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September 30, 2010

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On the importance of Prayer

by Repa Dorje Odzer

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:

www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html.

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?scp=1&sq=long%20awaited%20medical%20study%20prayer%20is%20no%20good&st=cse.

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.

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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Meg
    Sep 30 2010

    Thanks for sharing the article, and also for your cogent and sensitive analysis.

    Reply

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