The Emptiness of Prayer—Who Do We Pray To? “You and the Buddha are not separate realities.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

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    “A prostration based on the perception that Buddha has a separate self from your own, and that you have a self separate from the Buddha, can only be called superstition,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s most noted teachers.

    The teacher explained that when you bow to or pray to an image of the Buddha, the World-Honored One “or any image of whomever you pray to” you have to visualize because the Dharma object, statue—regardless of precious material or size—is nothing more than a symbol.

    Buddha Weekly Thich Nhat Hanh smiling hands clasped Buddhism
    The most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

    “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both, by nature, empty,” which is a one-line prayer widely used by Buddhists around the world.

    The power of emptiness

    Whether one thinks of both the Buddha and the self as Empty—a confusing subject to some—another way to understand the power and emptiness of prayer is to understand that “we are not a separate reality” from the Buddha. If you struggle with the concept of Emptiness, as many do, it’s easier to understand the concepts of “collective consciousness”—as taught both in Buddhism and as expressed by noted psychologist Carl Jung.

    Buddha Weekly Meditate as deity Buddhism
    “You and the Buddha are not separate realities. You are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you.”

    “You and the Buddha are not separate realities. You are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you.” Thich Nhat Hanh


    The energy of mindfulness

    The energy of mindfulness is a very real energy and “when we create the energy of mindfulness, we are able to pray.” There is no need for complex ritual or formula or a trip to a temple to connect with the Buddha. Buddha is omniscient, and is already plugged in to your mind, because your mind is part of Mind. The Buddha is in you, not without you. Prayers are empowered simply by thought.

    Prayer is also empowered by other things, but most especially compassion. This is why Sangha prayers for a sick person can be very effective. In the same way Buddha is in us, Buddha is in the person who is sick. Compassion empowers the energy of thought and connects us instantly to the person who is sick.


    Buddha Weekly 1Monksinatemple
    Monks praying in a temple. The word prayer isn’t truly the correct English word, but for many of us it is easy to think in these terms. When Buddhists “pray” who are we praying to? Sogyal RInpoche teaches “We think of Buddha as not being outside self, but within.” From one point of view, even when we prostrate or pray to a “statue” we are connecting, ultimately, to our own Buddha Nature. Both the statue, and ourselves, can be understood to be empty, making the topic of prayer in Buddhism a difficult concept.


    When our prayers are loving and full of love and compassion, we are creating more love in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that it doesn’t matter if the person who is sick knows they are being sent healing prayers. “When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer.”


    Buddha Weekly 2Screen Shot 2012 11 04 at 10.38.15 AM
    Monks chanting at a temple. Prayers such as the Seven Limb Prayer or countless others are recited daily by countless millions of Buddhists.


    Two elements of effective prayer

    The foundation of prayer is to use an effective method of communicating between ourselves and the Buddha or Bodhisattva. When we meditate on our intention, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his popular book The Energy of Prayer, this “communication is realized straight away and we are linked.” This is because the Buddha is not separate from the self.


    Buddha Weekly 0Monks praying blessing Buddhism Buddha Chanting emptiness of prayer
    Buddha Weekly tackles the difficult question “Who do we pray to?” when we pray. In fact, are we praying at all? Sogyal Rinpoche said, “Buddhism denies the concept of God, but not the nature of God.” He goes on to explain that we all have Buddha Nature (video above.)


    The empowerment of the prayer comes from compassion, concentration and mindfulness. Mindfulness is being in the present moment. If this is lacking, prayer is not possible. “If you are not present, who is praying?” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. With mindfulness comes concentration, which in turn is the path to parjna, or insight.

    The Seven Limbed Prayer

    Buddha Weekly Buddha nature like the sun emerging from the clouds Buddhism

    The Seven Limbed Prayer, contains within it, the entire essence of the complete Buddhist path in some traditions. Many Buddhists make it a practice to speak this enlightening prayer every day, morning and night. Simplified seven line prayers are often chanted throughout the day. In special practices, more elaborate seven-limbed prayers are often thought of. The practice is beautiful, enlightening, and ultimately, complete.

    Each line (or stanza in the case of the more elaborate versions) speaks to the seven practices on the path:

    1. Prostration (overcomes pride)
    2. Offering (overcomes attachment)
    3. Confession (overcoming our negative karma)
    4. Rejoicing (transforms jealousy)
    5. Requesting the Teachings (creating the receptive state of mind)
    6. Beseeching the Teachers Not to Go Away (the importance of teachers)
    7. Dedication: the most important step. We dedicate the merit to all beings, developing our bodhichitta

    Simplified Seven Limb Prayer

    I prostrate in faith with body, speech and mind

    I make each and every offering, both actually performed and mentally transformed

    I declare every non-virtuous act since beginningless time

    I rejoice in the virtues of all Holy and ordinary beings

    Please, Teacher, remain as our guide through Samsara

    Please turn the wheel of Dharma for all sentient beings

    I dedicate my own virtues and those of others to cultivate Enlightenment.


    Shantideva’s Seven-Limb Prayer


    Shantideva offered a beautiful and more elaborate Seven-Limbed Prayer:

    take safe direction, till my purified state,
    From the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly.
    By the positive force of my giving and so on,
    May I actualize Buddhahood to help those who wander.

    May the surface of the land in every direction
    Be pure, without even a pebble,
    As smooth as the palm of a child’s hand,
    Naturally polished, as is a beryl gem.

    May divine and human objects of offering,
    Actually arrayed and those envisioned
    As peerless clouds of Samantabhadra offerings,
    Completely fill the sphere of space.

    (1) I prostrate to all you Buddhas who have graced
    the three times,
    To the Dharma and to the Highest Assembly,
    Bowing down with bodies as numerous
    As all the atoms of the world.

    (2) Just as Manjushri and others
    Have made offerings to you, the Triumphant,
    So do I, too, make offerings to you, my Thusly Gone Guardians,
    And to your spiritual offspring.

    (3) Throughout my beginningless samsaric existence,
    In this and other lives,
    I ‘ve unwittingly committed negative acts,
    Or caused others to commit them, and further,
    Oppressed by the confusion of naivety.
    I ‘ve rejoiced in them – whatever I’ve done,
    I see them as mistakes and openly declare them
    To you, my Guardians, from the depths of my heart.

    (4) With pleasure, I rejoice in the ocean of positive force
    From your having developed bodhichitta aims
    To bring every limited being joy
    And in your deeds that have aided limited beings.

    (5) With palms pressed together, I beseech
    You Buddhas of all directions:
    Please shine Dharma’s lamp for limited beings
    Suffering and groping in darkness.

    (6) With palms pressed together, I beseech
    You Triumphant who would pass beyond sorrow:
    I beg you, remain for countless eons
    So as not to leave in their blindness these wandering beings.

    (7) By whatever positive force I’ve built up
    Through all of these that I’ve done like that,
    May I remove every suffering
    Of all limited beings.

    By directing and offering to the Buddha-fields
    This base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers,
    And decked with Mount Meru, four islands, a sun, and a moon,
    May all those who wander be led to pure lands.
    Om idam guru ratna mandala-kam nir-yatayami.
    I send forth this mandala to you precious gurus.


    Seven Limb Prayer to Tara

    Seven-Limb Prayers are often in sadhanas to devotional deities or meditational yidams and practiced daily by devout followers. An Example of a Prayer in Buddhism, the Seven-Limb Prayer (in English):

    Chittamani Tara with gold foil
    Chittamani Tara, distinguished by her two blue uptala flowers.


    Reverently I prostrate to the venerable Arya Tara
    And all the conquering Buddhas
    And their sons who reside in the ten directions
    Throughout the past, present and future.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    I offer flowers, incense and butter lamps,
    Perfume, food, music and the like
    Both those actually arranged here and those mentally
    Please accept them, assembly of Arya Taras.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    I declare all that I have done,
    From beginningless time until now,
    With my mind being under the sway of delusion:
    The ten non-virtuous and the five heinous crimes
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    I rejoice in whatever virtuous merit
    Has been accumulated throughout the three times
    By hearers, solitary realisers,
    Bodhisattvas and ordinary beings.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    I request you to turn the wheel of Dharma –
    The great, small and common vehicles
    In accordance with the intentions of all sentient
    And suited to their individual minds.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    I beseech you to remain until samsara ends
    And not pass away to the state beyond sorrow
    Please, with your boundless compassion, look
    Upon all beings drowning in the ocean of suffering.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

    May whatever merit I have accumulated
    Be totally transformed into the cause of enlightenment
    And may I become, without a long passage of time,
    The glorious deliverer benefiting all migrating beings.
    Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha!

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    Lee Kane

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
    Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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