The Role of Prayer in Buddhism

by Charles Day

(This dharma talk is an expansion of a talk originally presented at the “Prayer in American Workshop,” October 18, 2007, in Des Moines, sponsored by Iowa Public Television.)

Let me preface my remarks by emphasizing that Buddha, who lived in India from 563 to 483 BC, six centuries before Christ, considered himself a fully awakened human being, not a god. He taught that all human beings are capable of realizing their already enlightened nature. His teachings are considered guidelines, not commandments, and difficulty in following them is due to ignorance and misunderstanding, not sin. Buddha studied and meditated intensively for six years with the specific purpose of determining what caused human suffering and how to alleviate and end it, and this is what he taught for the 45 years following his enlightenment at age 35.

Buddha emphasized that to discover our own divinity - our Christ-consciousness. Buddha-nature, or enlightened nature – we must look within and not to some external source. Jesus, I submit, came to the same conclusion, as reflected in his teachings that “The kingdom of heaven is within,” “My Father and I are one,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are many traditions and sects within Buddhism, just as there are many divisions and denominations within Christianity. Different Buddhist traditions differ in their rites, rituals, and practices, but they all share the same basic teachings of the Buddha, summarized in his lecture on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which I will not be discussing in this talk. My purpose here is to discuss the role of prayer in Buddhism.

In doing so, I’d like to share several quotes from different Buddhist traditions and teachers, and then present some of my own observations. Keep in mind that the word “meditation” is used far more frequently than the word “prayer” in Buddhism. But both words are intended to describe similar personal spiritual practices, although they differ somewhat in purpose and structure, which I’ll explain later.

The first quote is by Tibetan Buddhist Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche from his book "The Joy of Living." “No matter how long you meditate, or what technique you use, every technique of Buddhism meditation ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion. When you look at your mind, all the imaginary differences between yourself and others automatically dissolve and the ancient prayer of the Four Immeasurables becomes as natural and persistent as your own heartbeat:

“May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings constantly dwell in joy, transcending sorrow.
May all beings remain in great peace, free from attachment and

This next quote is from "Prayer in Buddhism" by G.R. Lewis, a Shin Buddhist. (

“Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion, and wisdom, rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous, and points us to the blessings of life."

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