Just a couple of hours until my ride comes, but I’m up early and there’s something I wanted to write about. I mentioned before about how I don’t tend to actively miss things from which I’m separated, but I thought of another exception. I will miss KPC’s Prayer Room and the 24-hour Prayer Vigil that’s conducted there.
KPC has not always been a Buddhist center. Jetsunma began formally giving teachings in the early 80’s based on her own experience of meditation and its results. You can read about the unusual way she learned to meditate through a sequence of dreams (we learned later that these meditations were naturally Buddhist) and how to introduce the techniques into your own life in the book of Jetsunma’s we’ve recently published entitled Stabilizing the Mind. The transition to traditional Vajrayana Buddhist practice didn’t take place until 1987-8.
Prior to that, Jetsunma had been attracting a growing number of devoted students and had an idea. She had been teaching about impartial compassion and the potency of intentional prayer, especially when coupled with the essential view of the emptiness of phenomena. Wouldn’t it be amazingly powerful to apply those principles 24 hours a day? Wouldn’t there be people who would derive solace and strength from knowing that no matter what time of day or night, there was someone praying for the end of suffering? And wouldn’t it be a wonderful gift to the community to maintain a sacred space, the doors of which were never locked and could serve as a spiritual refuge for whoever might wish for one?
Yes, it would. So in April of 1985, in the basement of Jetsunma’s house, she and her students began the Prayer Vigil for World Peace. People signed up for two-hour slots, which we’ve come to call “prayer shifts,” and folks would serve in rotation for a week as “prayer chart caretakers,” making the calls to ensure that all the slots were filled. Later that year, we purchased the property we now occupy, originally calling it the World Prayer Center, and moved the vigil there.
More than 21 years later, the vigil continues unbroken, with a second one started in Sedona, AZ in October 1999, also unbroken to this day. I’ve done innumerable prayer shifts in my 16 years here and it’s one of my real joys. So, I wanted that to be my last act for this stint at KPC. I’m up early because I did the 4-6am prayer shift, my personal favorite, in order to launch to Mongolia on the right kind of fuel.
We’ve recently created a website called Prayer Without Ceasing, dedicated to these prayer vigils. It affords an opportunity both to get a deeper view of the vigil, but also to sponsor portions of it, specially dedicating the vigil’s prayer energy to the subject of your choosing. For example, people have sponsored parts of the vigil on behalf of a loved one who is ill or who has recently passed away. Or for a world conflict or tragedy they’re particularly concerned about. Or to mark a special occasion. Or any number of other reasons. Individuals have sponsored parts of the vigil, as well as families and other groups. It’s possible to sponsor one shift, a day, a week, a month, a year or any combination. It’s an ancient understanding that goes back to the time of the Buddha, that a faithful sponsor derives as much benefit as the one actually performing the virtuous act. So I really encourage this as a way to harness some truly positive energy for yourself, your loved ones (shoot, your enemies too – that might even be better!), or situations that concern you. You can do it securely online and receive the benefit right away.
There’s a blog about the vigil, too! It’s called Prayer Works and not only can you be inspired by reading it, but share your own stories about the vigil with the authors and you might just inspire others!
Now, this brings us around to an interesting question. What is prayer in Buddhism? Or, as one astute middle school student from the Barnesville School recently asked me, “If you pray, but you say you don’t believe in God, who do you pray to?” I’ve recently discovered a wonderful blog called One Robe, One Bowl, written by a young American woman who has taken ordination as a nun in the Korean Zen tradition and is practicing in a South Korean temple. She explores this topic in much more depth than I have time for this morning (keep her blog bookmarked – she’s on a 30-day something or other and promises to resume posting when it’s over) but I’ll tell you how I answered my inquisitive little friend.
Buddhists don’t pray to anything. Not really. It seems so; we pray in front of statues and stupas and our books are filled with prayers to Buddhas, bodhisattvas and our lamas. But our prayers are wishes, or aspirations, and those we seem to be praying “to” are more like symbolic reflections of our own true nature. They remind us why prayer can be effective in the first place. That is, from the ultimate point of view (manifested in form as Buddhas, stupas, lamas, dharma books, etc.) all people and phenomena are essentially inseparable. Due to our habit of conceiving separation, however, it seems that we are wherever we are, praying for, say, Asia Claus in a children’s hospital in Tennessee and we think, "How can my prayer get from here to way over there?" But with a view aligned to the ultimate reality of things, I am inseparable from Asia and the potency of my visualization of her purified of her cancer and my fervent wish that she be freed from her suffering can therefore actually affect her in a positive way.
Prayer also may be to plant an auspicious seed in one’s mindstream with the confidence that it will ripen under the right conditions in the future. Thus, I spent a lot of time praying for the blessings of my teachers and lineage that all of the resources and contacts, as well as my own personal courage and purity of purpose, might naturally and effortlessly arise to truly bring cooperative benefit into the Mongolians’ efforts to revive their Buddhist culture.
I also had this insight on my prayer shift this morning: there’s a simple, four-line dedication prayer composed by Jetsunma that we say all the time. But the more I went over it in my mind this morning, the more I marveled that somehow, in just four lines, she had expressed the entirety of what the Buddha taught. So I give it to you and hope you might like it, too:
By this effort, may all sentient beings be free of suffering.
May their minds be filled with the nectar of virtue.
In this way, may all the causes resulting suffering be extinguished,
And only the light of compassion shine throughout all realms.
OK, now I really gotta go shave my little head and finish packing the last bits. I’ll post as soon as I can from Mongolia. The Mongolian for “bon voyage” is sain yaavarai and I welcome such wishes as I bring you all along in my heart!
Oh, last thing: the only annoyance in my leaving today is that I won’t get to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s new film about global warming. It opens here in DC day after tomorrow. So go see it for me, and tell me all about it, OK? Then elect him as our next president.