The Art of Prayer

Upon the publication of his book, “The Energy of Prayer”, Thich Nhat Hanh was asked by Publishers Weekly to answer ten questions about prayer and about his teaching. He gave a Dharma Talk on 9th March 2006 in response to those questions. 

Elements of Prayer

Some Christians — those who think of God as someone external and powerful and transcendent — would be surprised to know that Buddhists pray. What would you say to them?

Maybe Christians and Buddhists understand differently what prayer is. But to begin with, I would say that when we talk of praying, we think of the one who practices praying, the one to whom we address the prayer, and the one we pray for as three persons. And the one we pray for may be ourselves, we pray for our own well-being, but we can always distinguish three persons: the one who prays, the one to whom we address our prayer and the one we pray for.

To say that Buddhists do not address their prayer to an external person or personal force does not seem to be correct. Praying is also asking for help, and in the Buddhist tradition, we ask the Sangha to help us; we ask the Buddha to help us. The one who is asking, the one who is praying, is the starting point. That person has to see things clearly enough, has to be calm and serene enough, to ask for help; and first of all he or she should be truly there, concentrated, with a desire, an intention. This is the basic condition for the effectiveness of prayer. The one who prays should be truly there, established in the here and now, having a very clear intention, a very clear desire as to whom he or she will pray, and for whom he or she will pray. If the one who prays can put himself or herself in that situation, much has already been done. That person already has begun to generate the energy of prayer, because he or she is truly present in the here and now with concentration, with mindfulness and intention. If that does not happen, well, nothing will happen.

Then, the one to whom he or she prays should be known to him or to her, and not just an idea of a person. If you pray to the Buddha, you should know who the Buddha is, and not just have a number of ideas of the Buddha. If you know who the Buddha is, prayer will be effective. If you feel that the Buddha is fully present in the here and the now, that you have the capacity of touching him or her, then the prayer will be effective. You know that the Buddha is there also within you, in the form of mindfulness, compassion, concentration; so the Buddha is no longer an idea but a reality.

Suppose you pray to your father to ask him to help. Your father: you know who he is. Your father lived long, let’s say to be 90 years old, and the cells of his body are still in you. So when you address your father — “Daddy, help me” — you touch your father in a most concrete way; you don’t just touch an idea. Father isn’t an idea. You are the continuation of your father. Suppose someone tells you that you are suspected to have cancer. You can call for your father to help: “Daddy, I know that you are solid, your cells are so wonderful, and they are in me; please come and help me.” And then you feel the response of your father right away in your body. Your father says, “I am here. Don’t worry, my child. We have very solid cells. They know how to replicate. Don’t worry.” When you pray like that, you get in touch with your father and you can see the effect of the prayer right away. If you have a grandmother, a grandfather who was solid, you know that the one you pray to is there always in you and around you. So in that kind of practice, you see that your father, your mother, your grandpa, they are still there in their new manifestations. We are not addressing our prayer to someone or something that is not real, that does not exist, but to a reality.

The same is true with Buddha or Jesus. According to our insight, the Buddha continues, Jesus also continues in their new forms. And if you are a Buddhist practitioner, you continue the Buddha; so the Buddha as the object of your prayer is a reality, and not just an idea. That practice relies on the basic insight that nothing is ever lost. Your father is still there, your grandmother is still there, Buddha is still there in his new manifestations. So the second person in prayer, the one to whom we pray, is concrete, is really there, and we can really get in touch with him or with her. That is why it is very important to have the insight. Jesus, Buddha and grandfather are not something that only existed in the past; they are there in the here and the now. They are within you, around you, and you can get in touch with them. It’s like the Sangha; the Sangha is there, and if you have any difficulty, you just say, “dear brother, dear sister, Sangha, please help.” The Sangha is not a notion; the Sangha is reality.

We know that the Sangha is there, the community of brothers and sisters the community of practitioners is there. We can always rely on the Sangha, and the Sangha always carries the living Dharma and the living Buddha; so touching the Sangha, touching the Buddha, touching the Dharma, you touch realities. And the act of praying is very concrete. It should bring transformation and healing. When we say, “Dear Sangha, please send energy to brother so and so who is in difficulty,” we rely really on the power of the Sangha. We know that the collective energy of the Sangha is real. Because the Sangha contains the Buddha and the Dharma, we also have the energy of the Buddha, we have the living Buddha, the living Dharma with us.
If we practice well, the energy of prayer will be very powerful and right away it can effect a change. That energy is within the one who prays, within the Sangha that supports the prayer in bringing the collective energy. Since the Sangha has the living Buddha, the living Dharma, the energy can be very powerful. That energy is produced from within and it is produced from the Sangha. We know that that energy can only be generated when mindfulness, concentration and insight are there. You, the one who asks the Sangha to send energy, you have to be fully present. You have to be mindful, concentrated, and you should have the insight that you are one with the one to whom you address your prayer, and you are also one with the one you pray for. That is why insight is important in prayer; and if mindfulness, concentration and insight are present, there will be a transformation and healing.

If you go deep, you see that if Christians pray in that way, with mindfulness, concentration and especially insight, there will be not much difference between Buddhism and Christianity. You know you are a very important part of the prayer. The effectiveness of prayer depends on you very much; because if you are not there, if you are not solid, if you do not have the insight, then you cannot get in touch with the powerful energy of the Sangha, of the Buddha. In Buddhism we do not speak of God, we do not speak of creation, we do not speak of revelation, and we do not speak of redemption or punishment. In Buddhism, what is equivalent to God is Mind, especially the collective mind. Mind is the ground of everything; and when your mind gets in touch with the collective mind, everything is possible. If our friends in Christianity see that God is the Spirit — the collective mind from which everything manifests — then the distance separating Buddhism and Christianity would not be much at all. It depends on the way we understand God. If we understand God as the ground of being from which everything manifests, then our understanding is not different from the Buddhist vision of mind; because in the teaching of Buddhism, mind is the artist who designs everything, especially the collective mind.

Why is it important to pray with the body?

Everyone knows that the position of our body is very important in prayer. If you join your palms, if you are in the kneeling position, then you may be more concentrated because you are addressing the Buddha, the Sangha, or Jesus with mindfulness and respect, and you are more truly present. As far as insight is concerned, in the Buddhist tradition we learn that body and mind are not two separate things. The body is part of the mind, and the mind is part of the body. The body is a continuation of the mind and the mind is a continuation of the body. Reality manifests itself as body, as mind, namarupa. When you learn of the twelve links, you know that it is because of ignorance that there is consciousness. If there is no ignorance, consciousness will be called wisdom. Because of the existence of ignorance, that thing is called consciousness. Because there is ignorance, there are impulses that will bring about consciousness; consciousness is the mind with the element of ignorance. And from consciousness manifest body and mind. Because of ignorance we think the body is not the mind and mind is not body; but both manifest from consciousness.

With that kind of vision, the non-duality of mind and body, Buddhists always involve the body in prayer, in meditation. “The contemplation of the body in the body, the contemplation of the mind in the mind.” Body contains mind and mind contains body. That is why, in sitting meditation, in walking meditation, in mindful work, in the practice of breathing, mind and body always become one in order for the practice to be correct, to be fruitful. You don’t just practice meditation with your mind; your mind is only half. You have to meditate with your body. When you touch the ultimate reality, you touch it also with your body and not just your mind. When you touch the kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha, you touch them with your feet, your hands, your eyes, and not just your spirit. That is why, in the Buddhist tradition, mind and body should be one. They have manifested anyway from the same reality — consciousness — and in the tradition of Christianity, people have been able to see that also. In order to pray, you have to be quiet; you have to go home to yourself. You have to pray with your heart and not only with your mouth.

Foundation of Prayer

How can you avoid falling into the trap of falling into routine when you’re praying, the trap of going through the words or motions without paying attention?

When you come up here for chanting, when you listen to the chanting, you have to involve all your body and mind. If you do so, you are in concentration, you are in mindfulness; you come into phase with the Sangha and you become one with the Sangha, like a river. You don’t exist anymore as an individual; you become the river of the Sangha. The mind should be always with the body. That is why mindful walking as a practice can be considered to be a prayer. You pray with your feet; and when you walk with mindfulness, you touch the kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. And you can see the effectiveness of the prayer right away.

When you breathe in and out mindfully, that is real breathing. Body and mind are united. It would be a pity if we just prayed with our mouth — reciting something, while our mind wanders into the past or into the future, or thinks of our projects. This is not praying, because you are not mindful, you are not concentrated, you do not have the insight. The foundation of prayer is mindfulness, concentration and insight. In the Christian tradition, there are people capable of praying like that, with mindfulness, concentration, and they call it the prayer of the heart. You really pray with your spirit and body together and not just joining your palms and chanting something. When you come up for chanting, if while you chant you are thinking of something, you have to go home to yourself. “What am I doing? I am performing, I am not practicing. I am performing a chant. I am not practicing, I am not praying at all.”

The other members of the Sangha should remind you of that by their way of chanting, their way of practicing, and you have to help the Sangha to practice like that, body always together with mind, so that we can avoid the trap of practicing only with the form. This trap is universal; it can happen in Buddhism, in Christianity, and in every religion. We know that if the practice is like that, there will be no effectiveness. You do not have the Kingdom of God, you do not have the Pure Land of the Buddha, because you don’t have mindfulness, concentration and insight. I sometimes remind the Sangha before our meals together, such as by saying, “Let us breathe in such a way that many persons become one person.” We have to find ways to say our Five Contemplations before eating so that they don’t become routine, recited just in the form. We also have a poem that we can say silently to help us: “In the dimension of space and time, we chew as rhythmically as we breathe: maintaining the life of all our ancestors, opening an upward path for descendants.” If someone can remind the Sangha before eating, then everyone in the Sangha has a chance to practice in reality and not just in form. When we bow to the altar as part of a ceremony, we have another poem we can say: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not separate; therefore, the communication between them is inexpressibly` perfect.” So we need to have reminders of various kinds, stimulating, exhorting, and always reminding us, so we don’t fall into that trap of practicing only in the form. We have to be skillful, artful in finding ways to keep our practice alive, and that’s why we should have some encouraging words before walking or sitting meditation.

Prayer in your daily life

There’s a chapter on meditation in your book on prayer. How do you see the relationship between meditation and prayer in your own life?

In the spirit of Buddhism, anything you do that is accompanied by mindfulness, concentration and insight can be considered to be a prayer. When you drink your tea in forgetfulness, life is not there. You are not truly alive because you are not there, you are not mindful, you are not concentrated. That moment is not a moment of practice. A secular moment. But when you begin to hold your tea in mindfulness and concentration, and when you drink your tea in perfect mindfulness and concentration, it looks like you are performing a sacred ritual; and that is already a prayer. When you walk, if you enjoy every step; if every step nourishes you, transforms you, every step is a prayer. So in the teaching, the practice, the tradition of Buddhism, there is really no distinction between meditation and prayer, because when you are mindful, concentrated, when you have insight, you get in touch with the Buddha land, with the Buddha, with the Sangha. When you really pray, you get in touch with Jesus, with the Kingdom of God, and getting in touch like that has to bring about transformation and healing. When there is mindfulness, concentration and insight, there is no distinction between the one who prays and the one to whom we address our prayer. That is why the communication is deep, total; and transformation and healing must happen.

When you walk at the airport, every step you make can be a prayer. You are truly alive; you don’t waste your time, your life. When you sit in solidity and freedom, when you breathe in and out in mindfulness, when you touch the wonders of life, that is meditation; that is also a prayer. And in true prayer, there is no longer any separation between the one who prays and the one to whom we pray. In Christianity, our friends say, “living each moment in the presence of God.” If you live with mindfulness, concentration and insight, you never leave God; you are always in touch with God, in the presence of God. When you live every moment of your daily life in the presence of God, it means your daily life is a prayer; and there are those who are capable of doing so. In Buddhism we learn that there are very concrete ways of generating the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight, and our practice consists of generating these three energies. If these energies are there, there will no longer be any separation between the one who is praying and the one to whom we address our prayer. When you practice mindfulness while sitting, walking, cooking, washing, you don’t feel that you waste your life. You are living every moment of your life deeply. Your life becomes a prayer. Much happiness and peace result from that kind of living.

Our life is life of Prayer

How can people find the time to pray every day?

This question has been answered partly by what has been said already. When every step becomes a prayer; when every breath becomes a prayer; when each moment of working or driving or eating becomes a prayer, you don’t need to set aside time for praying, because all your daily life is devoted to the practice of praying. Therefore, answering this question, we say that we should not divide the time in that way. Time for working, for eating, for living in forgetfulness, and then a separate time devoted to mindfulness, concentration, insight and prayer — that is not the way we see it. Every moment of our daily life can be a moment of prayer, of meditation, of practice. We need to be trained in order to do so. There are moments when we are not truly alive, we are pulled away, carried away by our worries, our anger, our projects; and we waste our life because of that. Nobody wants to waste his or her life. We want to live our life deeply, and the only way is by praying, by generating the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight, and then we can live very deeply every moment of our daily life. Our life is a life of practice, is a life of prayer, and there is no distinction between the time of praying and the time of “living” or non-praying.

Walking Meditation

What is the one thing people can do every day that will bring them closer to the happiness they seek?

We are so busy; we don’t want to do so many things. We want to know just one thing that we can do to get closer to the happiness we seek every day. I think that moving around with mindfulness, walking mindfully, may be what we propose as a gift, because we move a lot during our daily life. If you want to go from here to there, even if you need only to make five or six steps, and if you know how to make these steps mindfully, that can already be very helpful. You walk to the garage, enjoy every step you make. Don’t think of anything else, just enjoy walking. You walk to the office, to your workplace or to the dining hail: every step you make should bring you back to the here and the now so that you can enjoy what is going on. I think if all people on Earth were to know how to enjoy walking mindfully, that would transform the Earth and society already; because everyone would have the secrets of becoming more mindful, everyone would know how to enjoy each step they make.

Walking meditation is something everyone can do. There are those of us who find it difficult to practice sitting meditation; but walking — everyone walks. So 1 propose that everyone — whether they are in Berkeley, or New York, or Amsterdam, or Paris, or Bangkok — enjoy mindful walking; and every time they make a mindful step, they stop their forgetfulness, they go back to life, they touch the wonders of life for their healing and transformation. Walking meditation is very pleasant, transforming and healing. I propose to the readers of Publishers Weekly magazine that everyone takes up the practice of walking meditation to begin with, and that will change their life. When you practice walking mindfully, you include your body with your mind. You include your breath, you become fully present, fully alive, and you get closer to the happiness you are seeking.

Mindfulness and Peace

How is prayer related to peace and to peacemaking?

When you are mindful, when you are concentrated, when you have the insight, there will be more peace in your body, more peace in your mind. If you know how to allow the collective energy of the Sangha to penetrate into your body, if you know how to practice really mindful breathing, to release the tension in your body and your feelings with the practice of mindful breathing, then there is more peace in you already. The moment when you sit down and begin to breathe in, calming your mind and your body, peace has become a reality; and breathing like that is praying. And when there is the element of peace in you, you can connect with other people, and you can help others to be peaceful like you. Together you become a body of peace, the Sangha body of peace.

There are so many of us who are very eager to work for peace, but we don’t have peace within. We shout for peace, angrily, and we shout at the people who are also for peace like us. There are many groups, who are very dedicated to peacemaking, but they fight each other a lot and they cannot have peace. Peace must begin with ourselves: with the practice of sitting quietly, walking mindfully, taking care of our body, releasing the tension in our body and in our feelings. So the practice can bring peace to us right away; and when you are more peaceful, more pleasant, you can be more effective in contacting other people and inviting other people to join in the work of peacemaking. And since you are peaceful, you know how to look peacefully, how to speak peacefully, how to react peacefully, and you can persuade many people to join you in the work of promoting peace and reconciliation.

You cannot have peace just by sitting down and negotiating or making plans. You have to learn to breathe in and out to calm yourself, and you have to be able to help the other person to do like you. If there is no element of peace in you and other person, no work, no activity can be described as genuine acts of peacemaking. So the president of a nation, the prime minister of a nation, the head of a political party has to practice peace, to pray for peace in his body and mind before he can be effective in asking other prime ministers and heads of nations to join him or her in making peace. I suggest that each peace conference should begin with walking meditation, sitting meditation; someone should be there to give instructions as to how to do total relaxation to remove tension, anger and fear in body and mind. That is civilization; that is bringing a spiritual dimension into our political and social life. Peace in one’s self will bring about peace in one’s community, in the world. And in our corporation, in our school, in our party, in our city hall, we have to practice peace. Schoolteachers have to practice peace, and teach students how to practice peace. In the Congress, people have to practice peace for themselves and ask other members of the Congress to practice peace. The strategy of peace should involve practice with our body and mind.

Should Christians who are attracted to Buddhist teachings become Buddhists?

Christians who know how to generate mindfulness, concentration and insight are already Buddhist, whether they have formally taken the Five Precepts and the Three Refuges or not. They are truly Buddhist, even if they don’t call themselves Buddhist, because the essence of Buddhism is mindfulness, concentration and insight. There are Christians, who are capable of being mindful, concentrated and insightful, and they are already Buddhists; they don’t need to wear the label “Buddhist.” When they express the desire to take the Three Refuges and the Five Wonderful Precepts (Mindfulness Trainings), they know that this practice also strengthens their faith in Christianity. They know they do not lose their roots and they do not betray their tradition, based on the insight that, in their tradition, mindfulness, concentration and insight are also very important. Coming to a Buddhist practice center, they learn methods of practice that can help them generate mindfulness, concentration and insight. They know that in their tradition, these energies are also very crucial. They want to make use of their insight, their experience, in order to renew their tradition so that many young people will know more concrete ways to generate these energies. Practicing Buddhist meditation in that way not only helps them to be a better Christian, but also helps them to renew Christianity in such a way that the young generation of Christians will feel more comfortable. Every tradition should renew itself in the light of the new developments in the world; Buddhism also should renew itself.

So we should not be caught by the appearances. There are people who call themselves “Buddhist” who in fact are not very Buddhist, because there is discrimination and dogmatism in them. They are less Buddhist than many Christians. There are many Christians who do not call themselves Buddhist, but they are more Buddhist than these “Buddhists”. We have to learn to look in that way. When a Christian embraces the Buddhist practice correctly, he will never be uprooted from his Christian heritage. In fact, he or she has more opportunity to rediscover his or her own tradition and help renew it. The right attitude is not to encourage people to be uprooted from their tradition. The right attitude is to urge them to go back to their traditions, and the practice of Buddhist mindfulness, concentration and insight should be able to do this. I think there are enough Buddhists; we don’t need to convert more people to Buddhism. Just taking care of the Buddhists we have now takes a lot of energy already. Many of them don’t practice. So let us not worry about making more Buddhists.

What did you find in Vietnam when you returned in 2005? What were your impressions?

I was almost 40 years in exile. I left the country to call for a cessation of hostilities, and because of that I was not allowed to go home any more. When I came back to Vietnam, I realized that about 35 million people had been born during my absence. Most of the people I met, I didn’t know. But looking deeply, I see their parents and I am able to touch them deeply. The most outstanding fact is that there is no war anymore in Vietnam, and this is a most wonderful thing. There are other problems, like corruption, pollution, poverty; but there is no mass destruction of human lives with weapons. That is already something.

We went home with a Sangha of 100 monastics and 100 lay people and we wanted our delegation to be solid in mindfulness, concentration and insight as a gift to offer to the nation, to the people. We wanted our practice to be solid. We are very grateful for the monks and nuns and lay friends who came with me in that trip, because they tried their best to offer the best kind of presence to the country and the people. There was a lot of fear, suspicion, misunderstanding there, and we had to practice very deeply in order to help remove this suspicion and fear and misunderstanding. Monks and nuns stayed in temples. Of course, secret police came and spied on us. Lay people stayed in hotels, and we know that secret police also came to the hotels to inspect us. Our lay friends transformed the hotels into practice centers. They woke up early in the morning and did sitting meditation and walking meditation. They ate only vegetarian food. They never smoked, or drank wine or beer. So they began to see our authenticity as a Sangha of Buddhist practitioner. They saw that not only the monastics practice well, but also the lay people practice well. There were lay Dharma teachers in our midst. Slowly, with our perseverance, with our patience, with our loving kindness, we began to transform people. We were able to help remove wrong views in them. We helped them to reduce their fear, their suspicion, and in the last month of the trip they allowed us to hold public talks outside the temples. Before that, there was no way to persuade them to allow us to have public talks outside of temples. Many Communist cadres, governmental agents came to the talk. They never went to temples. For many of those in the Communist circle, the government circle, it was the first time they were exposed to the teaching of engaged Buddhism. They were very enthusiastic. We could see the level of fear, suspicion and misunderstanding going down every day, and we got a breakthrough.

We know that the effect of the visit still continues. There are still a lot of things to do — dealing with poverty, social injustice, pollution, corruption; and we have said that without brotherhood, without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot do that. So Communist party members and government officials are urged in these Dharma talks to embrace a spiritual dimension in order to be able to deal with difficult questions faced by the country. During the visit we organized retreats for monastics, attended by so many monastics — more than 1000 each retreat; retreats for lay people; dharma talks; and walking meditations. Although the government did not allow the press to talk about our activities, many people in Vietnam were aware that we were there, and I believe that more than 200,000 people came and directly got in touch with the Sangha and the practice. The Dharma talks given in Vietnam have been duplicated, and the day we left Vietnam we learned that 50,000 CDs of the talks had been produced, because people need it, they want it. At this point, our root temple and Prajna temple have something like 300-400 monastics practicing in the style of Plum Village, and many people are very interested because we are an example of renewed Buddhism. We hope that the presence of these practice centers will inspire many temples and many practice centers to renew the teaching and the practice.

You will be 80 this year. Do you plan to retire as a spiritual teacher at any point?

In Buddhism we see that teaching is done not only by talking, but also by living your own life. Your life is the teaching, is the message. And since I continue to sit, to walk, to eat, to interact with the Sangha and the people, I continue to teach, even if I have already encouraged my senior students to begin to replace me in giving Dharma talks. In the last two years, I have asked Dharma teachers, not only in the monastic circle but also in the lay circle, to come up and give Dharma talks. Many of them have given wonderful Dharma talks. Some Dharma talks have been better than mine. I see myself in my continuation, and I will not retire. I’ll continue to teach, if not by Dharma talks then in my way of sitting, eating, smiling, and interacting with the Sangha. I like to be with the Sangha. Even if I don’t give a Dharma talk, I like to join walking meditation, sitting meditation, eating in mindfulness and so on. So don’t worry. When people are exposed to the practice, they are inspired. You don’t need to talk in order to teach. You need to live your life mindfully and deeply. Thank you.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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