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The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh and Larry Dossey

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

Currently, more than 200 controlled experiments in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes suggest that the compassionate, loving prayers and intentions of one individual can affect another individual or object at great distances. These studies paint a picture of human consciousness that is nonlocal, a fancy word for “infinite.” Our individual mind appears to be connected with all other minds, no matter how far apart. Individual minds appear to be unbounded—and if unbounded and unlimited, they eventually come together to form a single mind, which our ancestors referred to as the Universal Mind. Therefore, the most significant contribution that prayer makes to our welfare is not the curing of any particular disease, but the realization that we are infinite, eternal, and one.

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s treatise on prayer points like an arrow to religious tolerance. His views affirm that prayer is universal, belonging to the entire human race and not to specific religions.

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When they returned, they said to me, “The sisters in the convent are able to hand over all responsibility to Christ. They have complete faith in Christ and entrust everything to Him. They don’t need to do anything. It’s a very attractive way of living. “In Buddhism we have to do everything: we have to practice walking and sitting, we have to pay attention to our breathing. We take our destiny into our own hands and sometimes it makes us feel so tired.”

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So if a spiritual being has made matters the way they are, why pray? We could respond with the question, Why not pray? In Buddhism, we have learned that everything is impermanent, which means that everything can change. Today we are in good health and tomorrow we are in ill health. Today we are in ill health and tomorrow our ill health might no longer be here.

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When we sit down to practice unifying our body and our mind, and we bring our energy of love to our grandmother, to an elder sister, or a younger brother, then we are producing a new energy. That energy immediately opens our heart. When we have the nectar of compassion and have established communication between the one who is praying and the one being prayed to, then the distance between Plum Village and Hanoi does not have any meaning. This connection can’t be estimated or described in words; time and space cannot present any obstacles.

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Nevertheless, if we look deeply we shall see that sometimes what we call love is not love directed toward the other person. It is love directed towards oneself because we are afraid of being left alone and we are afraid of losing someone. If we confuse love with fear and loneliness, then is it really love or just desire? We may desire that person should live so that we won’t be lonely. This is love, but love directed toward us. Even if we pray wholeheartedly, our prayer may not save our sick friend, but it may change something within ourselves.

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And then there is a fifth and final question, the one hovering above the rest: Who is the person to whom we pray? Who is Allah? Who is God? Who is Buddha? Who is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Who is Our Lady? When we practice looking deeply into this matter of prayer, we find more questions than answers.

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In the tradition of Buddhist practice, whenever we join our palms before the object of our respect, we have to look deeply to know who we are and who the person is sitting in front of us before whom we are about to bow down. Above all else, we need to see what the relationship is between the two of us, between one’s self and the Buddha, for example.

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In Buddhism, a short poem or prayer is called a gatha. This is the beginning of the visualization gatha that Buddhists in my tradition use: The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both, by nature, empty. This means that the nature of the Buddha and the nature of living beings are empty. This idea, that the one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty, is something that some Catholic believers might find very strange to hear; they might even feel shaken by it. How can there be a religion that dares to say to its founder, “You are empty, you do not have a separate self.” But “empty” (sunyata in Sanskrit) doesn’t mean that nothing is there. Empty means, “Does not have a separate reality.” You and the Buddha are not two separate realities.

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So, in answer to our fifth question, when we pray in Buddhism, we are praying both to ourselves and to what is outside of ourselves; there is no distinction.

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If we understand the word “prayer” in its deep meaning, that is, prayer that is based in our practice of mindfulness and concentration, we could say that reciting the sutra is also prayer.

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The first element of an effective method of prayer is the communication between ourselves and the one we are praying to. Because we and the one we are praying to are interconnected, our communication is not dependent on time or space. When we meditate on this, communication is realized straight away and we are linked. At that point, there is electricity in the wire.

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The second element we need for prayer is energy. We have connected the telephone wire, now we need to send an electric current through it. In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness, and right concentration.

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In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness, and right concentration. Mindfulness is the real presence of our body and our mind. Our body and our mind are directed toward one point, the present moment. If this is lacking, we are not able to pray, no matter what our faith. If you are not present, who is praying?

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Of course people who have devoted their life to spiritual practice also pray for health, success, and harmony, but these things alone are not enough. As you deepen your spiritual practice, you begin to question. You may want to know clearly, Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where shall I go? After death, do I continue to exist or not? Is there any relationship between myself and Buddha, between myself and God? What is the original purpose of my being here? These are the questions, the prayers, of a dedicated spiritual practitioner. If we are practicing and we only pray for health, success, and good relationships, we are not yet an authentic practitioner. An authentic practitioner has to pray at a deeper level. We have to practice in such a way that in our daily life we are able to have insight into the interdependent nature of all beings. Our greatest desire as spiritual practitioners is to discover the essence of things and to be in touch with this essence.

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In the Buddhist tradition, we know that praying as a community, a Sangha, is stronger than praying as an individual.

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I have prayed to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas, to the ancestors, to my father and my mother. Sometimes I even pray to my students, because there are students who have a great deal of energy, stability, freedom, and happiness, and I need to come to them as objects of my prayer. I have also prayed to my community that is present throughout the world, because I need its strength. Whenever I pray, I know that I am in touch with the energy of the one mind through these people. And if we are praying with the body as well as the heart and mind, then we can also pray to the pine tree, the moon, and the stars. The pine tree is quite solid, the moon is always there on time, and the stars are always there for us, free and bright. If we can be deeply in touch with the pine tree, we are able to be in touch with the one mind, with God. If touching God means that God is able to transmit energy to us, then the pine tree can also transmit energy to us.

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In our daily life we have many anxieties. We have our cravings and we tend to want to store things up. We do not know that the present moment is important. Life can only be there in the present moment. If our only concern is to invest in tomorrow, then it would be easy to completely forget about the wonders of life in the present moment. We have to return to the present moment, to live it deeply and properly. We have to live in such a way that the kingdom of God is present here and now. This is a prayer that needs to be practiced twenty-four hours every day, because we want to live the present moment deeply in every second. The words of the prayer are not only to be read before we go to sleep; they have to be recited all day long.

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Buddhism has another way of describing temptation: the three unwholesome destinies. There is the destiny of the hungry ghost realm. A hungry ghost is someone perpetually hungry for understanding and love, yet incapable of receiving it when it is offered. There is the destiny of the hell realms. In Buddhism, we are in the hell realms when we burn with anger, hatred, desire, envy, and other unwholesome states of mind. Temptation is also part of the third destiny, that of the animal realms. Of course, human beings are also animals. But here the animal realm means the world of those who simply follow their desires and whose hearts of love and understanding have never had a chance to be cultivated.

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My experience has been that we are more easily tempted into these realms when we are alone. When we are together with our community, with our brothers and sisters who are practicing, we are protected by the energy of the Sangha and it will not be easy for us to fall into temptation. So prayer can also be realized in action, not only in words. When we have mindfulness, when we have a Sangha, we find ourselves in a much more solid position and we don’t have to fall into temptation.

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We pray to avoid these three unwholesome paths. Our prayer can be very concrete once we have discovered a path to go on, once we have taken refuge in the Sangha, and once we know how to practice on a spiritual path. We pray to be guided away from the paths of temptation and encouraged on our spiritual path.

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Four hundred years ago the astronomer Johann Kepler discovered that the moon influenced the Earth and caused the tides. When he shared his findings, nobody wanted to listen to him. The moon seemed so far away; how could it possibly influence the Earth? Even Galileo dismissed the idea.8 Our body is like the Earth. Not only those near us, but people, events, and actions thousands of miles away are capable of affecting it. What is happening now, what has happened in the past, what others are doing and thinking, all influence our health.

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Many physicians see their job as solely to examine the body. A doctor may say, “Take off your clothes, breathe in, breathe out, open your mouth, stick out your tongue, say ‘Ahhh,’ here is the prescription, go get it filled, and take the medicine regularly.” But, if we are ill, we may also need spiritual healing. We need someone to say, “We are sitting here, let us breathe together. Let us calm our mind so that it can be still.”

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Instead of simply saying, “My sister is sick, so I’m going to take her to the doctor; that’s all I can do,” we could also just sit with our sister, breathing in and out.

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In meditation, we can direct their loving kindness and compassion to our loved ones. When we are able to produce the energy of loving kindness and compassion in our heart, that energy will heal our own body and mind. Only then can our energy heal the body and mind of our loved ones.

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The aim of meditation is to help the practitioner arrive at a deep understanding of reality.

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Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something; mindfulness always has to have an object.The four categories of objects of mindfulness are: our body, our feelings, our mind, and the objects of our mind. These four fields are called the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.

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Internal knots are collections of delusion, repression, fear, and anxiety that have been tied in the depths of our consciousness. They have the capacity to bind us and to direct us to do, say, and think things that in reality we don’t want to do, say, or think. Internal knots are sown and nourished by our lack of mindfulness in daily life. The ten chief internal knots are: greed; hatred; ignorance; conceit; suspicion; attachment to the body as the self; extreme views and prejudices; clinging to rites and rituals; our craving for immortality; and our craving to keep everything just as it is. Our health and our happiness depend to a great extent on our ability to transform these ten fetters.

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Mindfulness has the capacity to recognize internal knots when they appear in our consciousness. These internal knots have been formed in the past, sometimes as habit energies transmitted to us by our parents and grandparents. We do not need to go back into the past and dig into memories, as they do in psychology, in order to discover the roots of these troubled, tangled parts of our mind. The energy of mindfulness has the capacity to recognize internal formations when they manifest themselves and to look deeply into them so we are able to see the roots of these tangled knots.

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This book began with the question of why we pray. Perhaps, really, all energy of prayer comes back to our simple human desire for happiness and being connected both to other people and to something greater than ourselves. Prayer, whether silent, chanted, or in meditation, is a way to return to ourselves in the present moment and touch the peace that is there. It is, simultaneously, a way to put us in touch with the universal and the timeless. Our true happiness comes from being fully conscious in the present moment, aware of our connection to everything else in the universe.

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Exercise One: Calming the Mental Formations Breathing in, I feel calm. Calm Breathing out, I smile. Smile Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Present moment Breathing out, it is the most wonderful moment. Wonderful moment

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Exercise Four: Finding Nourishment in Nature Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. In Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out. Out Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Flower Breathing out, I feel fresh. Fresh Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. Mountain Breathing out, I feel solid. Solid Breathing in, I become calm water. Water Breathing out, I reflect the sky and the mountains. Reflecting Breathing in, I become the vastness of space. Space Breathing out, I feel infinite freedom. Free

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NOURISHING HAPPINESS   My resources for practice are my own peace and joy. I vow to cultivate and nourish them with daily mindfulness. For my ancestors, family, future generations, and the whole of humanity, I vow to practice well.   In my society I know that there are countless people suffering, drowned in sensual pleasure, jealousy, and hatred. I am determined to take care of my own mental formations, to learn the art of deep listening and using loving speech in order to encourage communication and understanding and to be able to accept and love.   Practicing the actions of a bodhisattva, I vow to look with eyes of love and a heart of understanding. I vow to listen with a clear mind and ears of compassion, bringing peace and joy into the lives of others to lighten and alleviate the suffering of living beings. I am aware that ignorance and wrong perceptions can turn this world into a fiery hell. I vow to walk always upon the path of transformation, producing understanding and loving kindness. I will be able to cultivate a garden of awakening.   Although there is birth, sickness, old age, and death, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing more to fear. It is a great happiness to live in stability and freedom, to take part in the work of relieving others’ suffering, the career of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In each moment I am filled with deep gratitude.

 

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