The Prayer of a Zen Buddhist Atheist
- By Yin De Shakya
- Feb 19
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I gave a talk recently at the request of a church group that was interested in my perspective on prayer and worship as a Zen Buddhist and an Atheist. I told them that even though I am a Zen Buddhist and an Atheist (in the conventional sense of the term), I do consider myself a spiritual person, and I do indeed pray; albeit maybe not in exactly the same way that this group might understand prayer.
How can someone be an Atheist and a Zen Buddhist and still consider himself a spiritual person and claim to "pray"? That's what I set out to convey to the gathered congregation.
The first things to consider are beliefs and labels. Let's consider the Buddha's words on "beliefs" in general to set the stage. When speaking to a group of people called the Kalama People, the Buddha was asked why the people should believe what he was preaching. He responded:
"Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration that I am a teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them"
The message the Buddha was giving the Kalama People was basically this: Don't be fooled into believing things that you cannot test scientifically and verify empirically for yourselves. Don't be suckered into taking things on faith or believing a dogma or doctrine for any reason other than the fact that you have proven it to be true for yourself. I can live with that. In fact, I always have. So when I talk about my beliefs I'm not talking about beliefs based on blind faith but rather beliefs that I've tested and found to be true for me.
Another thing we must consider in analyzing how one can claim Atheism, Worship, and Prayer all at the same time is the use of labels and how labeling gets us into trouble sometimes. A famous Korean Zen Master named Seung Sahn once said; "Open mouth already a mistake". This is because anything we say misses the mark of the actual thing or phenomenon we speak of. You know how every time a thought or idea is translated, the resulting translation is always many more words than the original thought? For example, in the Quran the opening verse is only 26 words in Arabic, but when translated into English it requires between 64 and 72 words to get the meaning close... but all we ever do is come close. Even the original verse in the Arabic misses the mark of what the prophet Muhammad believed had been conveyed from Allah. This is because with communication and translation comes interpretation. And with interpretation comes and attempt to explain meaning. And to explain meaning we have to add more and more labels all the while attempting to get closer to an understanding but really moving further and further from the original experience.
Consider also, these two translations of the Lord's Prayer. First the one most folks are familiar with:
"Our father who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen."
Then this version translated from the original Aramaic and posted here on the website of the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun:
"Oh thou from whom the breath of life comes, who fills all realms of sound, light, and vibration. May your light be experienced in its utmost holiness. Your heavenly domain approaches. Let your will come true in the Universe - all that vibrates, just as on earth - all that is material and dense. Give us wisdom, understanding, and assistance for our daily need, detach the fetters of faults that bind us, like we let go the guilt of others. Let us not be lost in superficial things - materialism, common temptations; but let us be freed from those things that keep us from our true purpose. From you come the all-working will, the lively strength to act, and the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age. Sealed in trust, faith, and truth. I confirm with my entire being."
Still, man-made labels are the only means by which we can communicate. Or are they? Actually, I think we can communicate more without words than by speaking and applying labels, but that's another story for another day. Anyway, back to labels. As human beings for thousands of years, since we first became aware of our unique place in the world and tried to communicate our experiences to one another, we have had to develop labels for things, ideas, and all manner of phenomena. The labels range from simple and universal for material objects like rocks and chairs to more complex and subjective for conceptual phenomena like love, kindness, and prayer. The latter (and maybe even the former) are subject to interpretation based on each individual person's experiences.
Some of you might have read a past article on this website discussing my definition of "God". For those who have not, I can assure you that "God" to me doesn't bear any resemblance to the commonly held Christian, Judaic, or Muslim concept. Neither does it bear any resemblance to the ancient Greek or Norse Gods. Still, I have to use the label God because that label most closely fits my understanding of the indefinable oneness that underlies all that exists; my concept of God.
So, knowing that labels are imperfect and that no two people have ever had the same verbal or written definition of a concept or phenomenon to accurately identify what they have uniquely experienced, we have to move forward using the tools at our disposal: words. So please bear this in mind as I try to communicate my perspective on the prayer of a Zen Atheist. Please bear this in mind as I make my imperfect attempt to transmit to you what can only be understood non-verbally through direct experience (or fortunate coincidence!).
Maybe I should start like I did with my definition of God; by telling what (for me) prayer is not. The Webster's New World College Dictionary defines prayer as "the act or practice of praying, as to God" and "an earnest request, entreaty, supplication" or "spiritual communion, as with God"Well, you won't find me kneeling at the edge of my bed each night with my palms pressed together, eyes shut tight, and face skyward reciting the Lord's Prayer followed by an effort to ask an unseen man in the sky for forgiveness of sins, comfort for the sick, and the winning Powerball numbers for next week's drawing. That's not my understanding of prayer.
Nor do I consider the Ch'an Buddhist practice of sitting upright counting on a string of beads while repeating the name of the Buddha Amitabha to be prayer (although many Ch'an Buddhists do). Don't get me wrong - I do find that practice to be beautiful, meaningful, and important for some Buddhists and often very spiritually rewarding to engage in myself - but it doesn't fit my definition of prayer any more that the kneeling, pressing together of palms, and asking for favors does.
There are some beautiful prayers that I enjoy reading and reciting, but they don't necessarily amount to what I consider prayer. Still I have found them to be spiritually rewarding and they make me feel good. For example; the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi (also posted here on this website):
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
When there is hatred; let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master; grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, but to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
So now that I have tried to say what for me prayer is not, let me try to say what it is. For me prayer has elements of wish, hope, and intention; plus elements of actualization, engagement, and execution. For me prayer is the generation of the intent to engage with the world in a way that is beneficial and not harmful. Prayer for me is not a petition to an outside agency for favors, but rather a dialogue that begins with an undefined subtle hope for things to be better in some way and progresses to a commitment and an action plan that can be executed to make those things better.
For this kind of prayer, I rely on all of my past experiences of questioning, searching, and arriving at answers that can be proved by scientific method of testing. I rely on my understanding of science and my knowledge that superstition almost always leads to discord. Therefore, I can never rest in a prayer that ends with a request, a wish, or a hope but rather I need to puzzle through to the desired outcome even if the desired outcome isn't the final outcome but a next step in that direction. For me, prayer should be an internal process that leads to the development of intention and commitment and not a request for external intervention or a signal of resignation.
When taken in this context, I think prayer can actually lead to the realization of those improvements in circumstance that we seek through prayer. When approached from the Zen-Buddhist-Atheist perspective, prayer leads to action. I guess that's one of the key differences between what I'm talking about and the notion that prayer is a petition for help from "out there" somewhere. I don't accept that there is an "out there" from where answers to prayers can come. I am convinced that the answers come from within and we can arrive at them through this kind of prayer. This logic really circles back to the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha spoke of when he first set the wheel of the dharma in motion some 2,600 years ago.
1. Life in the world of the ego is painful and we suffer
2. The cause of this suffering is craving and desire for things to be other than how they are.
3. We can overcome our suffering
4. The way to overcome suffering is to follow the eightfold path. (which includes developing an understanding that salvation is not "out there" but rather already exists in each of us)
This same logic and reasoning can be applied to the concept of "Worship". For many, the concept of worship applies to the love of and devotion to an external separate being such as God, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, and so on. I remember when I was volunteering as a chaplain at the Federal Prison north of Phoenix, the staff chaplain kept telling me that it would be best to lead my Zen Buddhist services early in the day so that the inmates (and me) could get our worship out of the way early enough to enjoy the rest of our day. I remember thinking to myself that worship wasn't something to be gotten out of the way so that one could move on to more rewarding pursuits, but it seems like from his perspective worship was just that: a chore. Worship was seen as an unpleasant but necessary task to be dealt with as quickly as possible. Now I'm not naive or jaded enough to think that this is the case for all Christians, but it obviously is for some. It was for him.
However if taken from the Zen Atheist perspective, worship carries a different meaning but a similar feeling arises as the feeling I spoke of when explaining my take on prayer. Worship for me and probably for many others is a more subtle feeling of gratitude and a deep abiding knowledge that there is goodness and order in the apparent chaos of the Universe. I say "apparent chaos" because I can see both a chaotic randomness at times and a beautiful orderly choreography at times in life and in all phenomena.
When I allow all discriminatory thoughts to stop, and I sit still and allow everything to simply exist as it naturally does; the feeling of gratitude and peace begins to build and sometimes it will erupt into ecstatic unbounded joy. Maybe you've had this feeling while sitting on a rock high atop a mountain after a challenging hike. Maybe you have had this experience when sitting quietly and watching your child or grandchild play or eat. Can I possibly be alone in the feeling of absolute unconditional love and joy that emerges when watching my child play, eat, or sleep? I hope not, and I don't think so.
That feeling, for me, equates to worship. It is gratitude, but not directed at an external source and certainly not invested in a being or deity. It's gratitude for and from the one source of all that exists. I was once told that when bowing to the Buddha statue in our Temple, the one who bows and the one who receives the respect of the bow are one in the same. That's what I'm talking about. That's the worship of a Zen Buddhist Atheist.
Let me read to you a final passage that I would categorize as worship, and one that I would categorize as prayer, though neither is directed at an external source; and that's the most important thing to remember.
Here's Rumi on gratitude (worship):
"What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest. What was told the cypress that made it strong and straight, what was whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made sugarcane sweet, whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan that makes them so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush like a human face, that is being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in language, that's happening here. The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude, chewing a piece of sugarcane, in love with the one to whom every that belongs!"
And finally, a verse from me inspired by the Buddha's prayer on loving kindness:
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.