IT IS GOOD TO PRAY
It is good to pray. There are many ways and many meanings and I shall describe a few. When you organise your living quarters, make sure you include a place for holy things. When you arrange your garden, create places for contemplation that are inviting to yourself and others. It is good to have places for prayer, places that are especially conducive, yet it is also good to pray anytime, wherever you are. Both are good, each in its special way. To create a prayer place is itself a prayer. To enter such a place and stand there at least a moment and feel the presence, is a prayer. Prayer does not have to be words, necessarily. To pause in the midst of a busy day and turn one's mind momentarily to sacred things is similarly holy. Make a habit of prayer and all of life is richer, finer, deeper and more true.
Prayer & Grace
Prayer is not difficult. People of great or little education have been doing it, both deliberately and spontaneously, since time immemorial. Prayer takes many forms, but is an attitude, a direction of mind as well as being something that, like the weather, is always present, but only sometimes imposes itself with force. Prayer involves body, speech and mind and goes beyond them. The best part of prayer is to receive the influence of the Holy into one’s being and one’s life. This is a grace. It cannot successfully be forced or demanded. Basically, one has to be willing. One can do some preparation. It is like gardening: the ground can be prepared and the seed sown, but the action and result are in the hands of a greater power. As Kipling pointed out, the work of the gardener and that of the religious are done mostly on one’s knees.
Learning as One Goes Along
It is good to pray, good for oneself and good for the world, but principally just good, good in itself. It is the deepest point of life and it is good to visit that place as often as one can. Over the years I have gleaned a little about the matter. I hope to encourage others. Let us explore the matter as far as we are able. We can rely upon our own experience and also upon the wisdom given to us by others who have walked this path. Prayer is a path. Many have walked such a path. We can, therefore, learn a great deal from those who have gone before us. However, there is no substitute for experience for it is in experience that the sacred presence speaks and informs one. Formed by angels we are as much as we can be.
Let life be a love affair. We fall in love with something that alone knows its own Name. We give it names and forms as best we can in our attempt to express our longing, our awe, and our reverence. To do so is prayer. The simplest prayer is the Holy Name itself, by whatever form you know it. One may say "Thou," or “Beloved” or “Great Spirit” or whatever. It is the intention that matters. It may be a God or a Buddha, Nature, the Eternal, the Tao - a rose by any other name will smell as sweet, said Shakespeare. The Name is a crucially important part of prayer, but whatever name one uses, one needs a sense that it is only a signpost toward something beyond. The true Name is hidden.
Longing Without Limit
So, a love affair: to love and be loved in return, or, more exactly, to know one is loved and to receive and reflect that love, or, more exactly still, to realise that the longing within us is itself precisely that reflection, already playing its beams of luminescence upon each atom of our being and upon our world. The love affair with the sacred may be placid or tumultuous. Either way, the longing in our hearts knows no limits and brooks no compromise, even though we often may struggle against it.
A Few Words
So turn toward the sacred in whatever way you understand it. Surrender, at least a little. Say the name that you know. Say whatever words may come to your heart: "Be here for us all," "Aid me now," "I love you," "You are the Truth, the Love and the Light," "Give us this day our daily bread," "Please stay until samsara ceases," "Turn the wheel of Dharma for us," whatever. Or, simply wait in silence and let grace enter.
A Few Actions
A modicum or more of ritual helps. Choose a stone with some care - one that speaks to you in some way. Hold the stone in your hand as you pray, then place that stone in a special place, perhaps upon a little altar of some kind. That stone is now a sacred object. The divine will be reflected in it. Simply to look upon it, touch it or hold it will be prayer.
A Few Moments
Whatever expression we give to this love is prayer. Whatever moments we spend appreciating this love is prayer. The love is reflected in us, but it comes from beyond. Prayer extends us toward that beyond. It is to open one's hands and heart to receive. In whatever manner, it is good to pray.
OPENING ONTO A BROAD VISTA
Many Modes of Spirituality
The contemporary world is such a confusing place. We have available to us a greater plethora of ideas than perhaps any previous age. The spiritual treasures of the whole world and much of history are spilled out at our feet and we do not know how to choose from amongst them. Actually any single jewel may be sufficient. It is surely not a matter of finding the right one any more than it is a matter of quantity. Sufi, Buddhist, Catholic, or even agnostic-yet-spiritual... there are many modes. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, said Shakespaere, but if one wastes so much energy disputing the name that one never stops to savour the aroma, the point is missed. They are all modes of expression of our deepest longing, our prayer and it is important that that longing find expression one way or another.
Loving the Divine No Matter the Creed
There are a growing number of people whose spirituality transcends the boundaries of traditional religions. They might be those who, like myself, practise one specific creed and benefit hugely, yet still know that it is just one vehicle and that many other vehicles might have done passably well; or they might be people who have never really settled in any one confessional community yet still harbour a strong spiritual sense of life. Such people, and there are many, find themselves at home with others who have fallen in love with the Divine no matter what their creed, but are less at ease with those who claim that one single interpretation of ultimate truth and one single book and church are exclusively right, all others being wrong and blameworthy, even if the church in question is our own – what embarrassment – and even if the creed is called "science" and the book was written by Darwin.
I am not impressed by the idea that membership of any particular ideological club in itself ensures salvation, but nor am I thinking that some kind of watered down generic spirituality will suffice. The rigour of the great traditions is invaluable, but exclusivism and narrowness is out-dated. Surely, the Beloved is calling to all beings and doing so in many languages and through many metaphors and mythologies, and some answer with an emphatic “Yes”. Life, thereafter, is never the same again.
Intimations of Infinity
We all live finite, mortal, vexed lives, blessed or haunted by intuitions of infinity, of unbounded bliss, of the eternal and of love, intuitions that puzzle, lure and sober us and that give a particular twist to human consciousness, whether we call it by the name of a God or a Buddha, or think of it as something abstract. The Beloved can appear in myriad manifestations. Different adepts encounter Him, Her or It in different forms since it speaks to each in the language most suited to the person's heart. Beyond the specific revelations, its ultimate nature remains the great mystery that we associate with the beyond: beyond the edges of our being, beyond death, beyond space, beyond time.
We are beings that call out, in a holy or blasphemous manner, in daily awareness of want, from the depths of our emptiness, or the overflow of our plenitude, we call to something greater. It is in our nature to do so and all men and women have done so in all cultures. The manner in which they have described what they were doing is various, however. The few who believe they do not do so have not arrived at that idea without being extensively educated to think so.
People argue, often fruitlessly, about the nature of such calling, such prayer, and even more about the nature of what is called to, though by definition it remains beyond definition. Totems, guardian angels, deities, spirits, and unknown forces have always accompanied the evolution of humankind. Is the Beloved personal or abstract? Within creation, or beyond it? Its subject or its lord? Good or indifferent? Still active in our midst or only the setter in motion of time? Does one need to know the answers before kneeling? If one thinks so, then perhaps one is worshipping only oneself.
Should I be referring to the Beloved as He, She, It or They? I do not concern myself with such speculations over much, though I do have to use words. The words I choose cannot help having some implications in this regard, but they are not central to what goes on in this thinking about the matter. We are talking about how we relate to our most profound intuition and your way of framing that intuition will not be exactly the same as mine.
We shall progress best not by trying to convince others that the form of our intuition is the right one for everybody, but by listening to it and striving to go beyond what we have already experienced into the depths that are only entered by faith, and also by hearing each other's experiences. It is not faith to coerce others to adopt one's own model; it is faith to have the willingness to have all one's models shattered by experience when the Tao, the Dharma or the Light comes into our life, rather as Julian of Norwich's ideas about sin and virtue were shattered when Jesus appeared and told her “All shall be well.”
Naming the Deathless
We can learn in a spirit of humility. If I sometimes call the Beloved “He”, sometimes “She”, sometimes “They” or “It”, will you be offended? If you are, I wonder if you want the Beloved to be your own creation rather than being willing for Them to determine Their own being and form as They will, and, in doing so, to re-form you. Of all the myriad Names, I rather like the term the Beloved, a name which can be male or female, singular or plural and which is built around the essence, which is love. As a Pureland Buddhist, I also favour the name Amida, which means "unmeasurable" and implies all acceptance. However, there are many other names. I was brought up in Cyprus, the island of Aphrodite, a name which refers to the aphros, or foam, indicating convulsion in the ocean. All these names conjure aspects of the Beyond, of the Unconditioned, Unborn, Deathless, without which, according to Buddha, there is no liberation, no salvation. At the core of this exercise, lies the human project of expanding heart and mind towards its unreachable infinite and ultimate degree while knowing that this can only happen through our being swept up into a cloud of power that we can never fully understand from our own side.
Prayer Transcends Traditions
People from many different religions pray. Even secular people pray at times, not always calling it prayer themselves. Prayer springs from an aspect of being human that is universal and instinctive. In this multi-cultural age we need such universals. In this time of change we need such constants. Whether it is called devotion, contemplation, meditation, divine reflection, spiritual exercise, mindfulness, rapture, or whatever, is not an issue that should trouble us too much. Across the cultural spectrum there are bound to be differences of terminology, but the commonality of the practice of prayer seems something worthy of particular attention.
Clothing the Mystery
So I do not mind much what your beliefs may be. Perhaps you believe in one God, many gods or that God is simply a metaphor. Perhaps your sense of the divine is abstract, symbolic, literal or confused. I don't mind. Who could honestly claim to be expert on such matters anyway? Perhaps you believe in karma or divine judgement or dialectical materialism; I don't mind. Perhaps you think that Amida Buddha will come to receive you when you die and take you to his heavenly realm, or perhaps you think that you will be reborn into another life here on Earth, or that you will become a ghost and haunt or help your descendants, or that you will join your loved ones in paradise, or perhaps you think that when you are dead, you are dead, and that's that. What you believe is up to you, a function of whatever spiritual experience or awakening you may have had, and, of course, you might have another one tomorrow opening the door a little wider. The truth is a mystery. People site their worship within many different metaphysical contexts, but these are only clothing for the mystery. Fine raiment.
One cannot be entirely generic in writing about this matter, but there is value in being fairly universal. What I write is inspired by a deep respect for the human spirit, wandering in the wilderness of this world. Generally when our spiritual practice wells up inside and wants to call out, we have a sense of speaking to somebody or something. That is the divine - translate it as you will. We are here addressing what seems to be a deep and universal intuition, part of what it is to be human, that manifests as acts of a religious nature that can be called prayer, worship or practice. In my own case, it does spring from a deep ineffable faith, but there is no way that I can fully convey that to you. You are you, and you have what you have got. Be true to it and you will have the right basis for your own form of devotion. What does seem important to me is, rather, that people not be shut out from the treasure house simply either because they do not entirely conform to this or that orthodoxy of belief, or because they do actually cling to so narrow an interpretation that they cannot see beyond their dogmatic world, be it materialist, mythic, spiritual or whatever. There is a middle way between narrowness and nihilism that opens onto a broader vista.
LOVE IS THE LIFE THAT YOU ALREADY HAVE
Precious Human Life
Love is the life you already have. What does this mean? If you are reading this then you are human. You already have the precious gift of having been born as a human being. You might have been many other kinds of being. You might not have been animate at all – a rock perhaps - or you might have been an earthworm, or a bird looking for earthworms to eat. You might have been a fish. In fact, you are a human being: this is the life you already have and, in being human, you have an exceedingly rare opportunity. If you had been born as a crab you would probably have much less opportunity. Humans can be the most destructive of species, yet they also have great possibilities. We have the opportunity to be aware of spiritual grace and to wake up to a love that is more than just ordinary attachment. We have intelligent life. Life is a dynamic thing. It is not static. Life is active and vital. Life is not a story, life is the creator of stories. Life is the ever unfolding and ever renewing principle of our being, replicating and changing. It is the basis of all good things. It can also be the basis of many bad things. It can be the basis of greed, of hate, of delusion. It is, therefore, important to choose - to choose that this life, that you already have, be the love that it already is. What is that?
Love is a Prayer
Love is the prayer that all beings be happy and receive what is best for them. Let me here talk about the Spirit and about what is sacred and how to be at home in the sacred and about how a spiritual home exists and can grow and be enhanced and appreciated. Praying for such a home for people is love. The spiritual way – the Way - is not really step-by-step; it is really an altogether-at-once thing, but it is in the nature of words that sometimes we have to describe things step by step. We have to build up a picture by stages, or establish one idea before we can build another upon it. At other times we simply look, as it were, through a series of different windows so as to try to get a rounded sense of the sacred life. Although having a community of fellow practitioners is immensely valuable and, therefore, it is valuable to have faith groups, it is important to also see the universal aspect and not become sectarian.
Love is the Foundation
I have always practised within particular spiritual traditions, but what I am writing about here is not the exclusive property of one religion or denomination. At a personal level it is the faith that I was born with before I encountered particular religions. You may be the same. At the collective level, it is the heritage of humanity and the product of the whole spiritual tradition of humankind insofar as each of us has received it.
To me it is confirmatory that this personal and this collective level meet. Each gives me a language for the other. There is love - which is personal - and there is Love - which is universal. I find that, although I may be in conflict on many specific points with the doctrines of particular creeds, nonetheless, basically, the mystical experiences of many cultures concur. For this I feel gratitude. I realise that it comes out of recognition of our existential situation as one in which what is sacred is already all around us, in us and before us, waiting to be celebrated. It has already happened, is happening and will go on happening. Love is the foundation of life.
If You are Reading This...
If you are reading this it might be that you live in a country torn by war and devastation and the Spirit may then be your lifeline, but, given that you do have time to read, it is more likely that you live in a country that is at peace, that is not under the sway of an occupying army. It might be that you are in the midst of a famine and have no idea where your next meal is coming from, in which case a knowledge of the Spirit may be what you need in order to face a painful death with dignity, but it is more likely that you live in a country that has rarely before in history experienced such prosperity as it enjoys now, and it is likely that you have a good prospect of being fed, not only today, but tomorrow as well. It might be that you are on your sick bed struck down by a terrible accident or prone by an epidemic contagious disease that has already wiped out your nearest and dearest, in which case to be at home in the Spirit may be your last resort of sanity and enable you to conduct yourself through such great adversity with a sense of meaningfulness, but it is more likely that you are more or less sound in body and limb and have a prospect of greater life expectancy than most humans in history have enjoyed. In fact, it is probable that you not only enjoy and may rejoice in precious human life, but that this particular birth has come at one of the most fortunate times in history when, despite continuing conflicts in some places, there is extensive peace in much of the world, and that you have been born in a country that is relatively secure, disease free and prosperous and that you have the leisure to study and practise the Way. This is an amazing grace and benefit that has been freely bestowed. The feeling that arises in us when we contemplate this is itself a prayer of gratitude and relief.
If you are reading this then you not only have precious human birth in rather fortunate circumstances, you also have a special opportunity in that you have access to precious spiritual teachers who can guide and help you and who, because they are doing their best to live lives in accordance with the spirit provide an example of what it is to be a student of the Way. There are living masters of spirituality in our world today. That is a cause for rejoicing. A wise man once said that as long as a people revere their saints there will be strength in the community. He was not talking about saints of one particular school or denomination, but simply about good people. A true teacher may have learnt what he or she learnt within a particular religious tradition, but if he or she is a truly spiritual being then they will have risen above sectarianism and radiate the spiritual light that is the salvation of all people. Spirituality is not a club, it is a universal human birthright. It is what makes life meaningful, noble and dignified. Great souls, mahatmas, sages, saints, have big mindedness. They love all beings. Their lives are love and they exist in this world in this life that they – and you and I - already have.
We all live in relation to a long tradition of spirituality. It may have come into your life as a family tradition; your parents may have been Catholic or Jewish or Hindu or whatever; or, it may be that you grew up in a family that paid little overt attention to the Spirit, but this tradition has, nonetheless, been there in the culture all around you throughout your life. My father was agnostic and my mother seldom went to church, but she was a great lover of poetry and of English culture and as a child I learnt to please her by learning quite a lot of poetry off by heart. This was a way of absorbing a lot of rather varied spirituality. Although the modern age has been dominated by efforts to make society more rational and secular, the fact is that our culture is saturated with the spiritual. Our ideas of justice, kindness, dignity, compassion, service, loyalty and love have all evolved in a spiritual context. Our secular society would quickly fall apart if we did not have that background of culture established over many centuries (which also is why imposing some of these secular principles in some other cultures that have different histories sometimes does not work). Gratitude for what we have and what we are part of is a foundation for prayer, devotion and contemplation.
Europeans draw on the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews for their sense of what life is all about and what this world is and means. People in the Middle East draw on Islam and its predecessors. People in India draw on the great sages and avatars of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In the far east they draw on Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tzu and many other later spiritual geniuses. North Americans draw on all of these Old World sources and, increasingly, so do we all. We draw on strands of teaching that go right back to shamanic, druidic, vedic and ancient Egyptian times and we have it all here today. We are the heirs to a greater richness of spirituality than has ever before been available. I can read Lao Tzu, Ibn Arabi and Francis of Assisi in a single afternoon from the same bookshelf. One sentence of any of them may be enough, but I have all this. This great and broad tradition is a voice of universal love. It is a surfeit of riches and it is part of the life that I already have. I did not create these saints; they are not my possessions; they lived before I was even thought about; and yet here they are. This is a grace and a benefit; it is love and it is part of the life that we already have.
Throughout human history there have been great spiritual teachers and sages. Their spirit is still with us. We are all loved by them. In one sense we all stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, equally loved, but in another sense, we are all unique and separate, all helping one another. To value the fact that we live in contact with those who have walked the path before us is to love. It is an appreciation of life. “Love is the life that you already have” means to appreciate this, to have faith and to let out a prayer of gratitude. This is not something that you have not yet got. Perhaps one day you will find greater and better teachers, greater and better illumination, greater and better faith, but it does not matter. The fact is that you already have precious teachers and a precious and enormously rich tradition and that you have the leisure to meditate and pray and the capacity to do good. You can practise: Whether you do it kneeling, sitting in the lotus position, standing with arms wide stretched toward heaven, or prostrating full length on the ground is secondary: there are many ways. All these way are instances of love and are something that you already have that has been freely given. The gratitude that we feel for all this is prayer in one form or another - let us not neglect it, let us celebrate.