Prayer in Buddhism is not that of pleading for some boons. Instead, prayers are used as skilful means to attune the mind to the noble way and to soak oneself with the habits of noble qualities such as discipline, altruism and equanimity. These are not prayers of request to someone, but setting of one’s own intentions. The Buddha as a support for these prayers, is not one who grants the wishes, but one who exemplifies vividly and gloriously, what a human being can achieve. Recollecting the qualities of the Buddha leads to the deepest conviction in following his example.
When it comes to Mahayana, prayers take a grand dimension, that of raising one’s aspirations to that of a Bodhisattva. By reciting prayers of aspiration (praṇidhāna) deep from the heart, we can see how even a mere wish to be of benefit to others elates the mind and body as it cultivates openness of heart. Aspirations are made in inconceivably vast ways, to the beings that fill limitless world-systems, in comforting them from their immediate worries as well as in eventually leading them to the supreme peace and bliss of perfect awakening.
Even if one is not able to practice engaged compassion due to various physical and material limitations, the prayers of aspiration gives a way of engaging in compassion at least at a mental level. And, even when one is physically engaging in acts of compassion and kindness, the prayers of aspiration turns it into a celebration of compassion and kindness by extending it mentally in inconceivably vast ways.
When this tremendous openness and willingness is conjoined with wisdom (prajña), there is the birth of Bodhicitta in one’s mind as the glimpse of one’s Buddha potential. It transforms oneself into a Bodhisattva. Then, there is tremendous inner force, the selfless intention to be awakened, so that one is able to help countless beings cross the ocean of suffering.
Below is a prayer of aspiration by Acharya Shantideva (the 7th Century AD), a renowned Buddhist master from Nalanda, in his acclaimed guide book called Bodhicharya-avatara (An Introduction to the Ways of Bodhisattvas). In this way of making aspiration, ego is shattered and there is only boundless altruism. One wishes to be of benefit to beings not only as their guardian and guide, but also as their servant and even as a resting place.
अनाथानां अहं नाथः सार्थवाहश्च यायिनाम्।
पारेप्सूनां च नौभूतः सेतुः संक्रम एव च॥
May I be the guardian for those without protection!
May I be the guide for travellers on the way!
For those who wish to cross,
May I be a boat, a raft and a bridge!
दीपार्थिनामहं दीपः शय्या शय्यार्थिनामहम्।
दासार्थिनामहं दासो भवेयं सर्वदेहिनाम्॥
May I be a lamp for those who long for light,
And a resting place for those who need rest!
May I be at the service of those in need of a servant!
May I become so for every being!
चिन्तामणिर् भद्रघटः सिद्धविद्या महौषधिः।
भवेयं कल्पवृक्षश्च कामधेनुश्च देहिनाम्॥
May I be the cintāmaṇi (the wish-fulfilling jewel), bhadra-ghaṭa (the bountiful vase),
Siddhavidyā (the awareness mantra of accomplishment) and mahā-oushadhi (the great medicine)!
May I be the kalpa-vṛkṣa (the wish-granting tree),
And kāmadhenu (the wish-granting cow) for every being!
पृथिव्यादीनि भूतानि निःशेषाकाशवासिनाम्।
सत्त्वानाम् अप्रमेयाणां यथाभोगान्यनेकध॥
To measureless beings
Dwelling throughout the vast space,
Just as how earth and other elements
Are of benefit in various ways,
एवमाकाश निष्ठस्य सत्त्वधातोरनेकधा।
भवेयमुपजीव्योऽहं यावत्सर्वे न निर्वृताः॥
For beings as limitless as space,
In every possible way,
May I be their source for life
Till every being attains peace!
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