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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 101-104

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A Christian Response to Buddhist Reflections on Prayer

Donald W. Mitchell
Purdue University

In his essay, Kenneth K. Tanaka considers two important elements of Christian prayer when he presents young Megan praying. First is the petitionary element of her prayer, and second is the relational element. Saint John Damascene expresses these same two dimensions in his classical definition of Christian prayer: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God, or the requesting of good things from God." 1 This movement of the mind and heart to God makes Christian prayer a living relationship that is itself a gift of God through Christ. The "heart" of a person is that hidden center in which Christ resides and from where his spirit moves both heart and mind toward God in a relation of love and devotion. As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux puts it, "For me, prayer is a surge of the heart . . . it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy." 2 One responds to trials, one's own or those of others, with prayers of petition or intercession; and to joys or blessings with prayers of adoration, praise and thanksgiving. In all cases, the prayers are the dynamics of a person's relationship with God, where God is both ultimate source and object of the prayers.

Tanaka also makes two comments about Christian prayer in its public forms. First, he questions the appropriateness of public prayers for civic leaders or for teams at athletic events. Does God choose to aid only some political leaders or nations, or choose sides in athletic games? Though I may feel that God must prefer my son's Little League team, or at least Notre Dame football for heaven's sake, certainly God loves and cares for everyone. Perhaps Tanaka's final characterization of Christian prayer is helpful here: "conversational, personal and hopeful." In a public event, one expresses in prayer one's hope, while understanding that God's providence embraces everyone in ways that are larger than one can comprehend.

In the essay by Taitetsu Unno on the Jesus Prayer and Nembutsu, the question of dualism and both the initiative and the consequence of prayer is addressed. Unno points out that according to the Jesus Prayer tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, the initiative of the prayer is from God, much like the intoning of Nembutsu arising from the Vow of Great Compassion. Here, as in Saint Thérèse's "surge of the heart," the ultimate subject and object of prayer are the same. Unno points out that the consequence [End Page 101] of such a Christian prayer is a sense that the world is infused with the presence of God in a way that is similar to finding the Land of Bliss everywhere. Indeed, I would add that this similarity applies to more than just the Jesus Prayer. Saint Teresa of Avila refers to a prayer experience that is not uncommon in mature Christian spirituality "in which is revealed to the soul how all things are in God, and how within himself he contains them all." 3

After presenting these similarities between the Jesus Prayer and Nembutsu, Unno raises what he sees as a fundamental difference: the treatment of sin, blind passions, and ignorance. Unno quotes a Christian Orthodox text that calls for the utter rejection of sin and evil, and depicts grace as entering the soul and driving evil outside. Unno then says, "To negate evil, sin, and death means to deny a part of one's reality; to affirm them through transformation means to make one's life complete and whole." The latter approach is, for Unno, key to the spirituality of Shinran and Shin Buddhism. I would like to make two comments here. First, it is unclear as to what Unno is saying about the Shin approach to evil. How can one transform evil into its opposite without evil being "nullified and eradicated"? When the "ice" of one's passions melt into the...