Mat 21:22 And if you have faith, everything you ask for in prayer, you will receive.’ (New Jerusalem Bible, here and throughout)

A dear and respected friend has recently engaged me in a conversation about prayer, positive thinking and what he sees as the misguided notion of a personal God who gives us what we ask for. My friend is, in fact, waiting for my response to a recent email, in which he goes into minute detail around his conclusions, ending with, “What do you think?”

I’ll at least begin my answer here, since the question of prayer and its relationship to contemplation are important for many on the Path.

Mar 11:25 And when you stand in prayer, forgive whatever you have against anybody, so your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too.’

Prayer in a Christian context is a vast subject, with hundreds (or even thousands) of books devoted to its practice. When one searches for the words “pray” and “prayer” in the Bible, one can’t but be reminded that Christianity (as well as its Abrahamic relatives, Judaism and Islam) involves a relationship between some form of Deity and the individual human. This relationship is supported and sustained through study of revealed Scripture, through following certain moral, ethical and religious instructions… and, especially, through a spiritual form of communication known as prayer.

Luk 6:12 Now it happened in those days that he went onto the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.

A thorough reading of the four canonical Gospels shows that Jesus seemed to be constantly in prayerful communication with the Father — the “Father” being a personalization of the One God, a concept worthy of a million blog posts, knowing that one can never adequately define “God.” These many examples of Jesus in prayer — sometimes with tears flowing down his face — give many hints as to what prayer is really all about. Absolute supplication and surrender to God — yes, a creator God, a sustainer God and a destroyer God, all wrapped into one — is a primary lesson from these examples, which obviously requires that a person accept the existence of such a God.

This is one of the Mysteries of the human predicament: while an adequate, rational “proof” of the existence of God may be impossible (thereby rendering the concept of God invalid for many), those who “know” God — who have genuine faith, belief and assurance by virtue of strong devotional practice — are able to boldly affirm the power and efficacy of prayer. It can be a maddening paradox, this insistence that one must experience a thing in order to know its truth, while those who invalidate the thing without having experienced it — no matter how rational and ordered the “outside” analysis — will always have to make due with intellectual speculation around something that is spiritual in its essence. When it comes to God, faith comes before knowing.

Mat 6:5-6 ‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

There is something about the act of true, earnest, fervent prayer that demands supplication. Approaching the “Father,” one feels intimidation and even foreboding, and is reminded of the vast insufficiency inherent in human experience. The Christian, in fact, insists that the only way to truly approach the Father in prayer is through a spirit of repentance. One must admit one’s sins, failings and ultimate helplessness, all of which is expressed in vast detail (often from an archetypal or collective perspective, as in the Old Testament stories of the Israelites constantly violating their covenants with Yahweh) in the revealed Scripture, the accumulation of which stands as an indictment of “fallen” human nature. It is understood that, having “confessed” this state of affairs, one has every intention of drawing a line in the sand and doing things differently from hereon out — and it’s not just a pile of words, but a genuine expression of willingness to walk a Path of righteousness, if not holiness. Having adopted such a suppliant attitude, one’s prayers cannot help but be offered in alignment with Divine Will.

The psychological insight at work in this arrangement revolves around an insistence that humans carry a great deal of guilt, regret and self-judgment in their hearts, accumulated over a lifetime filled with dubious (at best) thoughts, choices and actions. This insight says that we require forgiveness, even though we absolutely do not deserve it. Prayer is the vehicle for approaching the infinite Intelligence — the Father — who has authority to forgive, to regenerate and to open up a better way of life — here and in the hereafter.

Again, those who avail themselves of this experience know how profound a healing is available through it. Those who see nothing but fairy tales and delusion in this process are, from the Christian (Abrahamic) perspective, on their own, challenged to deal (or not deal) with life’s slings and arrows in some other way… if such a way exists.

Mar 11:24 I tell you, therefore, everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours.

From the perspective of the Buddha’s instructions on achieving Nibbana/Nirvana in this very lifetime (i.e., “salvation” from the Wheel of Suffering), one may overcome a lifetime’s accumulation of negative, unskillful “dross” — that which holds us in attachment to human existence, with all its inherent trials and difficulties — through a rigorous and skillful contemplative practice that leads to ever-intensifying degrees of meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi). Daily saturation in the bliss, joy and ecstasy of skillful meditation has the effect of eroding — slowly-but-thoroughly — the “fetters” of action and belief that keep us attached to delusional existence. From a Buddhist perspective, “heaven” (or Nibbana/Nirvana) equals liberation from delusional existence, once and for all; we don’t have to pass through this “hell” world ever again; our individual ego-identity is snuffed out, dispersed in a way that (once again) makes no sense to those who’ve not tasted of the eight samadhi states described and enjoined in the Buddha’s teachings.

Rom 8:26 And as well as this, the Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words

The Ecstatic Buddhist meditation approach converges with the Christian prayer approach around what is known as the “baptism in the Spirit.”

In the depths of fervent prayer, just as in the bliss, joy and ecstasy of skillful meditation, the “Spirit” makes itself known. The result is “contemplation.” Focusing with all our being on the pleasant manifestations of the Spirit’s Presence invites these manifestations to expand, fill-out and energize, such that the contemplative is gradually “taken over” into ever-refining states of spiritual ecstasy. The Buddha expressed this phenomenon in terms of fulfilling prerequisites for Liberation (Nibbana/Nirvana). Jesus expressed this phenomenon in terms of fulfilling prerequisites for Salvation. Both depend on Samadhi/Spirit. Both challenge the contemplative to surrender his or her egocentric expectations for how the process should unfold, and to commit — in full trust — to spending the remainder of one’s life in an inevitably up/down practice that prepares us for the Final Goal.

Eph 6:18 In all your prayer and entreaty keep praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion. Never get tired of staying awake to pray for all God’s holy people

I know that “true believer” Christians and Buddhists will protest, but I believe that Buddhism and Christianity (leaving aside other traditions begun by enlightened mystics) offer two distinct ways of describing the same ultimate outcome, while the Path that leads there is one and the same.

Prayer — even if offered in hopes of material gain — is a pathway to contemplation, if the person praying approaches God in earnest humility, like a child before a stern and demanding Father. Meditation also leads to contemplation, if the meditator allows self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy to peel back his or her layers of belief and expectation. Both these approaches enter “hyper-drive” once the “Spirit” (jhana/samadhi) is engaged. Both depend on utter and complete surrender — even if it means dropping (eventually) one’s concepts of a Father God, heaven, hell, Nibbana/Nirvana or the Wheel of Suffering.

Religion, even with its deep corruption and dilution, offers a vehicle for its most dedicated contemplatives — a vehicle designed to carry him or her all the way Home. Granted, the contemplative “seed” at the heart of today’s religions has been mostly hidden, demonized and otherwise excised from orthodox teachings, but this miserable state of affairs has never been able to snuff out what happens under the transformative, ecstatic influence of the Spirit (jhana/samdhi). The challenge is to reach a point of absolute surrender, which leads to commitment to a lifetime’s daily contemplative practice, which connects the contemplative with the Spirit (jhana/samadhi) and leaves individual efforting in the dust.

True prayer and skillful meditation both lead to contemplation. Whether we receive prayerful guidance from the Holy Spirit or from self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy (jhana/samadhi), it really makes no difference. Either way, one is led “out of the desert” and into an enlightenment that opens the way to liberation and salvation. This is what the Buddha taught, and I believe it is also the Truth behind the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, wherein he sent back the Spirit to guide, comfort and transform those who avail themselves of it.

1Th 5:17 pray constantly

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