We were gathered in the temple for a daylong ritual during a three-year retreat in France. The person who was leading the chants that month had a wry sense of humor. When we had all sat down and were ready for him to begin, he paused. We waited. In the silence that opened, he gently intoned, Mes frères, prions. (“Let us pray, my brothers.”)
Straight out of a Catholic monastery! It was an amusing and simple reminder that prayer was and is an essential part of contemplative practice, regardless of tradition. Every meditation we practiced involved prayers—prayers to the lineage, prayers of refuge, prayers for bodhicitta [the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings], prayers of devotion in guru practice, prayers of praise in deity practice, prayers for protection and activity in protector practice, dedication prayers, good fortune prayers, offering prayers, and aspiration prayers. Between meditation sessions, we were encouraged to read teaching and aspiration prayers to fill the time and keep our minds from wandering. We recited five or six long prayers at the end of the evening ritual. And the daylong practices involved pages and pages of prayers of many different types.
All these prayers were intended to shape our attitudes and minds, as well as help us avoid distractions. I had enough experience to know that conscious or deliberate attempts to adopt specific attitudes often result in problematic contortions of the mind. Other feelings are suppressed in favor of the desired attitudes. Imbalances arise, and from there all kinds of problems unfold, particularly in intensive practice settings. As a consequence, I wasn’t sure how to approach all this prayer.
A number of us had the same concerns. Early in the three-year retreat, we asked our teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, what we were meant to do with all these prayers and all this praying. His answer was a bit surprising. “Let your mind settle naturally in mahamudra and recite the prayers from there.” Mahamudra is all about not-thinking, letting the mind settle so deeply that it does not do anything. That was where we were meant to pray from? I wasn’t sure what to make of that. What was the point of all these prayers if you weren’t going to think about them?
Little by little, I came to appreciate the wisdom and depth of Rinpoche’s instruction. In the Shangpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the basic instruction for mahamudra is to let body, breath, and mind settle naturally. Though it sounds simple, it is not easy. At first, you feel like you are doing nothing, and it takes a while to appreciate that that is exactly what you are doing (or not doing). The productive and achievement-oriented parts of you start to rebel, and there is nothing to do but let them settle naturally, too. Other stuff arises, and you let those things quiet, too. After a while, you do find that you are resting deeply, without effort, and your mind is growing clearer and clearer.
As I practiced this approach to prayer during the morning and evening rituals, the first thing I noticed was that the prayers were gradually committed to memory without conscious effort on my part. With daily recitation, without trying to think, I found that the words were just there. I didn’t have to remember them. A second effect was that the prayer took up residence in my mind, again without conscious effort. While it was important to study each prayer, once I had a good understanding of the content, deliberately thinking about the prayer or trying to feel a certain way seemed artificial and superfluous. Understanding came on its own. So did devotion, gratitude, awe, and other powerful emotions. It was sufficient to set an intention and then rest, letting the words and meanings wash through me. The conceptual mind had little influence here, and when it did arise, it usually felt like a lead-footed dance partner in contrast to the nimble gazelle of the non-conceptual mind.
I recently read a piece by my friend and colleague Stephen Batchelor about his discomfort with prayer in the Tibetan tradition. In particular, he raised the question, “To whom, to what, are you praying?” This is a valid question, particularly in the context of yidam, or deity practice, and even more so in the context of protector practice [a different class of deities that are invoked to create conditions conducive to practice]. On the one hand, the deity is regarded as an expression of one’s own mind. On the other, certainly in the rituals themselves, the deity is regarded as something that has agency and power in its own right. Are deities symbols? Are they independent figures? In general, the ontological status of deity in Western thought has long been fraught with difficulty—does God or a god really exist? Batchelor’s exit from the conundrum was through Feuerbach, of whom Karl Marx wrote, “[Feuerbach’s] work consists in the dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis . . . Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human.” Essentially, Feuerbach felt that humans projected positive qualities onto a deity, and then prayed to the deity (or God) for those positive qualities to be given to them.
It makes sense, but this interpretation did not tally with my own experience. After reading this piece, I wondered why I had not experienced this conundrum, and I realized that Kalu Rinpoche’s instruction played a significant role. When you let the mind settle and let the conceptual mind subside, a peace and openness arise naturally, regardless of what is going on in your life (or in your mind). Questions about what is and what isn’t fall away. The law of the excluded middle (a thing is either this or that) simply doesn’t hold. The deity is just there. It is your own mind. It is a symbol. It also has a kind of agency, at least with respect to you. It is not you and it is you at the same time. None of these perspectives are contradictory. They are all valid. The conflicts arise only in the conceptual mind as it tries to put these experiences into different and mutually exclusive boxes.
In saying this, I’m not talking about blind faith. Blind faith is a rigid adherence to certain beliefs for which there is little or no evidence. These beliefs cannot be questioned as they form an internal structure through which experience is interpreted. Everything you experience is interpreted in a way that conforms to the ideas already deeply implanted inside. That is blind faith, or belief, a self-contained system that maintains itself.
What I am trying to describe here is quite the opposite. When you let the mind settle, you open to the totality of what you are experiencing, including all the different ways you interpret experience, whether they are consistent with each other or not. In this field of sensory, emotional, and cognitive experience, you naturally become aware of what is out of balance and move in the direction of balance, weighing one interpretation over another. But this direction is constantly changing. You end up resting, but resting nowhere, constantly opening to the complexity and richness of your experience. This opening is awake and alive—not blind. It is a willingness to open to whatever arises in experience and meet it.
Through that kind of faith, devotion, awe, understanding, and compassion arise naturally. In effect, your prayers are answered without your having to think about them. They are answered through the practice of prayer itself.