The Meaning and Purpose of Buddhist Prayer and Chanting

The Meaning and Purpose of Buddhist Prayer and Chanting

Buddhism is not simply a religion. It is a pragmatic description of life that details our very existence and shows methods for eliminating the dissatisfactory nature of many everyday experiences. The Buddha showed us the true nature of conditioned existence and thus It can be said the teachings of the Buddha are a set of mind training instructions that lead anyone who diligently practices these trainings to a flourishing life. Not in the sense of the happiness found through good external conditions, or physical stimuli but rather, from the inner conditions of functional states of mind.

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The Buddhist Path

Beginning over 2500 years ago the Buddhist path is rich in history and has different methods for training the mind. In fact, the Buddhist canon extends to 84,000 teachings. All these 84,000 teachings are presented with one aim in mind: to eliminate suffering at its source, so that the conditions that give rise to these dissatisfactory experiences will never return again. The foundational teaching of Buddhism is called

The Four Noble Truths:
1. True Suffering
2. True Origin
3. True Cessation
4. True Path

(1) Conditioned life bound by karma and delusion is by nature dissatisfactory. (2) The source of this dissatisfactoriness is a basic belief in a non-existent imaginary – true existence; (4) and by employing methods (3) one can permanently eliminate the true source of our problems—delusions such as anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and so forth.

The Buddhist path could be summarized as having two main aspects: (1) The removal of dysfunctional states of mind—minds such as anger, attachment and ignorance, (2) and the development of functional minds such as compassion and wisdom. This wisdom is not an ordinary type of wisdom it is a particular kind of knowledge—knowledge recognizing the ultimate nature of reality.

You may well ask: why are minds such as anger dysfunctional?! Surely at times anger can be useful? Although wishing for happiness the mind of anger, in fact, produces an agitated experience. Often when we get angry we lash out either physically or verbally thinking this will somehow make things better. However, actions born from anger often make a situation worse. For this reason the mind of anger does not function as we intend and is therefore, dysfunctional. In contrast to this the mind of compassion and wisdom are functional because they operate in a manner concordant with our fundamental intentions.

The Purpose of Prayer in Buddhism

Buddhist Prayer and by extension chanting (as chanting is nothing more than rhythmic vocalization of prayer) are guided meditations used to remind the contemplative of the internal knowledge that prayer can render. By reciting these affirmations with heartfelt devotion the spiritual aspirant is reaffirming his or her commitment—not to some deity or another person—but to the development of ideal inherent in the prayer. For instance, the purpose of this prayer composed by Shantideva in his famous text Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds

For as long as space endures. For as long as living beings remain.
May I too remain to eliminate the suffering of the world – Shantideva 7th CE.

is the generation of compassion and the universal responsibility that is a prerequisite to the development of Bodhichitta.

Matireya’s Ornament for Clear Realizations defines Bodhichitta as: Bodhichitta means for the sake of others, wishing to achieve complete, perfect enlightenment.

By reciting this prayer the spiritual aspirant is implicitly endorsing compassion and bodhichitta—the mind of enlightenment—and thus reaffirming his or her commitment to the development of these minds.

All art, literature, and music in the Buddhist world has the same intention. Even the folds in a monks robes have symbolic meaning related to the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

So does this mean there is no benefit in praying to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? No, there is benefit but, if the Buddha is omniscient and has infinite compassion, they, all Buddhas, are already helping us whether we ask for it or not. However, by praying to these beings for help and inspiration we are opening ourselves to their influence, even more than if we do not pray. Implicitly we are saying: I think the qualities of the enlightened beings is useful. I would like to have these qualities myself. Therefore I will practice the methods that are the causes of these qualities.