I used to dismiss prayer as a superstition. Of course uneducated or silly Tibetans prayed to Chenrezig or Green Tara for help, as if they were worldly beings striding about the sky and distributing material aid packages, whose ear you might catch if you hollered. We all understand our faith as best we can, I thought, subject to our limitations -- if that's as close as one can come to understanding the reality of Chenrezig, well, it's better than nothing.
But it irritated me when people in my own sangha started asking for prayers, on the listserve. We're not peasants. We're typically over-educated Western Buddhists. We should know better. I did start offering up sort of half-hearted prayers, but I thought of it as being strictly for my own benefit -- a way of cultivating compassion. And then if someone was in distress I could tell them I was praying for them, and it was a way of expressing concern and affection.
"Learn by doing" is the genius of the Kagyu lineage. "The practice lineage," it's called. Requests for explanation and justification are often brushed aside by Kagyu teachers with a certain impatience. "Just do the practice," they'll say. "Then you'll understand." Maddening, but it does help you keep your eye on the ball. The point of all this is not to arrive at an intellectual understanding of Buddhism: the point is to change our minds.
So as I have begun, reluctantly, to practice prayer, I have been learning something about it. There are some perfectly rational reasons to do it. One, of course, which is obvious, is that when it's offered up on someone else's behalf, it's a cultivation of compassion. That much I understood from the outset. It's prayer on my own behalf that has puzzled me. How can that be dharma? I should be loosening my attachment to my own benefit, not tightening it, right? And I shouldn't be holding deities such as Chenrezig or Vajradhara to be manifestations of my own pure mind, rather than as benevolent uncles with gifts in their pockets?
But back up a bit. In what sort of circumstances do I pray? I pray when I'm in distress, and feel helpless to alter my situation. I don't pray to Vajradhara to clean up the cat vomit -- I just get a damp rag. I pray to Vajradhara to help me win battles I expect to lose. Battles with myself that I've fought without much success all my life -- battles, say, not to procrastinate, not to surrender to mindless compulsive activities, not to respond to anxiety by heading for the tavern.
What does prayer do, in these cases? Well, it does a couple necessary things right at the start. In the first place, it's a recognition of helplessness. The first step in coping with such problems is to realize that they're out of hand, to admit that my strategies for winning these battles just don't work. If I don't take that step, I'll just try to apply the same old solution, and get the same old result. I've tried "just exerting my will" to get the better of procrastination. I've tried it for thirty years. I already know that it's not going to garner a success rate above twenty or thirty percent. So the very first step of any real solution has to be admitting failure. Once I've done that, prayer takes the second step: it lifts my mind out into a state of hopeful expectation. I'm looking for a solution from someone wiser than I am. *This* is the sort of state in which new solutions are can be recognized as solutions. If I'm expecting supernatural aid, I'll naturally examine everything that comes to hand -- is this the help I need? I don't immediately recognize it as such, but -- hey, Chenrezig's a lot smarter than I am. If this is what he's brought, lets see if it works.
So those are the rational reasons. Something else happens though. Things move in my consciousness that I can't identify -- there are shifts, accesses, doors opening in my mind. I can't explain it better than that, and I had probably better not try, not yet, at any rate. "Just do the practice."
And now -- since writing this is itself procrastination -- I'm going to stop. And pray.