How to pray to Buddha

“This is how you pray to Buddha,” says Dora, who hails from the Philippines. She is an acquaintance who has offered to take me to a service at her temple. We are in her car, driving to Oakland. As I strapped into the passenger seat, she showed me the laminated picture dangling from her rearview mirror. “Medicine Buddha,” she said.

“You bow. You tell Buddha your name.” Dora seems excited that I’ve agreed to accompany her. She is in her mid-40s, a single mom to a teenage boy. She works as a care-taker to an elderly gentleman, an atheist who gives her Sunday mornings off, but playfully teases her for wanting to use them to attend religious services. “You tell Buddha where you live, the year you were born, if you have kids, remind him. So many people on earth. You jog Buddha’s memory.”

I smile. I like this idea. This is the first I’m hearing of engaging in dialogue with Buddha like a Christian might God.

She glances at me, very serious. “After you introduce, then you talk. But don’t ask Buddha for material things. Don’t say, ‘Buddha, I want money.’ You ask for ‘success,’ you ask for ‘piss.’”

I turn to her. “Piss?”

She nods emphatically. “Yes, you ask Buddha for piss. You say, ‘Please, make me pissful.”

“Oh, peace.”

“Yes, piss.” She gives a look like, boy, does she have her work cut out.

Dora’s temple is part of a Buddhist order that prides itself on practicing a version of the faith that integrates many types of Buddhism. It accommodates monastics, both male and female, and caters to laypeople all over the world with universities and schools. Its temples may hold services on Sundays and engage in many similar practices to the Buddhist church I attended, but here the Pure Land concept gets an official tweak. Instead of worshipping with the hope of being reborn in paradise, the goal is to create a Pure Land here on earth by working to improve oneself and society. This Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “Humanistic” and some scholars say it marks a turning point—a sort of “reformation” in which the faith addresses the needs of a modern world. Using the goodness of the human Buddha as a role model, the leaders in this sect promote social responsibility and religious dialogue.

I marvel that so grounded a vision of Buddhism can be flexible enough to oblige Dora’s way of thinking—which, from my perspective, is somewhat “magical.” Apparently, this is not uncommon among the faithful whose previous belief systems merged with Buddhism. Dora speaks casually of spirit beings visiting her in the dream realm. She explains that burning incense opens a channel, either to an upper-level world or to a lower-level world, depending on the intention with which it is lit and if proper prayers are offered. She warns me to be cautious: people who use incense just because they like the smell may end up on a slippery chute to some place they never intended.

We come to a part of town where the street signs are Chinese characters. As we park, Dora points to a small square structure with a pagoda-style roof. The sanctuary’s doors open directly to the street; they are open and the activity spills on the sidewalk at a busy intersection. We pass through smoke rising from a large metal bowl holding incense sticks and then we are standing inside. The room is packed with people squatting on low benches arranged with a single aisle down the middle.

The altar at the front of the room is occupied by a tall Buddha statue, just as I’ve seen in other locations. Here, the main figure has a buddy on either side, smaller versions or other incarnations.

Around these are fresh additions: impressive pyramids of mangoes and apples. Everywhere, my gaze falls upon a new, stunning object, some item like a flower or a tree cast in metal or carved in stone. Bright, fantastical images adorn the walls. I’ve entered a life-size jewel box, a tiny patch of Pure Land.

13 thoughts on “How to pray to Buddha

  1. The more I read the more I continue to believe that all religious experience is the same even though each regards itself as different. Oddly, I’m also beginning to understand atheism a little better. I suspect that one of the few reasons I don’t embrace it is because I do believe in a Higher Power concept. I have many life experiences that seem beyond coincidence and that seem to lead me to a feeling of personal relationship with this power without necessarily having to explain or defend it. Just is. That Big Me and little me concept. I remember reading a metaphorical story about someone who wanted to know more about God. At first he walked to the ocean with a teaspoon and since that was as much God as he could handle that’s as much God as he knew until he went with a sand pail and that amount of water/God was as much as he knew. Later he went with a large bucket and once again that’s as much as he seemed able to handle. But then he took a washtub and filled it and found that he could handle that much of God. And then one day he walked into the water and realized he was the water.

  2. I’ve never heard of praying to Buddha before.

    I no longer think of myself as a Christian, but a humanist with some kind of connection to what I can only describe as The Mystery. I still use prayer which I think of as a tool that restores me to my highest self and brings me into relationship with my own resources which fear often blocks me from using. And yes, I do find my life filled with the coincidences that others call God.

  3. The kind of thinking you describe seems very fulfilling to me. There’s a tone of honesty to it. I like an acronym for F.E.A.R. that goes, “Feeling Excited And Ready.” Maybe fear is evocative.

  4. Bringing the pureland to this earth or viewing myself as a pureland is part of my daily practice. Beyond time and space, we have the capacity to touch a deepness within ourselves and bring this radiant love into samsara. It’s like there is Nirvana in Samsara.

    I’m enjoying your blog.

  5. Hi Corinna Nicolau. I’m friends with your parents from the Armadillo days. In touch with your mom on FB, saw her at an exhibition at La Peña Café in Austin, and she told me about your book, for which, Congratulations. Will read soon.
    Now I am one of your blog followers. This is the first one I’ve read, quite an eyeopener. Thanks. Quite happy to think it’s possible to ask the Buddha for help in being at piss with the world.
    Peace! I mean Peace! HA!
    Seriously, I read some of the Buddha’s sutras when I was a young man, really liked the Diamond Sutra. All the best to you,

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