What the Buddha taught about prayer and worship

by Daya Sirisena, Lanka Daily News, Nov 26, 2004

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Among the teachers of his time Buddha was known as a Kamma Vadin, one who taught the truth and always had the power of showing results. In his doctrine and discipline it is not through supplicating unseen powers by traditional religious ceremonies that man obtains the benefits he desires. They have to be earned by living a good life in thought, word and deed. This is the basis of Buddhist ethical teaching.

It seems to be a fundamental instinct in human nature to turn to prayer in times of need or perplexity. Prayer is an appeal to a higher power either for guidance or to intervene in a situation which the individual feels himself unable to achieve by any effort of his own.

The external power whose benevolence he invokes may be real or imaginary but whichever it is, cases are cited which seem to show that this kind of prayer is sometimes followed by the desired results.

It would be fruitless to enter into a discussion regarding the existence of a god or gods able to answer prayer. A more profitable line of inquiry is to ask whether mans thought itself is capable of interfering with the natural progress of events which lies outside his direct control.

As I have already remarked it sometimes seems as though prayers can produce results, but is this really so? It is rather more probable that the cases where prayer seems to have been "answered" are far outnumbered by those in which they are not, but that it is the case of seeming success. That are noted and recalled while the fruitless examples are forgotten.

When positive a response appears to have been made to the prayer it may be due to a chance (that is to say, due to other unknown causes), for, among a great number of petitions chance average will ensure that some prayers must be followed by the result prayed for.

It is only where the chances against the occurrence of a particular event that has been prayed for are very much about the average, yet where the event takes place. That we are justified in looking for another element besides a chance in the situation.

All the various symptoms of present day moral doubt and disintegration are basically, due to the lack of understanding of this principal of moral cause and effect.

And it is useless to pray to any gods as it is equally so to pray to Buddha. He is not a creator, preserver or destroyer of the universe, neither is he a dispenser of favours nor a supreme punitive power.

The principle of Buddhahood is not attached to an entity. When the Buddha is worshipped, he is a teacher, the greatest teacher of all beings and such a devotion is a spiritual exercise.

The great wisdom (Bodhi) last personified in the master is the true object of veneration. The pooja offered by a Buddhist, therefore, cannot be called prayer. Since it contains none of the elements usually present in the attitude denoted by the word.

The outward aspect of pooja, the offering of flowers, lights and incense is not only a token gesture of homage it also carries a deep symbolism which is expressed in the Pali formulars that are recited at the time.

The transient beauty of the flowers, so soon to be withered on the tray reminds the devotees of the impermanence of all composite things. Even as these flowers must soon wither, so shall my body lie crumbling in decay.

The candles or lamps recall the great teacher, whose Bodhi dispels the darkness of ignorance. These lights I offer to the teacher who is the light of the Three Worlds. The incense symbolises the sweet and cleansing fragrance of the Dhamma which permeates the mind.

Once when Buddha spoke to a lay disciple, Anathapindika, he made the following comment on the use of prayer:

"There are O householder, five desirable pleasant and agreeable things which are rare in the world. What are those five? They are long life, beauty, happiness, fame, and (rebirth in) the heavens.

But of these five things O householder, I do not teach that they are to be obtained by prayer or vows. If one could obtain them by prayer or by vows who would not do it?

"For a noble disciple, O householder, who wishes to have a long life it is not befitting that he should pray for long life or take delight in so doing.

He should rather follow a path of life that is conducive to longevity. By following such a path he will obtain long life, be it divine or human.

May the ignorance of human beings fade away following the teachings of the Buddha.