes we have made with those we love. We have said something unkind; we have acted or thought in ways that have caused suffering. We have made many mistakes and hurt others. We have to live in a way that allows us to forgive ourselves and forgive those who have hurt us. We have not been mindful, and we have to release our hurts and the hurts of others. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of action.
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What kinds of temptation? – craving, anger, arrogance, doubt jealousy, suspicion. Practice is much easier with a Sangha, a community of friends. When you are alone, you are easily tempted, but with a Sangha, when you become angry or afraid, your brothers and sisters will help calm you down. With a Sangha, you are very stable and will not fall into the lower realms. Many people are in hell right now, living in loneliness, anger, or despair. Others are in heaven, living beautifully.
We have to learn the art of praying deeply. Usually, when we have some difficulty, we call upon God and say, “Help me.” This is okay, but we also have to learn to pray on a large scale. Our aim is to cross the ocean of birth and death without fear. Asking God to do something for us is too superficial. At other times we bargain with God: “If you give me such and such, I will shave my head and be a vegetarian for three months.” When they cross the ocean, many Vietnamese boat people say that if they survive they will shave their heads for three months. There is nothing wrong with that. I only want you to practice more deeply, so you can smile to that bargaining part of you.
We usually pray for good health, success, or harmony. But it is a dream to think our health can be perfect. We are alive now because we were sick in the past. Thanks to our illnesses, we have immunity from certain diseases. Don’t dream of perfect health. Please learn to live with these little diseases, and enjoy the 98% health you have.
There has been a lot of progress in medicine in the past fifty years. People now see that the health of the body is deeply linked to the health of the mind. If we learn how to resolve the blocking points in our mind, many of our diseases will be cured. A good physician must look deeply.
We are at the gateway to a new step in medicine, that can be called “collective-manifestation-medicine” or the “medicine of one mind.” We see that many elements, near and far, make us sick and cure us. We may suffer from something our grandfather did two generations ago, or from the effects of an atomic bomb that was dropped in the South Pacific, or from someone else’s unhappiness. When someone is unhappy, he may hurt us deeply. Because we don’t have a separate self, we are connected in all directions, through time and through space.
Success is also usually seen as an element for our happiness. But our success may requires another person’s failure. When we are able to pray for ourselves, for those we love, and also for those who cause us problems, the energy of mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love in us grows stronger. If you cannot pray for those who cause us difficulty, do not blame God or the Buddha if you do not have good results.
We also pray for harmony in the world. But life is filled with harmony and disharmony, successes and failures, ups and downs. When we are in touch with the ultimate dimension, harmony or disharmony, success or failure are all okay. We try our best to make life more harmonious. That’s all. When you step into the world of the Avatamsaka, into the Kingdom of God, whatever happens to your health is okay, whether you have so-called success or failure is okay, whether you live one or ten more years is okay. When you have touched the ultimate dimension deeply, you can dwell in the cycle of samsara with a smile.
In the past, if you had a success, you were happy. If you had a failure, you were unhappy. But once you have touched the ultimate dimension, you see that failure is also fine. Because of your failure, other people may succeed. Others may see disharmony, but you see harmony. The deep aim of a practitioner is to touch the ultimate dimension in daily life. Everywhere you go, you see that you and others are one. Even if your health is not perfect, even if your success is not great, it’s okay. The prayer of the practitioner is very deep and not on the level of the historical dimension and touch the ultimate reality. Then your relationships with others, your relationship with God, and your relationship with the Buddha will be relationships of oneness.
At Plum Village, we try to open many doors of happiness to help you keep your balance. When you return home, you have to establish your own breathing room, your own Sangha, where you can breathe, listen to Dharma talks, and have Dharma discussions, so you have more peace to help you cope with the unhappiness of people. When others are unhappy and thrown their unhappiness on you, you have to receive it and transform it.
In the collective consciousness is the collective consciousness of many bodhisattvas, many buddhas, you yourself, and also those who are not happy. Try to use the new step in medicine to bring you to that realm of buddhas and bodhisattvas, where you will not be drowned in the sickness of negativity. This new medicine is not limited by time. It can happen millions of years in the past or the future. It is not limited by space. When Kepler discovered that the tides on earth are influenced by the moon, no one believed him. Even Galileo thought Kepler had imagined it. Now we know that the gravity of the moon influences the earth, and the stars influence us.
Our health is the same. Those who live far from us can make us very happy or unhappy. In “oneness-of-mind medicine,” the doctor also has to pray for his or her patients, because we know that the mindfulness and compassion of our physician influences us. A physician cannot be just a mechanic: “Here is a prescription. Open your mouth.” She must go the next step. After making her best prognosis, she must say, “I will pray for you, too.” And she sends her love, care, and compassion to her patients. Before seeing a patient, she has to breathe, calm herself to restore the peace and happiness of her own body and mind, and then look deeply into the patient, diagnose, and while giving the patient a prescription, say, “Follow this, and I will pray for you. I will send my love to you.” We have to do this also, not just physicians. When your brother is sick, you cannot just say, “The hospital will take care of him.” You also have to send your love and care to your brother in the hospital. You have to send your love and care to all who are in danger. You cannot just say, “They will take care of themselves.” We deeply influence each other.
Dr. Larry Dossey says that in our time we have to open the door to this new step in medicine. He proposes that every physician encourage his patients to pray, and physicians who forbid their patients from praying be subject to suit. Physicians have to care not only about medicine and the body, but also about spirit. For your happiness with yourself and the happiness of your brothers and sisters in the Dharma and in your blood family, you have to send your love everywhere. With every step I take, I send compassion to myself and to brothers and sisters near and far away. It heals me and it will heal them. Even though Sister Dam Nguyen is in Hanoi and Jim Fauss is in California, when I send my love to them, I am sure they receive it right away.
Sending love to people is not a superstition. It is based on something scientific. When we sit together, we create a great collective energy that can support many near and far. Collective consciousness can be governed by understanding or by ignorance. The more our collective consciousness is full of ignorance, the more sickness we have in our body and mind. When we have more understanding, we have more loving kindness, and health and healing are possible. In the medicine of one mind, the collective consciousness plays a significant role in the happiness of our beloved ones and ourselves.
We have to find the root causes of our diseases, most of which come from the collective store consciousness. In medical school, they don’t teach you how to go into the unconscious domain. The unconscious of Western psychology is only a small part of the collective consciousness, and the healing of most disease comes from there. If you want to heal a diseases, organize a good store consciousness. Practice mindful sitting, walking, speaking, and eating. Water the seeds of joy and peace in yourself every day. Enjoy the present moment and share your peace and love with other. This is real prayer.
This Dharma talk was given by Thay at Plum Village in March 1996.
Photos: First and second photo by Gloria Norgang. Third photo by Carole Melkonian.