The Power of Prayer
I am told that these mantras benefit all, and I leave them freely, with my good wishes, when the request for prayers suggests they will be welcome, and recite them in my mind when I think the giving of the mantra would be intrusive. So I thought, for the interest of any, I would write a little about the meaning of prayer for a Buddhist.
The beings to whom Buddhists pray are those whom we call "realized" beings, such as Avalokiteshvara. This means that those individuals have achieved "insight", through Buddhist practice, into the nature of their own mind, and the nature of the phenomenal world. In the my teachers' view, such insight frees you from the automatic and uncontrolled movement from life to life called karma, and it is this freedom that gives these beings the capacity to help us. They are not omnipotent. They cannot make the sky green for us, or the ocean red.
What they can do for us is rather like what we can do, if we are healthy, for someone who is suffering from the flu. We can give medicines that will reduce the fever, nourishing food, and a clean environment for the person who is ill to rest and heal--all of which encourages the natural healing process.
Our capacity to do this will vary, depending upon the inner attitude and the outer circumstances of the sick individual. If they do not trust us and will not take the medicine, eat the food, or let us fix their environment, our capacity to help will not be very great. If they do, we can accomplish something.
What realized beings can do for us, first, is to bring forth the inherently good karma that is a part of our current lives and alter, at least to some degree, the order in which our karma, good or evil, ripens. They can also help us to endure the evil karma that has ripened to the point where we cannot delay it or avoid it. Finally, the mere contact with them through prayer plants a good karmic seed for our future lives. So Buddhists, at least in my tradition, do pray to them frequently for all three reasons.
All of these, of course, require that we open to what they have to offer, and this is where the mantras are most helpful. A being such as Avalokiteshvara is the complete embodiment of loving kindness and compassion, so that when we say that being's mantra, it is like calling someone's name--it brings forth automatically those two embodied qualities in the same way that calling someone's name gets their attention.
Compassion, which relieves suffering, and loving kindness, which fosters happiness are something all of us can never get enough of. So it has become traditional, particularly among the Buddhists of Tibet, to carve, paint, or draw that mantra everywhere so that anyone with any degree of openness to it can receive the blessings of it.
Today is the 48th day following the Sumatran Tsunami. The teachers of my lineage, the Karma Kagyudpa, requested all monasteries and Dharma centers associated with them to do the practice of Avalokiteshvara every day for 49 days for the people who were killed by it. I will be the umdze, or chant leader, for the practice at my own Dharma center, tonight. The victims, after death, have been largely in the nightmarish bardo state since the tsunami, on their way to rebirth in the human realm, or elsewhere, and we do this to aid them in attaining the best rebirth possible.
In the bardo, a person drifts for seven day intervals following their physical death, with opportunities to take rebirth in each interval. Normally, the sooner you leave the bardo, the better your rebirth is likely to be, overall. If you do not do so, at the end of the seven days you re-experience the process of dying, and wake up in the bardo once again.
With every further seven days, the visions you experience in the bardo become more and more terrifying, and, if you linger long enough, the visions can take the form of a "judgment after death". The process continues for a maximum of 7x7 or 49 days, by which time the visions become so terrifying that they force you into any rebirth still available, often quite a limited and painful one.
Consequently, as the days have progressed, the need of the people who are left behind for help has intensified. So this evening's practice of Avalokiteshvara, and the one which follows tomorrow, will be the most important helping those people who have lingered longest, and have had the worst bardo experiences, to do as well as they can, next time around.
There have been repeated stories of people visiting the tsunami beaches and seeing the victims in the bardo. This is likely to cease after this Sunday.
If you are a Buddhist with particular teachers--such as my Karma Kagyudpa teachers--who is doing specific practices assigned to you, it can be especially powerful and useful to pray to the past gurus of your own particular "lineage" or teaching tradition.
Each such lineage is a set of realized beings, with specific personal names and known life histories, who not only have liberated themselves from the automatic and uncontrolled movement of karma, they have also used the same practices you have been taught to do in order to achieve such liberation.
Because of this they are said to have extremely strong karmic links both to those practices, and to you as a Buddhist. The reason for this is that you have sought out the true teachings from your own teacher, who is a member of their particular tradition. Praying for their blessings is an especially powerful aid to understanding the teachings you have been given, and to putting them into practice.
For example, here is a rough translation (the actual prayer is in a sonorous Tibetan melody chanted in a graceful 2/4 time) of part of a prayer to my lineage that I have prayed hundreds of times over the past twenty years:
Non-attachment is the basis of meditation; to the meditator who gives up ties to this life, grant your blessings so that attachment to ownership and honor cease.
Now why, you might ask, would you ever pray for such a thing? Give up all those wonderful things you have acquired, all those noble dreams and powerful ambitions to succeed, to make something of yourself, to accomplish something meaningful, to be rich and famous, to own the best, the biggest, the fastest, the most--a handsome and sexy companion, a family of beautiful and intelligent children, a solvent and generous 401k, an early and well-financed retirement? Why would you ever want your heart to be separated from all these good things?
The reason is simple: sooner or later you will be separated from them, whether you will or no. Sooner or later you will die. Everything you have, everything you have had, everything you will have, is no more truly yours than the video you borrowed from the library that accrues a stiff fine when you try to hold onto it past the due date.
And if your heart is attached to those things which you will lose, including your own precious body, the torment of leaving will be unendurable to you and you will miss the chance death gives us all to set our course for a better future. The details of that wonderful chance are something to be learned from an authentic teacher rather than a mere lay follower like me, but there is one thing I can mention, people often miss that chance because they think it is too easy, that it has to be something more complicated and difficult than it really is.
In other words, what you are praying for is to see clearly, continuously, and unequivocally the truth of death and impermanence. This doesn't mean that you must take no pleasure in life, but it does mean that you understand wholeheartedly that even the most durable and pleasurable things on earth are no more than a wonderful lunch at a four-star restaurant: once you have thoroughly enjoyed it, it has ceased to exist, and it is silly to worry about the fact that it is gone.
Having prayed this prayer for twenty years I can say one thing unequivocally and from the bottom of my heart: Be careful what you pray for--it might just happen. I, personally, am too confused and too indolent to fully accept the blessings I have prayed for and, when I must give something up, there is still loss and pain. But I am completely cured of the belief than anything I have will endure more than the images on my television from the video I borrowed from the library. It won't.
This is the deepest lesson for all the rest of us to learn from all the victims the tsunami has taken.