Mystery of Being Additions: Prayer

By David Guy



One day last fall I was sitting zazen in the early morning when it began to rain. My house was being renovated at the time, and the painters were scheduled to paint the outside; rain meant they wouldn’t be able to work. I was anxious about the job, wanted it to get done; I silently cursed the rain. I thought to myself, If I were a praying man, I’d pray for the rain to stop. Then I thought how ridiculous that was.

I’d like to explain why I think it was ridiculous, though I run the risk of offending any number of people. First of all—I don’t know how to put this—I don’t think God works at that level of detail. It’s not that he couldn’t; it’s that he doesn’t. He has created the world as it is, and the weather is just the weather. He doesn’t control it on a day by day basis. (Rick Perry, for one, disagrees. In 2011 he called for three Days of Prayer to pray for rain in Texas to end a drought there. There was not a good result, though I’m not saying that proves anything.)

Even if God does control the rain (and just wants Texas to suffer because they’ve been so evil. If they have been evil. I honestly don’t know), I don’t think He would have stopped it because I wanted my painters to work. If God controls the rain, and was having it rain that day for some reason—to help farmers, for instance—he wasn’t going to stop it because of my petty anxiety over a house renovation. He also wasn’t going to suspend it over a single block of Wilson Street. The rain was taking place in a larger situation which I didn’t understand. That was true whether God controls it or not.

A lot of things are like that.

When I gave up on Christianity in my mid-thirties (there was no day when I finally said, Okay, that’s it, I’m not a Christian anymore. I more or less just drifted away), a major part of it had to do with my relationship to prayer. I didn’t understand the meaning of prayer, I didn’t understand the necessity, I didn’t believe in the power of prayer, I didn’t know how to pray. Something. I went to church and the minister prayed long prayers of intercession. He pretty much said the same thing week after week. I couldn’t see that it had any particular effect. If I prayed for something, it seemed to me that God knew my wishes before I asked; he knew what I needed better than I did (even devout Christians said those things), so what was the point of prayer? It sounded as if the right thing would come about anyway. In any case, the thing that was going to happen would happen. There were prayers of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, but I didn’t think God was so petty (this was making him sound like a petty functionary) that he wanted to hear himself praised, for the ten zillionth time, by one more human being. I heard of people with strong prayer lives, people who found support from prayer, but I didn’t feel support. Finally I gave up. Hell, I can’t do this.

(On my way out, I made a stop at Friends Meeting. I attended for some years. People at Friends Meeting sat in silence for an hour; they sometimes delivered a message to the rest of the group, something that, presumably, they had been compelled to say by God. (Sometimes I wondered.) Mostly they sat in silence. I liked that, and it seemed more in accord with my idea of prayer and religion. You didn’t ask God for anything. You sat there and listened. But I didn’t know how to listen, and nobody suggested there might be a way to do that. Nobody gave any instruction at all, and that lack of instruction seemed intentional. Eventually I walked away from Friends Meeting too, though I had gotten started in peace activism, and continued with that. I felt that Friends Meeting, with its emphasis on pacifism, was leaving out a side of human nature. I was a pacifist, I am a pacifist, but something in the whole Quaker stance made me uncomfortable. Anyway, I left.)

If you had asked me at that time how I felt about religion, I wouldn’t have said, with authority, I don’t believe in that. I’m convinced there’s nothing to it. It was more like, I’m not good at that. I can’t figure it out. There’s no place for me there. I just didn’t get it, or couldn’t do it.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about how, after I turned 40, my second wife dragged me to a meditation class, and I began to practice meditation, and thereby, quite inadvertently, found something I’d been looking for all my life. I found my way back to religion.

I also discovered what prayer is, for me. I discovered my relationship to prayer.

Prayer is opening yourself to the presence of God. We are already in the presence of God, so prayer is acknowledging that we’re in that presence; it’s taking notice of it; it’s realizing it. It’s just like the fact that, in Buddhism, we all have Buddha nature, but we nevertheless sit in meditation in order to realize it. I don’t think we “realize” in the sense of “understand.” I think we “realize” in the sense of “make real.” We take some time to acknowledge, to take notice of, the thing that is already true. You don’t have to do anything to be in the presence of God. You don’t have to bring yourself into the presence of God. You just sit there.

(In Buddhist meditation, they gave you techniques about how to sit. In some traditions, they get quite elaborate. They talk as if these techniques have some goal, of bringing you more into the presence of something or other. But over time, everyone who meditates gives up techniques. They just sit there. A few hardy souls—some Soto Zen teachers—don’t give any instructions in the first place. They tell you to just sit there.)

As you sit, you see what you want. You see the contents of your mind, and it is full of wanting wanting wanting. Also of not wanting. (I don’t want it to rain!) It’s the contents of their minds that drive most people crazy. They wish their minds would stop. They wish they would quit wanting so many things.

If they were praying people, of course, they could ask God for the things they want.

When we sit zazen, or just sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or sit at Friends Meeting, we see the contents of our minds. Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama calls this the scenery of our lives, and points out that our personal scenery is entirely unique to us. But we also see, if we’re paying attention (and this tends to happen the longer we practice) that those unique wishes of ours take place in a larger context—the sun is shining, wind is blowing, birds are singing, horns are honking, trucks are roaring by—and that, in addition to having that private scenery, we live in that larger world. Our wishes may not matter so much there.

The Buddha noticed that people suffer precisely because they want, and don’t want, and don’t see their connection to that larger world. Once you see that connection, really see that larger world you belong to, it isn’t that your wants completely disappear (at least they haven’t for me), but you see how petty they are. The painters aren’t going to paint your house today, little man. Too bad. Get over it.

When Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima described the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, he used just one sentence. “He saw that he was sitting in reality.”

Buddhists don’t use the word God (though some let it slip out now and then), don’t acknowledge God, don’t believe in Him. (The Buddha himself didn’t say anything one way or another. He wasn’t, as some people say, an atheist. He was non-theistic.) But they do (of course!) acknowledge this larger context in which we sit. They have names for it, Original Mind, Original Nature, Buddha Nature. They see it as vast. They see it as infinite.

Sometimes I think the quibbles over terminology in world religion are really stupid.

Eihei Dogen, the Japanese founder of Soto Zen, who certainly never used the word God, when discussing what you should do with this little “self” of personal wishes, said you should throw it into the house of Buddha. It’s not like asking for your wishes, exactly. It’s more like putting them into that larger context. You’re not saying you don’t want them, or that you do. You’re seeing them in context.

Zen teacher Joko Beck, when asked one time if there was prayer in Buddhism, said, Zazen is prayer. It’s the same thing.

I agree with that. I had to come all the way to Zen to find out what prayer is.


This past year, I worked with a group of homeless people at Urban Ministries in Durham. Supposedly I was teaching them meditation, but they were all Christian, so the Presbyterian minister I worked with talked about Centering Prayer, and I talked about meditation a little. And we spent some time every week sitting silently in the sanctuary.

We also did a lot of regular old praying. The minister would open with a prayer, and we had a ceremony where we all came forward and lit a candle and said what we prayed for that week. Mostly we were praying for each other, and praying that the program would continue in a good way. We were acknowledging God, and saying what we wanted. But we understood there was a larger context, and what we wanted might not happen.

People prayed that the group would stay together; we started with 12 people, and by the time we finished our Friday morning sessions there were just seven. So we prayed that those seven people would stay together, and we also prayed for the people who were gone. The fact that we didn’t get what we wanted didn’t seem to mean anything one way or another. We knew we were asking in that larger context.

I actually don’t think Rick Perry was wrong to pray for rain. Prayer is what we do when we’re helpless. What else was he supposed to do?

Sometimes now when my wife and I are leaving our house in Asheville, we get together with her brother and pray. This woman who took me to the meditation center in the first place has us all join hands and asks that we all be healthy and happy and that we stay together in spirit even though we’re going to be apart, that we somehow be there for each other always. That doesn’t seem a wrong thing to pray for to me. It seems right. I join in enthusiastically.

I feel as if I could pray with anyone, in any religion. I feel that I pray every day.

I’m glad I finally found an understanding of prayer. I thank God for it, in fact. But he works in mysterious ways, and he certainly took his time about it.

Maybe that’s a factor of who he was working with.