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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 87-92

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Christian Prayer Seen from the Eye of a Buddhist

Kenneth K. Tanaka
Musashino Women's University, Tokyo

When I think about Christian prayer, the image I get is that of a young girl of about eight years old with long brown hair. Wearing a nightgown, she is kneeling next to her bed with her hands clasped and her head bowed. I have often queried myself about the source of this image. This is an interesting question in itself. I personally don't know of anyone who fits that description or who has actually witnessed someone like her in prayer. Nevertheless, it is interesting how a Buddhist raised in a predominately Christian society comes to form his image of Christian prayer.

Working further with this image, I see this little girl—let's call her Megan—doing two things in her evening prayer. One is that she is giving thanks to God for the benefits she has received. She thanks him for her food, clothing, friends, and family. Then, she also makes a request. In this petitionary element of her prayer, she is asking God to make her sick father get well soon. As she does so, her expression turns more serious, and she clasps her hands more firmly and brings them closer to her chest. She then looks up toward the ceiling, expressing her heartfelt wish for her father's early recovery. What is noteworthy is that Megan's prayers are spoken aloud as in a human conversation.

I realize that this image does not do justice to a topic as enormous as "Christian prayer," but I believe that it provides a glimpse into how one Buddhist imagines the topic. I have a number of questions about Megan's prayer, particularly as I try to understand what may be going on inside of her. I wonder first and foremost, what God looks like to her. Is God a male or a female, or neither? I would think that even for her (in this gender-sensitive age), God is still a male. If so, does she see him as an elderly man with a long white beard, holding a cane and sitting in a throne? Next, where does God reside? If he is in heaven, what is heaven like to her? I wonder if heaven is located somewhere amidst the lofty, puffy clouds. In regards to her father's illness, how does she think God can make her father get well? What is the mechanism by which a personified God can heal? Perhaps I am being too analytical and overly rigorous with my questions about a spiritual act, and that of an eight-year-old at that.

Perhaps I should, instead, turn the questions toward me, asking how I would [End Page 87] answer the same questions about a Buddhist girl "praying" before the Buddha or a bodhisattva for the same kind of wish? The image that immediately crops up in my mind is of a girl of about twelve and her mother whom I saw at a pagoda in Rangoon, Burma, a number of years ago. The girl is wearing a large, red fresh flower in her hair and has on traditional apparel. She sits with her mother on a marble floor of a spacious area in front of Buddha images that are several meters in height. She holds a bouquet of flowers held upright between the palms of hands in a gesture of reverence. She sits with her legs folded but thrown out to her side, a style common in her country as well as in Thailand. Her eyes appear closed, and her head is slightly bowed down toward the Buddha images. She stays in that posture for what seems like several minutes; her mother does the same. I don't know, of course, what is going on inside, but she is certainly not meditating.

I believe this is an important point to make here, for Buddhists are stereotypically seen to only meditate. However, the vast majority of lay Buddhists...