A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill. Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer. His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.
In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated. Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state. Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.
Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:
Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.
The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation. The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators. The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison. Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:
Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured. Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects. I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”. It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.
The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital. Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven. The performance of prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence. All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings). So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing. These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important. Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself. The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state. In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature. It is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness. Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration. I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.
From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it. The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship. Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition. Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation. These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies. Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness. Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important. Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.
A couple of days ago I learned that in 1860 Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn attracted 500,000 visitors, rivaling Niagara Falls as America’s greatest tourist destination. This monumental 478 acre cemetery is home to 560,000 graves including that of Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Boss Tweed and many other illustrious artists, politicians and inventors. It’s also an amazing place to practice Chod.
Over the years we have very effectively averted our eyes from death; we love to avoid the topic of death as well as that of illness and old age. Perhaps there is convenience in this as it allows ourselves to feel ever young and invincible. However a visit to Green-Wood (or any cemetery) helps to shake loose the taboo nature that death occupies, effectively reeling it in from the periphery of our experience of daily life. On a recent trip with my son and girlfriend we meandered through the beautiful grounds of Green-Wood observing the memorialized names of those who are no more. The comparatively young age at which many of Green-Wood’s residents passed away- at least a third of the grave we saw that day were those of young children or young women who died in child-birth, is particularly striking. As one would expect to find, there is a wide variety of ages and cultural back grounds represented, further demonstrating with basic simplicity the fact that death does not discriminate.
It is easy to gloss over the recognition of impermanence that the Buddha came to recognize so early in his spiritual quest. The realization that all beings are subject to birth, sickness, old-age and death serve as the core existential foundation-stone upon which the rest of Buddhism in all of its forms is based. Perhaps over time this can seem to feel a little stale, as just as in his day when the Buddha was still Prince Siddhartha, we are so adept at hiding sickness, old age and death from our immediate view; death and even illness for that matter has become somewhat abstracted, and aging is something that we are told by media to avoid as best as possible. Talk about suffering! Nevertheless, we are born, we will experience illness, most of us will experience old age, and all of us will experience death- there’s no real hiding this fact. However there is joy to be had, and this joy can be found when coming to terms that these profound events affect everyone, that we are all linked together by these similar existential events, and there is a certain beauty in knowing that not only are we not alone, but we are surrounded by countless other beings who share similar existential circumstances.
Earlier today I went to Green-Wood cemetery to practice Chod. I went because I had the day off and it felt like a personally meaningful means through which I could resolve a certain anxiety that I felt regarding my upcoming clinical placement at New York Presbyterian Cornell-Weill as a chaplain-intern. It’s a new beginning for me- one that I would like to approach in a thoughtful and centered manner. Chod is an amazing form of meditation that was developed by Machig Labdron, a female Tibetan Buddhist master who lived in twelfth century Tibet. As a child she was precocious, and grew up to become an accomplished yogini who, in formulating the meditation practice known as Chod, yoked prajnaparamita literature with elements of tantric Buddhism into a system of meditation that has the unique reputation as the only dharma that was formulated in Tibet and then spread southwards into India. As the inspiration behind the synthesis of Chod lays within both the Mahayana tradition (through the prajnaparamita sutra, or the perfection of wisdom sutra) and aspects of Vajrayana (tantric Buddhist practice, most notably the practice of Vajravarahi), it is a very well balanced and multifaceted practice. Indeed, Chod can be approached as a complete path.
Traditionally Chod was practiced in charnel grounds and other fear inducing sites. Such sites were common in India and Tibet as many mountain passes, cross-roads, trees, and other sites were thought to be inhabited by malevolent spirit beings. Charnel grounds in particular were regarded as frightful not only because one commonly found bodies in various states of decay and decomposition, but because wild scavenging animals were easily found feasting on human remains. They are excellent places to face your fears. In fact, it is said that the Buddha had instructed many of his students to go to charnel grounds in order to contemplate impermanence amidst the decaying bodies of other humans.
Needless to say, such places aren’t really easy to find here in 21st century America- so, one has to be creative. Some of the beauty of Green-Wood lies in the fact that many of the grave markers are themselves quite old. Marble doesn’t hold up to elements as well as granite and other masonry material- it is soft and as it ages it slowly wastes away leaving eerie images behind. Some marble grave markers become hard to read thereby reinforcing the point that this is a place where people are left with very few to continue to witness the fact that they were ever there. Even the stone memorial markers are subject to impermanence.
One of the central features of Chod is the practice of visualizing that one chops oneself into pieces that then form an offering. We slice off our skin and chop up our body, remove the organs, cut out the eyes, perhaps smash the skull, and allow the marrow to slowly flow. In varying configurations we offer this mandala offering to all of the Buddhas, our lineage masters, dakinis and the wisdom protectors as well as to our own personal demons that represent our fears, our attachments, our insecurities, as well as to local gods, demons and spirits, as they too need care. In essence, we offer every aspect of the matrix of our being to all other beings that we can conceive of, what remains is liberated Buddha-essence: non-referential and timeless. It is a means of dramatically looking at where and what the “me” that we constantly tend to self identify with actually is. It’s also a means of facing the attachment that we all too naturally tend to develop towards our bodies, our personalities, and other ways in which we self-identify as independently existing entities.
What was striking today after having made a certain ruckus in the cemetery with my chod drum, bell and thigh-bone horn as any good chodpa is willing to do, is that just sitting in a state of open reflection of the impermanence of life while at Green-Wood is particularly profound. It became evident that one need not only do Chod to necessarily feel the supportive reminder of how fragile and relatively short this life of ours may be. The contemplation of impermanence as well as the Four Noble Truths in a cemetery is a wonderful way to find freshness in the joyously simple truths-by-extension that flow effortlessly from such meditations. In fact, I was left with the feeling that we need more cemetery practice- more excitement. There are many places that tend to be avoided or simply glossed over that occupy great seats of power as places through which we can challenge and confront those things that are inconvenient.
It seems important to make the time to do such practices. It seems even more important to find powerful places to do such practices; it’s apparent to me that in the heart of Brooklyn such a powerful place exists- I look forward to finding other such sites. Gowanus canal?