Prayer and Suffering: The Pilgrim’s Way

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.” Matthew 6:7

Matthew 6:7 is a clear command from Jesus, who mostly taught in perplexing parables. Yet, we have a multitude of ceremonies centered on reciting many prayers: Sunday services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Prayers of adoration, prayers of supplication, and prayers of contemplation. We have enough books filled with prayers to stock a stadium-sized library, and we endlessly repeat prayers with beads and rosaries. The air is dense with prayers, rising and falling like leaves in a valley buffeted by mountain winds.

Most dishearteningly, we even use prayer to harm others. We ask God to protect us and our loved ones during war. This means that we are asking, consciously or unconsciously, for God to allow someone else to die. That “someone else,” of course, has loved ones praying for his or her survival. The only way God can possibly answer such a Tower of Babel is to decree that no one dies. But if no one dies, what’s the point of war?

I imagine these prayers to be rocks thrown into a deep mountain pond, quickly disappearing into the cold depths, ripples fading away in seconds. All that remains is the watery reflection of the rock thrower staring back at us.

When our prayers aren’t answered or aren’t answered in the way we imagined they would be, some of us become bitter and abandon religion. Others spin elaborate theories to explain away God’s failure to bend to our wills: God’s actions are beyond our understanding; God is testing us; God is punishing us for our sins; God’s actions are to be accepted, not questioned. Suffering, many reckon, is good for our character or our souls.

We scatter “reasons” like a puff on a dandelion scatters seeds.

I am a pilgrim among pilgrims, walking through a valley that is sometimes quite beautiful, filled with the quaking green leaves of aspen trees and the needles of the always pleasing blue spruce; with thick, luxurious fields of tall grasses and the blooms of Columbines, Golden Banner, and Western Wallflowers. I hear the harsh cries of crows, the seasonal song of yellow warblers, and the plaintive calls of mourning doves. Like Wordsworth, I hear “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a soft inland murmur.”

But the valley is also sometimes cold and snow covered, silent except for howling, biting winds. The sky is cloud-covered and dark, closing off from the rest of the universe a valley that now seems hostile to life.

Of course, the valley is neither beautiful nor hostile; it simply is. Our perceptions, our attachments, make the valley beautiful and make it hostile, and prayers will not alter its seasons. As I walk along the pilgrim’s way, I am transfixed by the beauty of spring and winter, but I’m perplexed by the desire to change it. So many prayers by so many people who want spring in winter and winter in spring.

Consider, instead, a Buddhist perspective: prayer (contemplation) is not about changing the valley, the reality of what is. Prayer is merely the intention to be conscious of our actions before we act. It’s not about asking God or the universe for anything. Prayer reminds us of our values and prepares us to act in accordance with them.

Prayer is building a house before winter, of storing food to sustain us when it snows. The valley remains the valley.

There is no “My prayers were answered” or “My prayers were not answered.” There are only actions that are in accordance with our values or actions that are not. If we fall short (observation), we pray (meditate) for clarity about the reality in which we find ourselves. We pray (contemplate) for clarity about our values (and ensure they match our reality). We pray (contemplate) for the energy to act in accordance with our values. Perhaps we faltered because we need to do a better job of observation, of identifying our reality or our values; perhaps we were overly ambitious about committing our energy to action. Regardless, we are invited to begin again and again and again.

In the valley, spring follows winter, and summer follows spring. The luxuriant greens of summer subside into fall’s golds, yellows, reds, and browns, which winter blankets with white snow. Birds yellow, black, red, and gray flourish for a time, singing, nesting, and darting through the blue sky, then they migrate. Rabbits and beavers forage, bear young, then hide away from the cold in burrows and lodges. Some of them, whether from growing old or the quick pounce of a predator, perish, feeding other animals and the insects. Reality is life and death, a cycle endlessly repeated again and again and again.

Christians have a tradition similar to that of Buddhists. Mystical prayer is meditation, an attempt to experience the reality that, for Christians, is God. Contemplative prayer is imaginatively engaging in values clarification and preparing for action by sympathetically entering the worlds of the Hebrew scriptures or the Gospels. Some Christians insist that “God acts through the hands at the end of your arms” and follow the Social Gospels or the social teachings of their churches. Suffering, ultimately, is caused by separation from God, in this life and the next. Failing to abide by the Word of God is a sin.

For Buddhists, suffering — our own and that which we cause others — is caused by failing to understand reality, which means we treat as permanent things that will change. We become attached to people and things and we suffer when we lose them. We miss bird song when the winter wind howls; we miss the summer sun when it snows. We even suffer when we think about losing our attachments, as any parent knows when a teenager learns to drive. We are dissatisfied or unhappy because people and things change: some people argue with us and cease to be our friends; good friends move away; our parents become ill and die; we grow old and die; things break or go out of fashion. We don’t want any of this to happen, but rather than accept reality, we deny it. We live as if we are never going to die; we chase fashions and status and trinkets to distract us from the reality of uncertainty.

We expect the valley to be forever green and in bloom. We expect food crops to grow effortlessly and the lion to lie down with the lamb. We insist the valley be free of mosquitoes! But the valley is not like this at all, so we suffer.

We also suffer because the consequences (results) of our actions (or inaction) don’t match our misperception of reality (our wishes rather than what is) or of the values we profess. That’s because our actions take place in reality, not in our imagined reality, and our misaligned actions disintegrate when they collide against the wall of what is. Our failures can be significant; they might even cause physical pain to ourselves or pain and death to others. Economic inequality, environmental destruction, and war are failures to align our values and actions with the reality of what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing.* If we cut down all of the trees on a mountain slope, we may discover that we have no longer have clean water; the snow melt and the rain will rush down the denuded slope in muddy torrents, vanishing in a season, rather than slowly percolating through the tree-protected soil and into life-giving streams and ponds. Everything is related to everything else.

Contrary to Christianity, however, Buddhists do not conceive of these failures as sins to be punished in the afterlife; rather, they are a statement of the suffering — our own and that of others — in the here and now. We are then invited to marshal the energy to begin again.

There is no final answer; our prayers will never be “done” because we change, society changes, even the earth changes. A tree falls across a stream in the valley, causing flooding, and the rising water threatens to drown our carefully planted crops. We must reconsider our day’s activities; perhaps our preparations for winter are now in jeopardy. We are frightened and angry and speak harshly to our partner, straining our relationship. Yesterday’s values, intentions, and actions might not be suitable for today’s reality; they may, in fact, cause suffering. We are invited to constantly query and observe our perception of reality (through meditation, among other things) to ensure it remains valid. We are invited to examine our values and actions through contemplation and align them with a new reality.

We are also invited to join our individual actions with those of others to address the systemic causes of suffering.

Systemic causes of suffering are the human created structures, rules, and power relationships that prevent some of us — many of us — from flourishing in the mountain valley. The valley remains the valley, but the barbed wire fences of inequality, the effluent from the factory, and the walls built by those who would dominate us are obstacles to flourishing for all but a wealthy few. Systemic causes of suffering are the proper subjects of collective social action and change.

Addressing the systemic causes of suffering is where Buddhists can join Christians who practice the Social Gospels or liberation theology. Buddhists can also join secular activists fighting injustice and environmental devastation, among the other ills we’ve inflicted on each other and the earth. These relationships weave a web of Right Thinking and Right Action — of interbeing — that is our greatest hope for minimizing suffering. The cessation of suffering lies in understanding (observation) and experiencing reality (meditation) and aligning our values and actions (contemplation) with it; that is what Buddhists call enlightenment (nirvana). Christians call it the Kingdom of God, and we should all remember that the Kingdom of God is meant to be on earth, not in heaven.

The valley is the valley, but we choose, individually and collectively, to make it beautiful or hostile at every moment of awareness, with each careful or careless footstep we place in the here and now. That is the pilgrim’s way.

Namaste. Pax et Bonum.

*Interbeing means to “inter-dependently co-exist”; I recognize that I depend on, and am in a relationship with, all other people and things. “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.” Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding

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