tibetan buddhist views of prayer
This is information from a paper I wrote for my Eastern World Religions class. I am fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and with prayer, so I combined the two topics. It's a bit of a hefty paper, so dig in if you're interested. Most of all, I learned to appreciate the many ways Tibetan Buddhists remind themselves to weave prayer throughout their everyday life. I hope to be more like them in that. However, I also grew in my deep gratitude to Jesus for providing a way for us to have direct access to God in a personal relationship. Our goal, praise God, is not to earn our way to favor or to eternal life. We have already been accepted and welcomed in because of Jesus, and prayer is one of the most important realizations of that freedom. Enjoy!
The land of Tibet has long been enshrouded with mystery. Found on plateaus past the treacherous mountain passes of the Himalayas, the people of Tibet were long isolated from even the most nearby societies and cultures. The modern religion of Tibet is a unique folk religion that defines the Tibetan culture through its monasteries, art, music, dance, and more distinctly developed methods of prayer than perhaps any other folk religion. However, while prayer is quite possibly the most central part of a Tibetan Buddhist’s life, the history and purposes of prayer are by no means simple. This paper will explore Tibetan Buddhist perspectives on prayer by examining the significance, mantras, and other methods of prayer in this fascinating culture.
Understanding the significance of prayer for Tibetan Buddhists requires an elementary knowledge of Tibet’s religious history. The most ancient form of spirituality in Tibet is shamanism, a traditional animistic religion focused on nature. Olson (2005) explains, “Tibetan shamanism is closely associated with adoration of nature and the spirits that are believed to inhabit mountains, rocks, meadows, and waters.” This animist spirituality eventually developed into a more formalized religion with striking similarities to Hinduism and Buddhism located to the south. This oldest religion of Tibet is known as Bon, with dates of establishment ranging anywhere from contemporaneously with the life of the Buddha, one thousand years prior (Banerjee, 1981), or even 30,000 years ago (Berzin, 2003). Many of Bon’s original features are thought to be similar to Buddhism, including an intentional self-reflection and meditation on what is unseen. However, Bon was an animistic religion with rituals and practices for daily events such as grave-making and taming evil spirits (Banjeree, 1981). Barker (2003) describes Bon as a “religion based on the worship of nature.” She explains further that “The sky, mountains, rivers and lakes were believed to be animated by gods, demons or spirits, all of whom demanded careful ritual propitiation in return for protecting the local community” (Barker, 2003). The spirit world was a defining reality for Tibetan peoples, and many deities formed the worldview of a Bon adherent.
Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the seventh century AD, and was seen as a powerful, highly civilized religion (Barker, 2003). As the leaders of Tibet accepted and promoted Buddhism, the new religion blended and melded with Bon into a unique practice, different than either had been on its own. Whereas Buddhism in its purist forms is minimalist and focuses on meditation in order to become one with an ultimate reality, Bon adds a distinct element of a spirit world that is reminiscent of Hinduism, though far less widespread. This blending of religions led to practices generally unconnected with Buddhism, such as the use of oracles and spirit-possessed monks to speak on behalf of deities or ancestors.
“The Tibetans do not just follow the teachings of Buddha,” writes Kalman (1990). “They also believe in the many spirits and magical powers that were once part of the Bon religion.” Tibetan Buddhists believe in traditional Buddhist boddhisattvas as wise and kind guides to which prayers are directed. However, they also believe in “spiritual protectors” (Kalman, 1990), spirits whose fierce and angry looks are considered to ward off evil spirits. Bon’s animism gives a new flavor to the role of prayer in a nominally Buddhist society.
The significance of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism, though affected by Bon, is closely tied to the traditional Buddhist concept of meditation using chants, liturgy, and rituals. The purpose of prayer can vary greatly, but is generally considered essential for meditating. Lopez (1997) writes:
A good deal of the religious life of a Buddhist meditator or clergy member is devoted to chanting prayers and performing liturgical practices. For advanced meditators, these chants are a method of using the voice as a contemplative practice. For others, these are simply the daily ritual performances that provide a frame around their more abstract sitting meditation practice. (p. 406)
More extensive research on prayer in Tibetan Buddhist contexts will continue to revolve around the mantras and meditation-based foundation. Prayer is significant in this religion because it is a means of contemplating and meditating upon life, the cycle of rebirth, and the escape from suffering so characteristic of Buddhism.
However, prayer may find its greatest significance for Tibetan Buddhists as a means of gaining merit for their own personal karma. For example, Tibetan Buddhism places great emphasis on preservation of life, including even the smallest of creatures such as ants or mosquitoes. In order to respond to the negative karma that a person might inherent - even unknowingly - by taking life, a Tibetan Buddhist may chant or pray through mantras to compensate for their errors. Lopez (1997) writes “At the end of a prayer or any other virtuous activity, it is customary to dedicate the merit that has been produced with a prayer…” (p. 406). These dedications show a clear intention and purpose, such as this example of a prayer dedication: “By this merit may we attain omniscience, Defeat the enemy – wrongdoing – And free all beings from the ocean of samsara, With its stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death” (Lopez, 406). It is clear that while prayer for Tibetan Buddhists may have animistic undertones, the main significance of prayer is its potential power to bring one closer to escape from reincarnation through meditation and meritorious deeds. Thus, prayer is vitally important in the life of a Tibetan Buddhist.
Considering the significance of prayer, it is not surprising that Tibetan culture is full of methods to help one pray. The most important foundation for understanding the many methods of prayer is to understand the mantras used in Tibetan Buddhism. A mantra, defined simply, is “a short prayer that is repeated over and over” (Kalman, 1990). However, mantras are quite different from the Western concept of prayer, even quite distinct from short, repetitive prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or the Catholic rosary. The distinction is found in that the mantra’s importance is less in its meaning and more in its physical sound. Lopez (1997) explains:
…it must be recalled, however, that the power of a mantra resides not in it semantic sense but in the sounds themselves, each of which, and in various combinations, has particular divine associations. That is why Tibetans invariably write and recite mantras in the original Sanskrit, and in most cases have no idea what a mantra’s “translation” may be. (p. 279)
Ultimately, slowly repeating short mantras is a way to empty the mind and completely detach oneself from desire, suffering, and the physical world around the speaker. Western religions create upwardly-directed prayers for every occasion and spontaneously in any circumstance, asking God for the fulfillment of needs and engagement with the world; Buddhism is quite opposite in that the speaker’s goal is not fulfillment but emptiness, and not engagement by disengagement. Western minds may also find it hard to grasp the concept of sounds in and of themselves containing a deeper meaning, but eastern religions have a long history with the idea, especially with the famous, historical sound of om.
The most important of all Tibetan Buddhist Mantras is om mani padme hum. This mantra originated in India, but made its way to Tibet and was adjusted to the Tibetan pronunciation and orthography. Mantras cannot be translated well because their meaning is not the focus of the words, but the rough translation of om mani padme hum is “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus” (Kalman, 1990). This mantra is considered the mantra of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion (Dharma Haven, 2003). Each of the six syllables contains deep, untranslatable meanings that are said to somehow incorporate all of Buddha’s teachings within their sounds. By repeating the mantra, the speakers hope to place their minds into the mind of the Buddha. Pure Buddhist teachings claim that anyone who has achieved nirvana can no longer be contacted or reached; however, Tibetan Buddhists, along with many branches of Buddhism, still pray to the Buddha of Compassion, believing that “he will bring [to his pure land] all those who pray to him or recite his six-syllable mantra, om mani padme hum” (Lopez, 1997).
In addition to extremely short mantras such as om mani padme hum, Tibetan Buddhism also has a tradition of liturgical prayers. These prayers are often used at festivals and are focused toward the ultimate Buddhist goal of enlightenment. The liturgy may be split into intentional sections such as Confession or Rejoicing, quite similar to Christian liturgical practices in many ways. However, the purpose of the liturgy remains quite faithful to Buddhism, always with the goal of gaining merit toward nirvana. For example, in the festival to the Buddha of Compassion, the seven categories of prayer all clearly state the desire of the Tibetan Buddhist, including pleas such as “Please quickly free me and mother and father, Sentient beings of the six realms from the cyclic existence… Teach me well the precious good path, and place me quickly on the level of a buddha” (Lopez, 1997). The end of this festival’s liturgy ends with a traditional dedication: “Whatever little merit I may have accrued by prostration, offerings, confession, rejoicing, requesting, and entreating, I dedicate for the sake of the enlightenment of all” (Lopez, 1997).
Spoken prayers, mantras, and liturgy are perhaps the most common, universal forms of prayer, but Tibetan Buddhism is famous for the many ways it incorporates prayer through other non-verbal methods. Despite the belief that the physical sounds of a mantra contain the mantra’s power, Tibetan Buddhists also hold that simply viewing the written form of om mani padme hum is another way to pray the prayer (Dharma Haven, 2003). Thus, it is no surprise that Tibetan Buddhists place the mantra everywhere in order to view it as much as possible. Mani stones, rocks engraved with the mantra in the Tibetan script, are one of the most common forms of art in Tibet. When Tibet mainly adhered to the Bon religion, piles of stones were left at mountain passes as a means of ensuring safe travel. Today, Buddhism has melded with this practice, and Kalman (1990) writes that “Lamaist Buddhists leave mani stones with mantras written on them” in those same mountain passes. From tiny engravings on jewelry to giant letters spelled out on hillsides, om mani padme hum envelops the visual experience of a Tibetan Buddhist.
Aside from viewing the mantra, there are other ways to pray the prayer than visual or verbal. The prayer wheel is a famous tool used by monks and laymen alike to gain great amounts of merit more quickly. Because the mantra is considered powerful even in its written form, the Tibetans write om mani padme hum on a slip of parchment and place it like a scroll inside a metal wheel, shaped like a small barrel around a handle or pole. These wheels can then be spun with the hand, and each spin of the mantra represents a prayer. Feigon (1999) writes, “The scrolls release prayers and invocations that bring merit to the user.” These prayer wheels can be hand-held tools, easy to carry and transport, and quite commonly used by the elderly whose old hands are free of work and whose final goal in life is to build up their merit for their next reincarnation. Larger prayer wheels are often found lining the walls at Buddhist temples so that worshippers or monks can simply walk past the wheels and spin the mantras as they pass. Clever worshippers have also placed prayer wheels in streams so that the constant flowing water spins the wheel and produces a constant outpouring of prayer.
The most recognizable and renowned of all aspects of Tibetan Buddhist prayer are the beautiful, signature prayer flags. These long strands of colorful, rectangular flags are hung everywhere from temples to mountains to rooftops to marketplaces, and have graced the land of Tibet far longer than Buddhism. Berzin (2003) explains “The idea of prayer flags also comes from Bon. They are in the colors of the five elements and are hung to harmonize the external elements…” The colors blue, white, red, green, and yellow represent the five main elements of nature, sky, air, fire, water, and earth. Barker (2003) goes on to write:
Bon shamanism has long believed in the concept of lung-ta, which represents a person’s vital energy and fortune, which is symbolized by a horse or the wind. When their lung-ta is large, a person can achieve renown and be successful in their undertakings. To create positive energy… they would position these decorated clothes and feathers in high places, such as rooftops or mountain passes, where the wind would carry the aspirations of the totems into the heavens. (p. 12)
As seen above, Tibetans have long believed that the inner energy of a human being is represented by the wind, and thus they held that these flags blown in the wind were a symbol of both power and good fortune (Barker, 2003). Thus, even these prayer flags continue to confirm the reality that prayer in Tibet is a means to an end; historically, the Bon purpose or prayer was good fortune and success, but Buddhism has changed that purpose to the achieving of enlightenment.
While prayer flags originated with the natural elements and nature’s spirits represented artistically in Bon, they were soon transformed into Buddhist prayer materials with the development of the Tibetan orthography and a block-stamping process. Today, “Prayer flags have Buddhist scriptures written on them… Tibetans believe that every time a prayer wheel turns, or a prayer flag flutters in the wind, a prayer is sent up to the heavens” (Kalman, 1990). Therefore, prayer flags are perhaps the best symbol of Tibetan Buddhism because they are a modern mixture of ancient, animistic Bon, and meditative, merit-based Buddhism.
Prayer flags, prayer wheels, mantras, and mani stones are just a handful of the myriad of ways Tibetan Buddhists pray. Prayer festivals, prayer halls, rosaries, and other ritual activities all add to the mountain of methods which remind Tibetan Buddhists to constantly focus their mind on the Buddha and on enlightenment and simultaneously earn merit to aid them in their journey toward enlightenment. By exploring the significance, mantras, and other methods of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism, it is clear that prayer in this religion is both unique and highly valued. Prayer for a Tibetan Buddhist is deeply embedded in their worldview and lifestyle, rooting them not only in the Buddhism which has made them famous, but also in the nature-centered animism of their ancient history. It seems only appropriate that this mysterious land be the home of such a rare and beautiful world of prayer.
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