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Prayer and Self Power

I was talking to one of my Buddhist friends about the Won Buddhist concept (derived from Confucianism) of “moving the will of heaven.” My friend said, “I don’t get it. How do we know if heaven has a will? And if heaven does have a “will” then how can we possibly move it?” I thought about my Catholic upbringing and how heaven is defined as a place—clouds, angels, harps, etc. rather than a force of nature. Is moving the will of heaven like praying to some force or God to change things for us?


I began my Buddhist exploration at a Theravadan Temple about 15 years ago. I was relieved by the concept of self-reliance and karma that the Buddhists believed in. The idea that what goes around comes around made sense to me. It made far more sense than confessing to a priest on my deathbed and being relieved of my sin and responsibility to all the people or places I may have wronged. Somehow that idea makes me feel powerless rather than relieved. I want the chance to make things right, by my own power and action. I like knowing that I am part of creation and part of making things happen and that this being, God, or Source trusts that I can do this. But then there is the issue of prayer. What is it? Does it help to change things? How does it change things?


At the Theravadan temple a handful of Caucasian practitioners were sitting around relieved that they didn’t have to worry about that thing called “god” anymore. That they could sit on the cushion and focus on their in-breath and out-breath and that would be enough to free them from the endless cycle of samsara. But I noticed the old Thai women made daily offerings to the Buddha and burned incense and bowed, placing little envelopes in donation boxes and I wondered what they were doing. So, I asked. One of the younger women translated for me saying, “Oh she is praying to Buddha for a new car, her old one broke down and the lazy husband doesn’t make enough money to fix it.” Praying? But I thought we were supposed to give up on that kind of thing. You know detachment, accept everything, good and bad, with soft and yielding stoicism. “She’s an old woman” the girl continued, “ they still do those things. The young people, we don’t do that anymore.” For whatever reason, I felt sad. Now, I don’t have any problem with a god concept or the influence of invisible forces. I don’t have any issue admitting that I need help sometimes. I’m willing to accept help from the beneficial forces I can see and ones I can’t see. I believe in prayer and I believe in self-reliance. In Won Buddhism this concept is referred to as “Self-Power and Other-Power.”


For me, prayer is a way of being responsible to myself, being honest about what’s going on and asking for the insight I need to change my situation. I think the invisible world always has its hand extended to us and that if we reach back, through our efforts, intentions and actions, things may go a little smoother. There’s the saying, “Pray to catch the bus, then run like hell.” I don’t think we can pray and then expect everything to fall into place. Prayer is about getting clear about what you want and having the courage to take a step in that direction, (you may need to pray for the courage too!) Another word that could be used in place of prayer is “centering.”


Many people have trouble with the concept of an invisible world. They need to see to believe. Jesus let his disciple, Thomas, put his hand in his wounds to reassure him that he actually was the guy who died on the cross and that he was actually alive and well. That was awfully nice of Jesus to let him do that. Many of us just have to take it on faith that there is enough unseen air to breathe and that the laws of physics are still in effect and will not be suddenly suspended if we forget to pay our gravity bill. What’s so hard to believe about invisible forces working for us or against us? The Coronavirus has certainly shown us the power of what we can’t see with our eyes. And everyone has had their run in with gravity.

The will of heaven is actually our mind power. The founder of Won Buddhism, Sotaesan, said that “if your mind is concentrated and completely devoid of selfishness, its virtues will become as one with the virtues of heaven and earth and will lead all your affairs to success.”


We could think of moving the will of heaven as a form of prayer directed to our own pure, uncorrupted, True Mind, our Buddha Mind. What is it like to think of praying to the part of yourself that is already enlightened? What is it like not to have some all powerful being outside of you taking care of all of your affairs for you? Who’s to say that the ritual of making offerings, dancing around a fire, or writing out intentions and burning them on New Year’s Eve don’t actually have a part in changing things? (I don’t know if the elder Thai woman got her car because of her prayers. But I do know that a few weeks later she pulled up to the temple in her new, lightly used 2006 Honda Civic!) Even science is catching up with the idea that we influence the unseen worlds all the time.


The so called 'Zeno-Effect' says that any one of us who happened upon an atom doing its thing would never be able to be a mere observer of it. Just like picking your nose in public, most of us would stop immediately if we discovered that someone was watching us. It seems that atoms have this sense as well, (not that an atom would pick its nose if it had one; though none of us could really be sure of that. We can’t even figure out how our own brains work, so who are we to say anything about the personal life of an atom.) Somehow the very act of observation awakens a consciousness in the atom causing it to behave quite differently than it would if it weren’t being watched!


Perhaps it’s because I grew up Irish Catholic, but I pray all the time. I pray to my grandparents and my mom and dad and others who have passed away to keep an eye on other family members who might be having a hard time. I pray in the morning for guidance during the day; I pray before going to bed for dreams to heal my mind, my body and the body of the Earth while I sleep; I pray before meeting with clients so I can be present and centered. Prayer helps me to connect with myself, my ancestors, the sacred land and with others. I feel that the “will of heaven” lives within me. When I align myself with it I can coach from a place of connection, in the company of ancestors, atoms, sages, saints and the gravitational force of belonging deeply to the Earth.

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North Carolina, USA