Prayer – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Question for consideration

Each cluster of texts is comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme.

For each cluster of texts on a particular theme ask the following questions:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?


Sources: 54, 75, 95, 85

All religious traditions include a prayer or meditation component. Prayer is something that differentiates the religious life from other cultural expressions – but to what extent does it divide one religion from another? The sources below define prayer, outline its purpose and illustrate its difficulties. Are the forms and purposes of prayer described below interchangeable between traditions or limited to the tradition from which they come?

Each of the texts below deals with the theme of ‘prayer’. Read the texts and the commentaries, if you desire in some cases, guided by the accompanying questions. After reading the texts, refer to the question above, a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the theme of ‘Prayer’.

Source 54 (Hindu): Mata Amritanandamayi

Lead Us To The Light, p. 81-2

Guiding question: What does Amma believe to be the ‘true’ form of prayer? What is the aim of prayer?

“Prayer is dialogue with the Beloved within ourselves – our true Self. You are that self, the atman. You are not meant to be unhappy, ever. You are not the individual soul. You are the Supreme Being. Your nature is bliss. This is the purpose of prayer. Real prayer is not just empty words…true devotion is to see God in everyone, and to be respectful toward everyone. We should cultivate this attitude. Our minds should be uplifted so that we see the Divine in everything. Here in India we don’t imagine God as residing in heaven. God is everywhere. Nothing is more important in life than to know God. The aim of hearing scriptural truths, contemplating them, and assimilating them is to realize the nature of the supreme Being or God.

Devotion is a spiritual path that leads to that same goal.

It is not easy for everyone to turn the mind inward, for the mind likes to wander in every direction. Those who have studied the scriptures may prefer the path of “neti neti” (“not this, notthis”) rejecting their identification with everything except the Self. But so many people haven’t studied anything. They, too, need to know the Self, don’t they? For them, devotion is the most practical way.”

Commentary by Dr. Amanda J. (Huffer) Lucia: The Upanisads teach that the essential self is the atman, the essence of the cosmos is brahman, and that these two entities are comprised of the same substance. They are one. It is this ancient Hindu philosophical concept that Amma refers to when she interprets prayer as a deep conversation with God (brahman) within the self (atman). Amma habitually attempts to make her discourses palatable for the broadest and simplest of audiences, which means that sometimes particular Hindu nuances are lost in her translations, i.e. the Hindu brahman is not precisely the same as the Abrahamic concept of God. She clarifies the difference between Hindu and Abrahamic understandings of God (brahman) by explaining that for Hindus, God is everywhere, even within the individual; God does not reside in heaven separated from creation. She concludes by reinforcing the goal, which she locates as the realization the Self (atman). She often suggests that there are multiple possible paths to attain this goal, but herein she highlights two in particular: the path of knowledge (jnana yoga) and the path of devotion (bhakti yoga). In referencing jnana yoga, she draws on the Upani.adic philosophical premise (“neti neti”), the impulse to discriminate between the essential self and that which is non-self. In the 8th century, Sankara famously developed this Upanisadic ideal into “the crest jewel of discrimination.” With regard to bhakti yoga, she suggests that for those who are not learned in scriptures (and she often adds in modernity more generally), “devotion is the most practical way.”

Amma develops her central message of love and compassion by emphasizing the importance of devotional practice for her devotees. She routinely informs her devotees that in our contemporary tumultuous world, one most easily can reach God through devotional practices (prayer, devotional singing, and meditation on the beloved form of the deity). Here Amma wholeheartedly expresses the importance of cultivating a boundless love and devotion for all things. In these processes of devotional cultivation, one not only transforms the self, but also transforms all those with whom one comes into contact.

Source 75 (Christian): Thomas Merton

Letter to Abdul Aziz, January 2, 1966, HGL 63-64

Guiding question: How is prayer, for Merton, connected with annihilation of ego? What does he hope to attain from his prayers?

Now you ask about my method of meditation. Strictly speaking, I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. People pray for different things. A prayer for the sick, a prayer for loved ones and a prayer for good health maybe just some things that people may ask God for. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as “being before God as if you saw Him.” Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present “myself” this I recognize as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems to itself to be an object and remains an obstacle.

Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not “thinking about” anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.

Source 95 (Buddhist): Hanshan Deqing

From his biography (HNS, I.23a–b.)

Guiding for reading: This small text describes two entirely different types of prayer. Identify them and note the relationship between them.

Deqing’s first experience of sam?dhi at a three-month Chan retreat in the autumn and winter of 1565–1566 brought more instruction on how to apply his mind in meditation. Deqing became completely unaware of the others or of everyday affairs, as though he were in a dream. He recalls that afterward, even walking in the marketplace he would be unaware of anyone around him, which his fellow monks found extraordinary. But the strain of intense meditation also brought on Deqing’s first bout with a carbuncle on his back. Distressed that this might force him to interrupt participation in the retreat, he prayed to a guardian deity to give him a three-month respite from that karmic punishment, promising to recite the entire Huayan S?tra ten times in return. After a night’s sleep on his meditation mat, he began to recover and was able to complete the retreat.

Source 85 (Jewish): Rav Nachman

Likutei Moharan II:25( Hitbodedut I)

Hitbodedut – private, secluded prayer in one’s own words, as opposed to the obligatory communal prayers.
Tzaddikim – righteous individuals.

Hitbodedut is the highest level of worship, and is best of all. You should set aside an hour or more to meditate in a room or in the fields, expressing your thoughts before God. Make use of arguments and persuasion, with words of grace, longing and petition, supplicating God and asking that God draw you near so that you will be able to serve God in truth.

Such prayer should be in the language that you normally speak…. It is difficult to express your thoughts in Hebrew, and your heart is not drawn to your words. We do not normally speak Hebrew, and we are not accustomed to expressing ourselves in this language. But in the language that you normally use for conversation, it is much easier to express yourself, and more likely that you will experience true heartbreak. The heart is drawn after your native language, since you are accustomed to it.

In your native everyday language, you can express all your thoughts, conversing with god and talking out everything that is on your heart. This can involve regret and repentance for the past, or requests and supplications to come truly close to God from this day forward. Every person can express his or her own thoughts, each one according to his or her level. You should be very careful with this practice, accustoming yourself to do it at a set time each day. The rest of the day can then be joyous.

This is a very great practice. It is the best possible advice, including all things. It is good for everything that may be lacking in your relationship with God. Even if you are completely removed from God, you should still express your thoughts to God, and ask [that God bring you back].

Even if your words are blocked, and you cannot open your mouth to God, you can still prepare yourself to do so. Even getting ready to speak to God is in itself very good. Even though you cannot speak to God, you long and yearn to do so – and this itself is very good. You can even make a prayer out of this itself. You can cry out to God that you are so far from God that you cannot even speak. You can ask God to have mercy on you and open your mouth so that you should be able to express your thoughts to God.

You should know that many great, famous tzaddikim said that they only reached their high level through this practice of meditation. If you have wisdom, you will understand the importance of this practice, and how it brings one higher and higher. Yet, it is something that can be done equally by every individual, great and small alike. Everyone can observe this practice and reach the highest levels. Happy is he or she who does so.

It is also a good practice to transform your Torah study into prayer. So, when you study Torah, or hear some teaching from a real Torah master, then turn it into a prayer. Ask and supplicate God regarding all that you learned from that teaching: when will I become so spiritually transparent that I will be able to live that teaching? How far it seems from me now! So, ask of God that God help you to attain all that was taught in that lesson.

God will lead the wise person who truly seeks the truth in the path of truth. Ultimately, this person will understand a matter from within itself, discerning how to live according to its lessons so that his or her words will be gracious and expectations of life fitting, and God willingly helps them find their way to true devotion and service. The topic of this teaching rises to a very high place, particularly regarding transforming Torah study into prayer. This practice brings great delight above.