Praying for things to happen?

Despite this age of science and literacy, people still pray (to anything, sometimes to nothing in particular) for their wishes to come through.
 
I have some friends who are a little too into the Chinese traditional folk beliefs and geomancy. On the other end of the religious spectrum, there are those that totally put their lives (and health) in the hands of a God: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121322824482066211.html
 
Very interesting indeed. But would a Buddhist be a pot calling many other kettles black? Interestingly, the same place where I came across the above article had someone quoting from the Paccha-bhumika Sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn42/sn42.006.than.html
 
A village headman was seeking the Buddha’s opinion on the practice and claims of some priests who claim to be able to deliver a person’s soul directly into heaven upon death via rituals and prayer. He went so far as to suggest that the Buddha himself could do similar or greater things.
 
The Buddha, I suppose (I cannot confirm, but I would like to think so), must have been extremely amused by such flattery of the headman, so he teased him by asking him to answer to the following scenarios:
 
“Suppose a man were to
throw
a large boulder
into
a deep lake of water,
 
and a great crowd of people,
gathering &
congregating, would
pray,
praise, &
circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart
saying: 
   ‘Rise up, O boulder!
   Come floating up, O boulder!
   Come float to the shore, O boulder!’
 
What do you think:
would that boulder
because of the prayers, praise, & circumambulation of that great crowd of people
rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?”
 
The Buddha draws the parallel:
 
“There is the case where
a man
is one who
takes life,
steals,
indulges in illicit sex;
is
   a liar,
   one who speaks divisive speech,
   harsh speech,
   & idle chatter;
is greedy,
bears thoughts of ill-will,
& holds to wrong views.
 
Then a great crowd of people, gathering & congregating, would
pray,
praise, &
circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart
saying:
   ‘May this man,
   at the break-up of the body, after death,
   reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world!
 
What do you think:
would that man
because of the prayers, praise, & circumambulation of that great crowd of people
at the break-up of the body, after death,
reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world?”
 
Similarly:
 
“Suppose a man were to
throw
a jar of ghee or a jar of oil
into
a deep lake of water,
where it would break.
 
There
the shards &
jar-fragments
would go down,
while the ghee or oil
would come up.
 
Then a great crowd of people,
gathering &
congregating, would
pray,
praise, &
circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart
saying:
   ‘Sink, O ghee/oil!
   Submerge, O ghee/oil!
   Go down, O ghee/oil!’
 
What do you think:
would that ghee/oil,
because of the prayers, praise, & circumambulation of that great crowd of people
sink, submerge, or go down?”
 
And so the parallel:
 
“There is the case where
a man
is one who
refrains from taking life,
from stealing, &
from indulging in illicit sex; he
refrains
   from lying,
   from speaking divisive speech,
   from harsh speech, &
   from idle chatter;
he is not greedy,
bears no thoughts of ill-will, &
holds to right view.
 
Then a great crowd of people,
gathering &
congregating, would
pray,
praise, &
circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart
saying:
   ‘May this man,
   at the break-up of the body, after death,
   reappear in destitution, a bad destination, the lower realms, hell!’
 
What do you think:
would that man
because of the prayers, praise, & circumambulation of that great crowd of people
at the break-up of the body, after death,
reappear in destitution, a bad destination, the lower realms, hell?”
 
Wonderful analogy!
 
And so:
just as whether something floats or sinks
   is dependent on its nature,
   and not solely on rituals and sacrifices,
things happen
   dependent on the of the causes and conditions surrounding the situation
   and not solely on the strength of prayer and wishes.
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2 Comments

  1. PK said,

    29 January 2009 at 17:07

    the issue gets murky when you study the mahayana emphasis on help from the bodhisattvas in our material and spiritual life.

    • kwekings said,

      1 February 2009 at 12:22

      Yeah, I think along the way, inevitably some superstition and ignorance crept into the common practice of Buddhism, Mahayana or not, just that us of East Asian descent tend to be more famous for it haha. Scriptural Mahayana needs to temper down on these or eliminate them if possible so that it no longer spins off the basis of wrong practices.

      I think there are levels of abandoning dependence on prayer. Certain societies and certain personalities would benefit from prayer to enter into a spiritual path or progress on morality/spiritual growth. The problem comes when, inevitably again, dependence on prayer and faith falls ignorantly (or gets taken advantage of) into practices that hurt people or cause disharmony.

      Neither will I write off prayer totally either. I prefer to see it as the Sutta’s analogy ascribes: we may pray, but it depends on the nature of the object/event. If it is heavy, it will sink. If there are causes and conditions to make it float, it will float. If prayer can become one of the causes or conditions, prayer can influence the outcome. If prayer cannot influence the causes or conditions, then we are not disappointed when prayers do not come true. So our suffering/happiness do not depend on the outcome of our prayer.

      I think all true Buddhist masters are in the right spirit on this.


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