A complete immersion in Buddhist discipleship requires awareness and mindfulness of the intensely personal dimensions of the Buddhist heritage. For disciples, the intimacy of the Buddha is revealed in the ancient Sanskrit word “Bhagavan” (“Lord” in English), which is the highest and most personal title for the Buddha.
How we can deepen our spirituality through mindfulness and communion with the Bhagavan? Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice (Parallax Press, 2006) addresses this question in a way that is straightforward yet sophisticated if studied deeply. Like all Mahayana teachers, he believes that the most important vocation in discipleship is to develop empathy and bodhichitta for all beings. But there is an equally important question that is the lifeblood of discipleship, and it is how to cultivate a relationship with the all-compassionate Presence. With guidelines and advice from Buddhist tradition of prayer, The Energy of Prayer demystifies this devotional activity and helps us draw closer to the traceless Buddha. By knowing the Bhagavan as the Perfect One without forms or limitations and bound by no concepts, we are empowered to emulate the perfect compassion and love that he communicates to the world-systems. We can never do perfectly in our task. What matters is our humble attempt to realize compassion for ourselves and cultivate empathy for the troubled circumstances of others.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, the practitioner who lives the deepest
kind of spirituality understands that health, success, and even relationships with loved ones are not the most important things in life (p. 52), even if they are wonderful blessings. Rather, the most important thing for the disciple is to see the interbeing of all beings and phenomena in the universe. This requires intellectual and intuitive wisdom and the cultivation of positive emotions such as compassion and love. How can there be division once a disciple sees that she is one with the Presence and that all beings of one and the same nature (p. 52)? Nhat Hanh calls all disciples to listen deeply to the Bhagavan’s teachings, who can lovingly transform our delusions into wisdom.
It must be noted that many sutras (including the Lotus and Avatamsaka scriptures) state that to grasp the Buddha through sight or sound (or any of the sense organs) is to be blind to him. We are also reminded of the earliest Buddhist devotional images such as the motif of the Empty Throne. For Japanese scholar Kanoko Tanaka, this sense of absence leads to a more powerful understanding of the Presence, and therefore is the most universal and authentic symbol of Buddhist spirituality: the emptiness is much more realistic than any other thing made by human hands (1998, p. 92). Nhat Hanh is emphatic that the Buddha is always present because he transcends all history, theology, concepts, and abstractions.
“All Buddhists have their own experience and their own perceptions of the deeper nature of the Buddha… The Buddha is not just someone sitting on an altar, but someone familiar. Seeing someone is not the same as knowing them. Although none of us were alive in the time of the Buddha, we can know him better than someone who was alive at that time…
Buddha is right here; we don’t have to go to the Vulture Peak. We are not deceived by mere outer appearances. For me, Buddha is not just a form or a name, Buddha is a reality. I live with the Buddha every day. When eating, I sit with the Buddha. When I walk, I walk with the Buddha. And while I’m giving a Dharma talk, I’m also living with the Buddha.
I wouldn’t exchange this essence of the Buddha for a chance to see the outer form of the Buddha. We shouldn’t rush and call the travel agency to fly to India and climb up the Vulture Peak to see the Buddha. No matter how seductive the advertisements may be, they can’t deceive us. We have Buddha right here” (p. 66 – 7).
By reminding us of the closeness of the Presence, The Energy of Prayer nourishes our basic hunger to connect with the world in its entirety. We are also alerted to the importance of deep praying. “An authentic practitioner has to pray at a deeper level. We have to practice in such a way that in our daily life we are able to have insight into the interdependent nature of all beings” (p. 50). By praying for this kind of selflessness, the activity of prayer is no longer simply a formula for mere worldly success. Fulfilling our desire to be altruistic will be the greatest happiness we can know. Nhat Hanh concludes: “When this satisfaction is there, then whether we have very good health or poor health, we can still be happy. Whether we are successful or not successful in our work… we do not suffer… we will be less likely to argue with others or make them suffer” (p. 50). By re-orienting the purpose of our prayers, we sever the egocentric tendencies that can arise while petitioning a greater power. We become better equipped to understand the spirit of prayer and the life of humility.
Thich Nhat Nanh teaches us to not only listen to our conscience, but to the Presence as well. The Buddha speaks to all beings, but he always speaks quietly so that meeker creatures are not frightened. We have no choice but to calm down and be mindful in order to hear his untraceable voice. At times we may find other noises and distractions deafening, but the Bhagavan never stops encouraging us. His voice is the most loving of soundless sounds.