Excerpts from: The Energy of Prayer  by Thich Nhat Hanh

Offered by Melissa T on February 18, 2021

I come from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist tradition. In Zen, we are taught to rely on our own power more than the power of others. This means we have to take our destiny into our own hands. We can’t just believe and have faith in another person, even if that other person has the stability and wisdom of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed

But if this is so, then what is the role of prayer? Should we pray or not? And if we do pray, who do we pray to and what should we pray for?

People of all faiths use some form of prayer or meditation in their spiritual practice, although it can look quite different from the others. A prayer can be a silent meditation or a full chorus of chanting. In some traditions people sit and pray, in others they lie, kneel, stand, or even dance. Some people pray regularly with devout faith, others pray only as a last-minute plea for help.

We don’t know why prayer is effective at some times and not others, but out of this question, another arises: If God or whatever power outside ourselves that we believe in has already determined that things should be a certain way, then what is the point of praying? Some people of faith would say that if God wills something, then the will of God is already being done. What is the point of praying if everything is already predetermined? If a person at a certain age suffers from cancer, why should we bother to pray for that person’s health? Isn’t praying a waste of time?

For Buddhists, this same question arises in regard to karma. If someone performed unwholesome actions in the past, and then sometime later they become ill, some would say that this is just an example of karma at work; how can our prayer change anything? If our karma is such then, how can the result of our karma be changed? What we call the “will of God” in Christianity is equivalent to what we call the “retribution of karma” in Buddhism.

So, if a spiritual being has made matters the way they are, why pray? We could respond with the question, why not pray? In Buddhism, we have learned that everything is impermanent, which means that everything can change. Today we are in good health and tomorrow we are in ill health. Today we are in ill health and tomorrow our ill health might no longer be there. Everything goes in accord with the law of cause and effect. Therefore, if we have a new energy, a new insight, a new faith, we are able to open a new stage in the life of body and mind. When we sit down to practice unifying our body and mind, and we bring our energy of love to our grandparent, to an elder sibling, or a younger sibling, then we are producing a new energy. That energy immediately opens our heart. When we have the nectar of compassion and have established communication between the one who is praying and one being prayed to, then the distance between Plum Village, France and Hanoi does not have any meaning. This connection can’t be estimated or described in words; time and space cannot present any obstacles. What we call the will of God is linked to our own will. That is why the retribution of our past actions can be changed.

And then there is the question, the one hovering above the rest: Who is the person to whom we pray? Who is Allah? Who is God? Who is Buddha? Who is Our Lady? When we practice looking deeply into this matter of prayer, we find more questions than answers.

Where is the line where one ends and the other begins? For Buddhism, this is possibly the most basic question. If we are able to discover the answer to this question, then there will not be much difficulty in answering all other questions of prayer. In the tradition of Buddhist practice, whenever we join our palms before the object of our respect, we have to look deeply to know who we are and who the person is sitting in front of us before whom we are about to bow down. Above all else, we need to see what the relationship is between the two of us, between one’s self and the Buddha, for example.

If you think that the Buddha is a reality wholly separate from yourself with absolutely no relationship to you whatsoever, and that you are sitting down here and Buddha is sitting up there, then your prayer is not real because it is based on a wrong perception, the perception of a separate self. A prayer based on the perception that Buddha has a separate self from your own, and that you have a self separate from the Buddha, can only be called superstition.

When palms are joined before an image of the Buddha, or an image of whomever you pray to, you have to visualize, because that image before you, whether it is made of brass, cement, jade, or diamond, is just a symbol. That statue seems to exist outside of you. But the Buddha is not someone who exists outside of you. We need to be able to visualize our connection.

You and the Buddha are not two separate realities. You are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. These seeds of understanding may also be in the Christian tradition and in all other religions, but Buddhism expresses this in a very clear, uncomplicated way. The one who bows and the one who receives the bow, both are empty, which means neither of us has a separate self. So, in answer to our question, when we pray in Buddhism, we are praying both to ourselves and to what is outside of ourselves; there is no distinction.

If, in truth, we are practicing, then we can see that we also have the same substance of love, mindfulness, and understanding as all the great beings. God and we are of the same substance. Between God and us, there is no discrimination, no separation.

The energy of mindfulness is a real energy, and whenever energy is applied, there is change. For example, the energy of the sun can change life on the planet Earth. Wind is energy and our mindfulness is also an energy that is able to change the situation of the world and of the human species. Therefore, when we create the energy of mindfulness, we are able to pray.


Another object of prayer might be for good health. We all want to be completely healthy, but that is not something that can be realized in life. The reason we are still alive is because we have been in ill health in the past and our bodies have developed resistance and immunities to certain diseases. With a pain in your stomach or an ache in your back, you can pray in order to establish peace and joy; this is called practice. If we only pray or meditate when we are in perfect health and happy, we will never be able to produce peace and joy. We have to sign a peace treaty, so we can live in peace with our ill health. Mohammed, the Buddha, and Jesus all had stomach-aches sometimes. Sickness and death are part of life.

When we pray, we have to have wisdom. When most of us pray, we usually want God to do something for us or bestow this or that upon our loved ones. We think that if God were able to do this one thing, then we would be happy. But every one thing is made up of a million pieces. As long as there is birth, there has to be death. Do we have enough wisdom to be able to set up that equilibrium or not? We have to look deeply so that our prayers consider the whole, and not just the parts.

In response to the previous question of why we pray, perhaps all energy of prayer comes back to our simple human desire for happiness and being connected both to other people and to something greater than ourselves. Prayer, whether silent, chanted, or in meditation, is a way to return to ourselves, in the present moment and touch the peace that is there. It is, simultaneously, a way to put us in touch with the universal and the timeless. Our true happiness comes from being fully conscious in the present moment, aware of our connection to everything else in the universe.

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