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Buddhist and Christian Prayer: A Comparison in Practice and Purpose
HUMA 2800 = SOSC 2600
Dr. Stephen Ford
March 7, 2005
At first glance the traditions of Christianity and Buddhism appear very different from each other. One centers around a God that was at one time physically manifest on earth in the human form of his "son" Jesus Christ, the other primarily worships a historical figure that gained divine status through enlightenment. This assessment is broad at best, especially in the case of Buddhism where the Theravada and Mahayana traditions differ significantly. Christianity also has division within itself, the most prominent being between the Roman Catholic and Protestant systems. There are however, despite obvious differences, some very interesting similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, especially regarding prayer and worship, which fall into the "ritual dimension" of Ninian Smart's analytical model (Smart). The purpose of this paper is to argue that Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana and Pure Land forms, and Christianity particularly Roman Catholicism are extremely similar regarding the practice and purpose of prayer. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines prayer as follows; "act of communication by humans with the sacred or holy - God, gods, transcendent realm, or supernatural. Found in all religions at all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms or techniques" (Prayer, Britannica). This definition is the one that was kept in mind in the composition of this paper as it allows for a wide range of practices to be interpreted as prayer. For instance the Buddhist practice of meditation fits the above definition. This paper will explore the practice of performing prayer and worship as well as the purpose of it in the traditions in question.
In the examination of prayer and worship in Christian and Buddhist traditions there are some startling parallels. For instance, both traditions make use of beads during the performance of prayer. Pure Land Buddhism uses a string of beads that are fingered while invoking the name of the celestial Amitabha, or Amida Buddha. A ritual that is very close to the Roman Catholic practice of counting prayers and praying with a rosary. Pure Land Buddhism thus displays a strong resemblance to devotional Christianity, with a God-figure (Omitofo), a mediator (Guanyin), and a prayerful devotion resembling the rosary (Amore and Ching 273). The mediator for Chinese Pure Land prayer is Guanyin, a feminized version of the boddhisatva Avalokitesvara. Guanyin is very similar to the virgin Mary of Roman Catholicism, and as such is sometimes called the "virgin Mary of east Asia" (Amore and Ching 247) as the bodhisattva she acts as the assistant to the celestial Buddha; Amitabha (Omitofo in Chinese) who is seen as the giver of grace and salvation much the same as God is seen as the giver of grace and salvation and Mary as the mediator or assistant in Roman Catholicism (Amore and Ching 273). These observations display a definite similarity in prayer techniques between the traditions in question. Both traditions make use of beads as a means for counting the prayers recited, also the fact that the prayers are directed to the female assistants of the supreme deities could mean that the followers thought a female mediator to be more compassionate to the needs of the worshipper.
Christian prayer is often characterized by recitation of scripture or an original prayer by a devotee. Buddhist prayer is characterized, with a few exceptions, by meditation. Both traditions for the most part have distinct positions for the performance of these rituals. The typical Christian prayer position is to be kneeling with hands clasped in front of the body, and head and eyes closed or downcast. The Lotus position is the traditional stance used for Buddhist meditation. One sits with legs and hands crossed, hands on the lap on the feet on the thighs, with erect posture and downcast or partially closed eyes. (Amore and Ching 223) Thus both religions although different have a definite bodily arrangement for the practice of prayer.
Even though the majority of prayer in Buddhism is in the form of meditation the Pure Land School does offer a spoken homage that resembles shorter Christian prayers. In practice they are very similar chanted or said, in the case of Pure Land the "Homage to Amitabha Buddha" was originally said ten times as prescribed by the Meditation sutra, it was later changed to three repetitions and then to one repetition. This homage was used by the laity as an easier path to rebirth in the Pure Land and was meant to be said at the very least just before death (Bhogal). This Buddhist practice parallels the last rites that are performed in the Catholic devotion they are both used in order to "cleanse" the person before their "rebirth" in the Pure Land or Heaven respectively. The Christian tradition has many short prayers, one of which is extremely similar to Buddhist repetitive and meditative prayers known as mantras (FORD), namely the Jesus Prayer used by a Byzantine sect of Christianity called the Hesychasts. They repeated the short one sentence prayer over and over with each breath as an almost meditative practice (Oxtoby 237). Pure Land Buddhism concentrates on the devotional repetition of prayers. (FORD) having said that the best-known Buddhist mantra is from the Vajrayana tradition the expression, "Om mani padme hum" or in English, "O the Jewel in the Lotus", it is used in a mantra based mystical practice invoking magic (Amore and Ching 254).
Prayer in Mahayana Buddhism and Catholic Christianity is sometimes not directed towards the supreme deity. In the Mahayana tradition there is a belief that numerous boddhisatvas can respond to prayers of petition from worshippers,