Understanding Prayer as Practice

This article is based on a talk I gave at a retreat for people of diverse but mostly non-devotional practices. It is intended as an overview of some (not all) of the ways prayer can be understood, particularly aimed at people who are not in a theistic tradition or may not be familiar with or comfortable with prayer as part of a contemplative wisdom practice.

Most people are generally familiar with Christian prayer: formal or informal words spoken to God, asking for things or giving thanks for things. But prayer is a very layered and interesting spiritual practice that can go beyond rote recitations or a transactional relationship with God.

1. Prayer as intention

One very basic useful function of prayer is to state intention. Clear statements of intention are powerful, and are a very neglected part of many people's practice - indeed they are often missing even from the practice of beginners within theistic traditions! Institutional religions often help people along by giving them common formulas: the prayer before meals, the bedtime prayer, the group prayers offered in church or Bible study class. Even if one says ones own words in these prayers, they are still quite often formulaic.

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On the nature of suffering in the Four Noble Truths

This is an excerpt dealing with the Four Noble Truths (as presented in the Dhamma Chakkana Pavattana Sutta) from the chapter on Buddhism in my unpublished book Vehicles of Hope, completed in 1993.

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From his rejection of extreme practices, Gautama passed via his own "middle way", to an exposition of the "noble truths of suffering". They embody the core of his causal conception of the nature of bondage and its end. Since they constitute the very foundation stones of the entire edifice of Buddhist teachings, embodying their central promise, principle and path, it is necessary to dwell upon these truths at some length.

Read more: On the nature of suffering in the Four Noble Truths

Every Moment is Equally Worthy of Mindfulness

This article originally appeared on A Little Death Blog. It has been lightly modified for publication here:

I was at a short retreat at a Buddhist center one weekend in early 2011. The practices that weekend were diverse, including sitting meditation, walking meditation in nature and in the temple, cleaning and cooking, and contemplation of texts. The teacher explained that when he suggested contemplation of specific texts, this did not mean thinking about the text or analyzing the text. It meant reading the text and resting in the experience of the meaning. The reading could be done freely – that is, reading the text over and over, or pausing on a specific phrase and repeating that gently, immersing oneself in the experience of it. This practice of immersing in a text is called lectio divina in contemplative Christianity.

Read more: Every Moment is Equally Worthy of Mindfulness