Prayer as meditation

31
Mar
2008

I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.

Comments

  1. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t think of prayer as focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it.

  2. Stephen says:

    I guess it depends on how one defines prayer. For me, the major difference between prayer and meditation is that prayer has as its focus a deity or deities, and the quality is devotional (what in India they call Bhakti). Meditation comes in many forms and may or may not have a direction, but it is (to me) more an exploration of being. Neither practice is right or wrong (what works for you is just fine), but they are different.

  3. For some reason this also made me think of that Anne Lamott quote:

    “It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

    Or maybe it was your post on caffeine today that made me think of that.