buddhanusati

The bud dreaming the flower

Dream-like close-up of white rose, seen from above

Last weekend I taught meditation on a workshop along with another teacher who talked about the importance of goals as part of one’s spiritual path. This is something I often talked about in the past, although it hasn’t been a prominent part of my teaching recently. I think the last time I wrote about it was in my 2010 book, Living as a River.

My own presentation at the weekend was on mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude: being in and valuing the present moment.

These two themes — having goals and appreciating the present moment — might seem contradictory, and it was interesting to explore how they’re actually not, but instead are (or can be) complementary.

One exercise I’ve done myself and which I recommend others to do is this: Imagine it’s 10 or 15 years in the future. You walk into a large room, and to your surprise it’s full of friends, relatives, colleagues, and members of your spiritual community. They’re all there for you. One by one people stand up and talk about you. They talk about the positive influence you’ve had on their lives. They rejoice in the qualities they admire in you. They celebrate your accomplishments.

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I suggest to my meditation students that, having done this reflective exercise, they write down the main points of what they’ve heard.

What’s happening when you do this exercise is that you’re getting in touch with your deeper values and aspirations. It’s easier to do this than when you simply sit down and ask the question, “What are my values and aspirations,” because when you do that you’re speaking in your own voice—the voice of your everyday ego, riddled through with doubt, pride, and fear. In hearing others’ voices you bypass the ego and hear a more direct and unfiltered account of what you most value. In fact, what you hear from these “others” is often surprising!

I call this “The bud dreaming the flower.” The bud looks deeply into its nature and sees its own potential. This is the resolution of the apparent paradox of having goals and ideals (which inevitably involve the future) while being completely in the moment. When you do an exercise like the one I’ve suggested, you’re seeing yourself more truly than when you’re simply mindful of who you are right now. This is because “who you are right now” is not something static. It’s a process.

There is no being, only becoming.

You’re always changing. Who you currently are is only a snapshot of an ever-unfolding and ever-changing process. You’re an arrow in flight, completing the long arc from birth to death. Being aware of what’s arising for you right now is like taking a still photograph of one moment from the long curve of your life.

It seems as if a bud need do nothing in order to transform into the flower, but that’s because we don’t see the immense effort that goes into its growth. The bud’s growth is not conscious, however.

Our own growth will often not take place unless we consciously become aware of our potential, unless we consciously work at overcoming the fears and doubts that hold us back, and unless we consciously apply ourselves in our lives. This deeper form of mindfulness is called sampajañña, or “mindfulness of purpose.”

The bud, dreaming the flower, comes to know itself more fully. It comes to see itself not as a static “thing” but as an ever-unfolding process. It comes to see itself in terms of its potential. Having seen this potential, its life becomes more conscious. When decisions are made—whether large or small—they become tools for steering oneself toward our potential future self. Every action becomes, potentially at least, a small step toward the full flower of our potential.

This awareness of our potential is an important practice in Buddhism. It’s why Buddhists commonly chant the refuges and precepts before a period of practice, paying homage to our potential and to the practices that enable us to manifest it. It’s why Buddhists visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas (this is called “Buddhanusati”), and chant mantras—these are ways, once again, to dream the flower, seeing our own potential enlightened selves.

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Do Buddhists pray?

Woman saluting the Buddha, with a lighted incense stick between her clasped hands

Do Buddhists pray? It certainly looks like it sometimes.

Since Buddhism has no creator God you might assume that the Buddhist tradition has no room for prayer. The Buddha wasn’t a God. So would be the point of praying to him, or of praying at all?

Some forms of Buddhist practice that look like prayer don’t in fact involve the Buddha or any other enlightened figure. When Buddhists are cultivating lovingkindness and they’re repeating phrases like “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy,” they’re not invoking any kind of outside agency. What they’re doing is strengthening their own desire to see beings flourish and be free from suffering. By repeating the thought, and the intention, “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy,” they’re exercising and strengthening the faculty of kindness. So while this may resemble prayer, there isn’t really any petition (asking a deity for benefits) going on.

But depending on what kind of Buddhism you’re looking at, you’ll also see practitioners asking to be reborn in a Pure Land paradise after death, or using mantras to call repetitively on the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva figure, or even asking one of them for a favor, or giving thanks for a blessing. And Tibetan Buddhism uses prayer flags and prayer wheels. What are all those about?

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When Pure Land Buddhists call upon the saving grace of Amida Buddha in the hope of being reborn in his paradise after death, they’re doing something that to all intents and purposes is a form of prayer. For example here’s one Pure Land prayer: “I single-mindedly take refuge in Amitābha Buddha in the World of Ultimate Bliss. Illuminate me with Your pure light and draw me in with Your loving, kind vows! Thinking only of You, I now call the name of the Tathāgata. For the sake of the Bodhi Way, I supplicate to be reborn in Your Pure Land.”

This isn’t the form of Buddhism I practice, and it doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but it’s not something I want to dismiss or be condescending about, Although it’s tempting for westerners to see these beliefs and practices as superstitious or naive, there is in fact a well-developed “theology” based around Pure Land practice, and it’s based on meditations that the Buddha himself encouraged: namely, Buddhānusati, or “Recollection of the Buddha.” In Buddhānusati we reflect on the qualities of the Buddha, and in doing so we develop an affinity with those qualities, and with enlightenment. And so Buddhānusati helps us move toward becoming enlightened ourselves.

Reciting mantras is a very similar practice. When you hear a Buddhist reciting Om Manipadme Hum, what they’re actually doing is repeating the name of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. One of this figure’s other names was Manipadma (The Lotus-Jewel One). This kind of mantra practice can be very effective even if you don’t believe Avalokiteshvara exists. Mantra works to a large extent by giving the mind a rest from the incessant angry, grasping, and anxious thoughts that plague us in our daily lives. When you’re reciting a mantra you just aren’t able to keep up a negative inner monologue the way you normally might. And again the mantra is a form of Buddhānusati, and can help us to call to mind the qualities of a compassionate presence, and help those qualities manifest in our own minds.

But it’s clear from Tibetan teachings on devotional practice that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not separate from the nature of our own minds. It’s only a slight simplification to say that when you pray to Avalokiteshvara, you are invoking the power of your own potential awakened mind.

Prayer flags and prayer wheels fall somewhere in between lovingkindness practice and mantra. In fact prayer flags and prayer wheels are really “mantra flags” and “mantra wheels,” for the most part, since mantras are prominent on both forms of device. Tibetans believe that as prayer flags flap in the wind, or as a prayer wheel is spun, the blessings of the mantras will spread out on the wind and have a beneficial effect on all beings. Prayer flags and prayer wheels are a kind of “prayer technology.”

It’s hard to say how many westerners believe that prayer flags and prayer wheels work in this way. My guess is that only a small percentage does, and that for most of us prayer flags are a form of spiritual decoration, with mostly symbolic value.

With these various forms of practice going on within Buddhism, it would be hard to claim that there is no prayer in Buddhism. It is possible to point to differences between Buddhist prayer and the prayer of the mainstream theistic traditions, but the similarities are much stronger than the differences.

Nevertheless, sometimes people feel the need to pray, even though prayer strikes them as being a bit silly. My own teacher, when asked about this, advised, “If you feel like praying, then pray, and worry about the theology afterwards.” That’s wise advice.

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