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I mentioned last time that in dealing with my wife’s cancer, I had started praying to Mañjuśrī, just as I had done (and written about here) five years ago in another period of my life that involved emotional difficulties – though considerably less difficult than this.

But that previous time had posed me an intellectual challenge as well, for I didn’t believe Mañjuśrī existed, as a sentient being capable of answering prayers. And while I may be calling myself a Buddhist now, what I said then still holds true: “I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit.” Can it make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in?

As it turned out, the question bothers me a lot less now than it once had. Perhaps part of the reason was the greater practical difficulty of the situation: facing a loved one’s cancer, questions of ultimate truth seem a bit more of a luxury. But I don’t think that was the biggest thing. My thoughts on the matter in those days were honed in a wonderful exchange with a commenter named Maria, and I’ve come to think the position she and I came to there was absolutely right. Prayer, for someone who does not believe the object of prayer exists, is an ethically productive work of fiction – and there is nothing wrong with that.

If we are acting “as if” the object of prayer was real, we do so in the way an actor acts “as if” his scene is real. And we don’t criticize the actor for that fiction. There’s an additional step, too, in that this form of acting is ethically productive. A few months after the original post I had pointed to David Haberman’s study of Rūpa Gosvāmi and his fellow Krishna devotees, who act like the characters in Krishna’s life in order to become those characters, in some sense – because those characters are taken as the human ideal. This is not the same thing – one is not acting in order to become a character. But one might perhaps be acting to become a different person in some respects, a new version of oneself – a humbler version, especially.

I also suspect that the idea of praying to something one doesn’t believe in has become less weird to me because I understand better how prayer is supposed to work, theologically. The nonexistence of the prayer’s target deity would be a problem if you are praying because the deity wants it from you, or because you are praying for specific demands the deity will meet. Thus I had said: “Perhaps more important, though, is whether the object of the prayer even listens. That may be the sticking point for me – the idea of a prayer seems to imply some sort of person, some sort of fellow subject that knows, that understands.”

But does it? Most monotheistic accounts of prayer stress that God doesn’t need anything from us; how could an omnipotent being need anything? God might want us to pray, but only because he wants the well-being that will come to us from doing so. Likewise the buddhas and bodhisattvas, as the most advanced Buddhist practitioners, have transcended need. Even to monks, one is supposed to give not because the monk needs or wants it, but for one’s own sake; if anything, receiving a gift can be dangerous for an insufficiently advanced monk. So if the deity doesn’t exist, one is not then making the futile action of trying to benefit that nonexistent being, because that isn’t the point to begin with.

So we pray, if we are doing it right, for our own benefit. This too would seem foolish if we prayed for external goods – for wealth or romantic success or a cancer remission – and expected the prayer to work through the agency of a nonexistent deity granting our request. That would be mere superstition.

But what if we are praying for internal goods, for virtue? What if we are asking for the courage and tranquility to keep us strong in a difficult situation, for the patience and gentleness to avoid a short temper in trying times? The act of praying for these things, I think, concentrates our minds on these virtues in a way that can help us develop them. When I wrote before of praying to something you don’t believe in – five years ago, now – I saw how especially valuable the humility of prayer was. A wise person knows how easily we undermine ourselves, and does not put his trust in his own virtue when it is so easy to make mistakes that shatter that trust. Prayer lets us shift the focus to a goodness outside of ourselves – an imaginary being that represents that goodness.

Are we then lying to ourselves? Only, I think, to the extent that telling a story or acting in a play is telling a lie. There are some who apparently think even such “lies” immoral – Plato at least flirts with such a position – but that seems remarkably churlish. Martha Nussbaum has stressed the way fiction enhances our ethical empathy; prayer, too, is a fiction worth engaging in for its ethically productive results.