Have Your Prayers Worked?
I have been a student of H.E. Tsem Rinpoche for almost 5 years and a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for about the same time. But this is not the first time I have regarded myself as a Buddhist. I was a ‘Buddhist’ when I was a child although in essence I was more of a spectator than a participant. We had a Buddhist altar at home like many Malaysian Chinese families, and on the altar was a Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) statue and on both sides, the mandatory electric candles. And like virtually all-typical Chinese altars, there was an incense pot at the centre and the daily obligatory water offering.
It was not uncommon for the household help to make the daily incense and water/tea offering as part of her daily chores and the responsibility of cleaning the altar befell her as well. It never occurred to any of us in the family that cleaning the altar would be such an important part of the Preparatory Practices that are covered in the Lamrim. You see, like many so-professed Buddhists, we readily accepted the concept of Buddha and karma although we did not live our lives as if we understood the divinity of the Buddha and the workings of karma.
Buddhism wasn’t a way of life for me, or a vocation. It was a faith of convenience that I inherited from my parents. The intention of being a Buddhist was so that the Buddha would be there to protect the family and grant our wishes. I don’t remember ever praying regularly. I do recall one occasion in 1976 when I did feel an urgent need to pray. It was the Thomas Cup and Malaysia was playing against Indonesia in the finals and receiving a royal trouncing. As I watched the tournament on the neighbour’s black and white television (color TV was only introduced two years later), I felt I had to act, and so I scooted back home, climbed on a stool where the altar was and prayed that somehow Malaysia would make a comeback. It was a long and earnest prayer for a kid. I don’t quite remember the content of my prayers to Kuan Yin, but I do remember that Malaysia went down 0-9 after that. Devastated, I remember thinking that prayers don’t work. Nevertheless I participated in the family’s Buddhist rituals until way into my adulthood and why not? It took nothing to be a Buddhist and it was good to have a religion.
My second distinctive memory of making prayers would be in January 1988. My father had met with an accident that left him in a coma. I remember it well – he was lying lifeless on the hospital bed. I was at his bedside for two days and witnessed his body going from one spasm to another. Over those two days I recited all the Buddhist prayers I knew over and over again. There weren’t that many that I knew so I just kept talking to the Buddha. My father did not regain consciousness and in fact he did not make it past the third day. My prayers had not worked… again.
In 1997, I prayed again and this time quite out of desperation to save myself, or so I thought. A childhood friend had asked to stay with me for a while, seeking solace and repair from a failed relationship. Around the same time, she was experimenting with a charismatic religion that invites spirits to enter the body for ‘spiritual cleansing’. I didn’t understand it but she was always a bit of a hippie and so I thought nothing of it. One night, whilst talking to me over a nice glass of Shiraz (after a whole day of spiritual practice wherein an entire legion of spirits had entered her for a bit of cleansing), she went into a trance-like state. She became possessed. One (or some) of the spirits had decided they rather liked their new body. And so before my eyes, a close friend did almost everything Linda Blair did in the Exorcist although she didn’t go airborne.
My first thought was to run like the coward I was but I was worried that any sudden movements might draw the “demon’s” attention to me. I saw my Buddhist altar nearby (despite not having had my prayers answered, I had set up a Buddhist shrine everywhere I went in my adult life; or to be precise, I had allowed my mother to do so – it was far more peaceful not to object) and I thought, even though the Buddha has never answered any of my prayers, surely he would step up now against what is manifestly the presence of evil.
And so I began to pray and the odd thing is, right when I needed to pray most, the thought popped into my mind that I actually had no idea how to pray or why the Buddha or anything else might be interested to listen. It was hell of a time to realise that I had not the faintest clue what makes prayers work. Suffice to say, my friend continued to writhe like an animal on my floor even as my Buddha statue continued to stare blissfully at me under the garish glow of electric candles. In the background, the monotonous and repetitive Namo Amitofo chants continued to stream out from a cheap Petaling Street electronic player. There was no booming divine voice from above and no blinding light from the altar to chase away the spirits. Nothing.
What happened to my friend is a story for another time, but insofar as my faith in Buddha and the religion was concerned, it had totally evaporated. Three times I needed the Buddha and he ‘failed’ me. So ended my tarriance with Buddhism. As far as I was concerned, if the Buddha was a true divinity, he certainly was an absent one.
I became involved in another religion soon after and embarked on a journey of scriptural studies, endless nights of fellowship (with cheesecakes) and learning to sing devotional prayers. I still didn’t get answers to a lot of questions or where god(s) fit into the celestial scheme of things but it was not a religion that invited questioning and logic but ‘faith’. So I learned to stop questioning and to accept not having my prayers answered. God’s way was mysterious after all. I remained in that practice for a decade until one day in 2010 when I met Tsem Rinpoche.
Learning New Ropes
Meeting Rinpoche was by chance. At least, by a worldly and mundane definition, we call it ‘chance’. I was not out looking for a Guru and I was not in the least bit interested in Buddhism any longer by then. But by Dharmic explication, all my good karma and merits had conspired to bring me into the presence of a Bodhisattva. To say that the five years with Rinpoche changed all my perceptions would be an understatement. Time spent with Rinpoche is a serendipitous adventure and along the way we discover new understanding, and when we see past experiences from this new perspective, we sometimes see an entirely different picture, albeit one where the dots join. And so we change our minds and definitions of things. For example, my grasp of how prayers work has changed.
You see, we just assume that prayers mean that we speak and the Buddhas are obliged to listen and comply. And if our prayers are not met, then it is because the Buddhas have no power or they didn’t listen or we didn’t offer a “bribe” big enough. In fact, we don’t understand what makes prayers work because we don’t understand the dynamics between man and Buddha, man and his own Buddha nature and man and Karma.
Prayers work because we have the karma or merits for our prayers to work. It is as simple as that. And so, if we do not build up our store of merits from our daily Buddhist practice as we have been taught, or if our prayers themselves reinforce our negative side such as our selfishness, our fear and our strong attachments to the ego no matter how well-disguised, then there are no merits to power the fulfillment of the prayers. The advantage of having a qualified Guru from a pure lineage is that he will prescribe prayers that have the blessings of the lineage masters and prayers that in themselves contain thoughts, aspirations and sounds that generate positive energy. Most importantly, you will learn the absolute power of Motivation. It is the motivation in our thoughts and actions that empower us or betray us.
I prayed for Malaysia to win in 1976 because in truth, I wanted to win. I prayed for my father to awake from his coma because I could not deal with the idea of him being sick and dying. I was not ready to lose him. I prayed when my friend was being possessed because I was scared and I felt threatened. There were a lot of “I”s in all those prayers. Sure, there might have been some good aspirations for the objects of my prayers but they were mainly for me and about me. Aren’t most prayers like that if we think honestly and carefully? And is it also a coincidence that most prayers don’t seem to work to fulfill our desires and wishes?
I could have prayed for better understanding that it was wrong to reduce the Buddha to a mere fulfiller of betting wishes. I could have prayed that in his suffering, my father would purify much bad karma and take a good rebirth; I could have prayed to imprint his mind stream with the sounds of mantra that would help him in his future rebirths. I could have prayed that whatever tortured soul that was possessing my friend finds relief in the Dharma and stops its harm of others out of anger. I could have prayed for a formless being to be at peace and in that condition, take good rebirth. I could have found many good motivations to infuse my prayers with powerful energy but instead the prayers were only about me.
Prayers come true when we summon as much positive motivation as we can and generate kindness towards others. Therein lies the power that makes prayers come to life. Of course, we can pray for ourselves too but the thing to remember is that good things happen when we have the karma and merits for them to happen. And good karma and merits accrue when we work based on kindness, compassion, wisdom and selflessness.
In the prayers and sadhanas that Tsem Rinpoche teaches, we start by Taking Refuge in the Guru and Three Jewels. This generates faith. We then recite The Four Immeasurables to fire up our compassionate mind, and attune that mind properly with selfless motivation via the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation. The rest of the prescribed prayers are similarly designed to build up good energy and a store of merits. When we have good and selfless motivation in our prayers, then the powers of the Buddhas can manifest.
We go to monks and nuns and people we regard as holy to pray for us because we instinctively know that their prayers are powerful. If their prayers are powerful, it is because they hold their vows and they cultivate meritorious thoughts all the time. They have compassion and their lives are driven by kindness towards others. And so, in fact, they are storehouses of powerful merits. But the beauty of Buddhism is this – there is nothing the Buddha has learned that he has not taught and if we were to learn to live our lives like the Buddha lived his, then it is only logical that we will discover and experience what the Buddha did.
Good motivation, selflessness, gentleness, forgiveness and kindness are seen today as traits that expose us to danger. But in fact, they are our biggest protection and the most powerful driver of our prayers that we can get.
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