Praying for the Dead: Early Morning Rant

On one of the various listservs to which I belong someone asked for prayers on behalf of people in a particularly stressful moment.

What surprised me was how several people responded expressing their opinion that such things are of no use, and offered suggestions for what the person should do.

I was, frankly, shocked. This is putatively a group of people with a bit better than average insight into the human condition.

Silly me…

And it set me to thinking, a little. Don’t want to do too much of that, of course. Not good for one’s health, it appears…

I find myself reminded of something I read about the Christian Orthodox Church. It appears while they have no official position on the state of the dead, or whether or not one’s prayers might be useful for the dead, nonetheless, they pray for the dead.

I kind of like that.

And, I think, it speaks to how we should meet those of our sisters and brothers in distress. Someone asks you to pray for them. Does it really matter if you don’t think prayers are efficacious. What matters is that you show you care. (And, perhaps, maybe, not likely, but who knows, really, the prayers might be answered…)

Bottom line, is how do we want to live with others? Do we want to be someone like that cartoon that made the rounds of social media a few years ago, where off scene someone calls out, “It’s two in the morning, come to bed.” And the person sitting at the computer replying, “No. Somewhere on the web someone is saying something that needs correcting.”

Now, I have strong opinions about fringe medicine. Every once in a while it gets the better of me and I say something unkind to a friend. So, I’m not claiming to be better than anyone else. But, also, I feel bad about it, after, and I resolve to do better next time.

What’s the rule?

Oh, yes.

Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?

You need two of the three and in the best of worlds all three to speak to those in distress.

Now, that necessary part can be a really son of a gun. If I thought telling someone what I think of homeopathy might actually shift their behavior in a healthy way, great. If it is just showing my opinion of their critical thinking skills, well…

So, someone asks you to pray for them.

If you can’t bring yourself to say, yes, which is the best answer, although that forces you to try a prayer; you can always say I will carry my hope for you in my heart. Hopefully that would be true.

Save the advice for later, for an appropriate moment.

Everyone will be better off…

There’s No Crying in Baseball
On Being a Religious Liberal: A Small Meander Through the Fields of the Heart
Healing the Heart
Becoming as a Little Child: Yamada Mumon’s Zen
  • Kaspalita Thompson

    Thanks James. I don’t know how or if it works, but I often include a transference of merit ritual in services, if people have asked for prayers.

  • Toni Bernhard

    Thanks for this valuable piece (Josh recommended it on Facebook). It’s inspiring. I just wanted to note that I always thought the Buddha’s three “tests” of wise speech were: true, kind, and timely. I’ve never seen the third one called “necessary” instead of “timely” (of course, in all these matters, I’m relying on others’ translations.)

    It occurred to me that if you replace “necessary” with “timely,” it might be easier to know when it would be wise (which to me means helpful) to your friend to express your opinion about homeopathy. For example, you could assess whether he or she appears to be open to discussing it and make a decision on that basis. In that case, it might not be “necessary” to speak up (as, say it would be if your friend were about to do something that would clearly be harmful to him or herself), but it might be “timely.”

    Just a thought!
    it’s nice to meet you.

    Warmest wishes,

  • Jundo Cohen

    Hi James,

    I think you are actually referring to a case where someone, a Zen Teacher, requested other Zen Teachers to pray for rain in a drought stricken area.

    I am a hospice volunteer, and when one of the Christian patients asks me to pray to Jesus with them, I do not hesitate. The point is about what they need, not my beliefs.

    On the other hand, in a discussion among grown, mature (usually) Zen Teachers, one should be able to speak a bit more honestly. One can offer sympathy, feel compassion … but also honestly express that in one’s own little corner of Buddhist Practice one does not Practice intonations and entreaties to the Gods & Spirits because one believes them ineffective. Thus, one may respectfully decline to pray.

    Throughout the history of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, people have prayed to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for all kinds of worldly benefits. The founder of my own Tradition, Dogen did so. When my own daughter was on death’s door in the hospital, I have prayed (I would try anything at that point of desperation). But that fact is that some of us reject what may be the more superstitious magi-diculous “hocus pocus” elements of Buddhist practice in our little corner … with the proviso that one person’s “silly” is another person’s “Sacred”, and none of us have the final word on Reality. Who is to say who is right?

    It is true that there is more “in heaven and earth, Horatio, than dreampt of in your philosophy”, but some of us choose not to pray for the same reason that we do not rub crystals, use Ouija Boards or sacrifice goats. I mean, any of those things might be effective “in heaven and earth” … and the gods and buddhas and rain clouds miight actually be move by my doing so … but I feel likely not.

    I offer all sympathy and feel the suffering for those in such straights. I also offer that global warming and our choosing to live in wild areas has some part of this. However (while I honor and support that right of others to do so if it brings them solace) I will not pray, rub crystals or offer a goat in most cases.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

    Treeleaf Sangha

  • lauranne

    Hi James-

    I like your advice here, and I also like your “I will keep you in my heart” option for situations where one might feel for whatever reason that just agreeing isn’t appropriate.

    When my Christian patients ask me to pray for them, I always agree. I don’t usually bring up that I’m Buddhist, but depending on the situation, I might sometimes say “Well, I’m not Christian- I’m Buddhist, but if you don’t mind that I’ll be praying to the Buddha, then of course I will”. (explaining about the Buddhas and Boddhisatvas and nonliteral interpretation and etc is too complicated and nonrelevent imo for this sort of discussion, so I just leave it with “the Buddha” , which is at least fair notice that the patient’s need for prayers may not be met by me in the exact way they are hoping for).

    At times when people often ask for prayers, like before a procedure or when they are dying, I will sometimes also offer “I will be thinking of you and sending you my best wishes today” or, if I know their religious preference or they seem especially fearful, I will occasionally ask if they would like me to pray for them. And when people offer to pray for me or my son (who has chronic medical issues), I always agree and express my gratitude.

    In all of these situations, I feel, like you, that my own non-belief in the likely physical efficacy of the prayers is not relevant. For me it is about both compassion and also humility. My non-belief, though not a sure thing, seems to me to be much more likely to reflect the actual physical situation then their belief does. But in humbleness, I must admit that to them, the situation is exactly the opposite, and it’s not my place to say (or believe) that I’m a better, wiser, smarter person than they are.

    I do also think though that their are some situations in which it can be appropriate to decline, just as their are some situations in which it is appropriate to decline other requests for caring actions. Requests for care often come with a lot of baggage attached and we are ourselves also only human, with our own needs and baggage to attend to as well.

    I am flexible enough in my belief structure, for example, that any prayers on my behalf are welcome, but if someone offers to pray for my husband, I would ask them to please not do so as he wouldn’t want that for himself (he is an atheist who retains a lot of angry feelings about Catholicism form his childhood). Likewise, if someone asked him to pray for them, I think it would be perfectly appropriate for him to say “I’m sorry, but I can’t, since I don’t believe in God”. Even a sick or dying person imo does not have the right to impose their structure of the universe on others. To me, a request for prayer does not feel like that, but I know to my husband, it would.