The Posture of Prayer: A Look at How Buddhists Pray

Dozens of wizened men and women circled a massive Buddhist stupa as an act of worship and prayer. I walked in the opposite direction, counterclockwise, so I could see the faces and postures of the worshipers.

These Buddhists moved their lips silently as they recited the lines from mantras. Most, if not all, used prayer beads to help them keep track. A few carried handheld prayer wheels, while the majority spun the prayer wheels attached to the stupa’s outer walls.

Nearby, a different group of Buddhists—Tibetan monks—were offering prayers in a completely different manner—monotonously reciting mantras in a room with pictures of tantric deities and lamas, also known as gurus.

Having grown up in countries that practice Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, my experience observing prayer in a Tibetan Buddhist setting was enlightening—pun intended—and a reminder that prayer practices of Buddhists can’t be generalized.

Prayer and Buddhism

When we as Christians say the word prayer, we often think of a conversation we have publicly or privately with God where we praise him, thank him, and make supplications.

In other faiths, prayer has a different function and form depending on the religion, culture, and belief of the worshiper. For some, prayer is highly ritualistic and strictly controlled, while for others, prayer may be informal and spontaneous.

Defining prayer in Buddhism is challenging because the prayer rituals are varied in practice just as the fundamental doctrines and tenets are varied across the different Buddhist sects. Buddhism in Thailand looks different from Buddhism in Nepal. And, Buddhism in Nepal looks different from Buddhism in the East.

Here’s a quick overview of the various Buddhists sects and how they practice prayer differently.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is practiced throughout most of the mainland of Southeast Asia, especially in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. It’s thought to be the oldest and strictest sect of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhist doctrine, built on the Four Noble Truths, teaches the necessity of self-dependence in the pursuit of enlightenment, or nirvana.

Because the search for truth is a self-directed pursuit, prayer for adherents of Theravada Buddhism might be best described as meditation, rather than supplication to a being of greater power or authority. Meditation might occur at a temple or a home while lighting incense.

After lighting incense, a woman meditates at a neighborhood shrine in Southeast Asia. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

Chanting is thought to prepare the mind for meditation. Theravada adherents chant parts of the Pali Canon, a collection of Buddhist scriptures. Often, when chanting or meditating, adherents kneel with their palms together and fingers pointing up, and then raise their head and then lower their head and body so their forearms touch the ground. This gesture is used to greet, show gratitude, or make a request. In meditation, it symbolizes veneration and the giving of respect. Theravada Buddhists repeat this three times while reciting different parts of the Pali Canon. Worshipers bow their head to end the chant or meditative session.

Audio of monks chanting at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Buddhist monks often lead worshipers in chants in temples. They also chant Buddhist scripture in newly dedicated homes and businesses. Incoming families in my neighborhood have had monks come in to chant blessings and protection over their new homes. I’ve overheard the hum and drone of their chants, and it spurs me to pray for God’s presence to fill my home.

Theravada Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia lead chants taken from the Pali Canon in a temple. Photo from the IMB Photo Library.

In some Southeast Asian nations, animism has found its way into Buddhist beliefs. Many homes in Thailand have small spirit houses, built for guardian spirits that are believed to shield the home or workplace from evil spirits. Buddhists place food and drinks inside the spirit houses and ask for protection.

Mahayana Buddhism

Adherents of Mahayana Buddhism—practiced throughout mainland China, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan—comprise the largest sect of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhist doctrine also focuses upon the Four Noble Truths. However, at least one major difference exists: Mahayana Buddhist doctrines teach that the world is populated with multiple bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are people who obtained enlightenment but refused to enter nirvana so they can help others reach enlightenment. Bodhisattva means “those who bestow grace.”

Mahayana Buddhists focus their prayer rituals on supplications to these givers of grace. Worshipers might sit on the ground, barefoot, and face a statue of Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Many worshipers light incense before, during, or after their supplication to show honor to Buddha and bodhisattvas. The smoke from the incense stick symbolizes the burning away of negative personal characteristics so as to purify and cleanse the individual.

A man lights incense in a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

Mahayana Buddhists also practice prostration, both full prostration or half prostration (bowing) while making their supplications. The act is thought to show gratitude, humility, and reverence. In the course of these movements, Mahayana Buddhists chant sutras, which are sermons given by Buddha or one of his disciples.

Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism is a smaller sect and is practiced in Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. It focuses more on the demonic realm and occult-like texts, called tantras.

You may have heard of Tibetan Buddhism, which incorporates elements of the Vajrayana and Mahayana sects. Prayer habits in these sects can be more ritualistic and robust.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, some worshipers meditate on tantras or on mandalas—spiritual, circular, and geometric patterns—that they believe will lead to out-of-body experiences.

Prayer also takes the form of repeating mantras: short, repetitive prayers that Buddhists believe help them gain merit and move  them toward becoming an enlightened being. Reciting mantras might happen while standing, sitting, or walking.

A Tibetan Buddhist nun spins a prayer wheel as she walks around Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the posture of prayer is often one of movement. Worshipers use prayer beads to help them keep track of mantras. When reciting them, they circumambulate temples, monasteries, or shrines. Often when praying, adherents spin prayer wheels. The prayer wheels have the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, inscribed on the outside, and spinning them is thought to release the power of the mantra.

Worshipers prostrate themselves before times of teaching or meditation. Prostration is believed to rid one’s self of impurities and purify the mind, speech, and body of defilements such as pride.

Worshipers prostrate themselves repeatedly in front of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Devotion to a guru is also a fixture of Vajrayana Buddhism. Gurus are also called lamas, the most famous of which is the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists often prostrate themselves before a lama and pray to him for wisdom and direction.

How to Pray for Buddhists

Whenever I’ve encountered Buddhists praying, it’s a cue for me to pray too. I pray they will one day pray to the only one who can hear them: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Here are a few examples of ways you can pray for Buddhists you meet.

  • Pray against spiritual strongholds.
    Ask God to bind the forces of darkness and spiritual powers that enslave almost one billion Buddhists. These influences can almost feel palpable in Buddhist countries. Pray they will be demolished (Eph. 6:12–13; Dan. 10:13, 20; Col. 2:15; 2 Cor. 10:4–5).
  • Pray for more workers.
    Ask the Lord to send out willing and skillful workers to each of the three thousand unreached Buddhist peoples (Matt. 9:38). Ask God to help Christians discern the biblical differences related to Buddhist terms and concepts so they can intelligently communicate the gospel (Prov. 2:2–3; 2 Tim. 2:7). Intercede for lasting fruit from the sacrifice of existing missionaries of the various agencies working among Buddhists (John 12:24).
  • Plead for open eyes.
    Ask God to show Buddhists the revelation of the true and living God and his Son through Scripture and gospel proclamation. Pray for Buddhists’ hearts to be open to the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary death and redemption (Eph. 1:17–23; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 1:18–19; 2:24).

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series entitled The Posture of Prayer, which takes a look at how people of different faiths pray. Read The Posture of Prayer: A Look at How Muslims Pray and The Posture of Prayer: A Look at How Hindus Pray.