How Not to Pray for Me

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...
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During a weekly Skyping session with my in-laws, we were discussing my husband’s job search. My mother-in-law said that she was praying for us.

“I’m praying to God, though, not to Buddha. Sorry!” she said.

I want to say that I love my mother-in-law. She’s one of the nicest, warmest women I’ve ever known and while it’s trite to say so, I feel grateful all of the time that she’s my mother-in-law. I also recognize that my religious exploration is a little confusing to her (or perhaps just unsettling given that, for her, the stakes are so high…we’re dealing with her grandchildren’s immortal souls, after all).

I ended up smiling and saying nothing because I really didn’t know what to say. I mean, in Buddhism, God isn’t really an issue.

From the Buddhist perspective, an anthropomorphic god isn’t something that can be proven to exist and neither can it be proven not to exist. As a result, their basic response to the question of God is, “no comment.” Buddhism is about living our lives with compassion, using the teachings of Buddha and other teachers to help us with the struggles that go along with feeling compassionate towards ourselves and others, especially those with whom we disagree or even those who mean us harm. Buddhists don’t pray to Buddha (at least not any Buddhists I’ve met). Some chant the sutras (the teachings), some meditate, but I’ve not met any Buddhists who pray, per se. And certainly none who pray for something. “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a new pair of shoes,” is not something you’d hear from a Buddhist. Buddhism is a personal path towards compassion. The other stuff doesn’t really come into play. Buddhists also have no trouble with people being some other faith in addition to being Buddhist. You can be a Christian Buddhist or an Atheist Buddhist or a Jewish Buddhist, except that that one’s really hard to say fast.

Even though I don’t pray, I really appreciate when people I care about say they’re praying for me. I respect the sentiment behind it when people say they’re praying for me. I translate that into, “I care about you, and I want you to feel the good feelings I have for you.” My mother-in-law saying she’s praying for us is an expression of her love and compassion for my family. I heartily accept that love.

An example of a situation in which I have trouble with a person saying they’re praying for me happened today.

A friend is in Prague for a month with her two children and is blogging about their experiences homeschooling in a foreign country. I really enjoy reading her insights, both about the homeschooling bits and about the differences between living in Utah and living in Prague (there are a few, it turns out). In one of her posts this week, she described the difficulty she had explaining the graphic depiction of the Stations of the Cross in one of the churches they visited.

“I have tried to shelter the kids from the brutality of the end of Jesus’ life, but alas the Catholics hold nothing back,” she wrote.

I am also friends with her on Facebook, and soon after her post there were comments on her link from two friends of hers talking about how important it was for children to see the brutality of the crucifixion because that’s their only path to salvation. I, wanting to empathize with my friend’s position, commented that my daughter is very sensitive to brutality unless it’s part of the predator-prey relationship, and recognized that a lot of religious imagery wouldn’t be age-appropriate for her sensitive nature, and that it’s intense sometimes even for adults. One of the commenters replied and asked how my daughter would feel if she were the prey. Then she asked me about my relationship with Jesus.

She quoted the book of John to me and suggested that if I “can find a bible,” I might feel differently about things.

If I can find a bible? I have five different versions of the bible on my bookshelf, in addition to the Tao Te Ching and writings on Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I graduated undergrad with a minor in Religion. I may lack faith, but I know about religion, and I love talking about it, especially with people of faith (way more interesting than talking to atheists about it, in my experience). I was the kid in college who invited the Mormon missionaries in to discuss scripture. Two of my closest friends have minister/priest husbands (nondenominational Christian and Russian Orthodox). And hello? I live in Utah, where one can’t escape religion even if they try (and I don’t try).

With as much self-control as I could muster, I pointed out that she knows nothing about me and that disagreeing with her was not the same thing as ignorance of her position.

She offered to tell me about how Jesus has changed her life, and then she said she would pray for me.

That kind of praying from a stranger who’s just trying to win an argument with me is the kind that I find offensive. Pray for me because you know me and care about me and want me to have the strength to handle the adversities of life. Don’t pray for me because I disagree with you. Pray for yourself that you can have compassion dealing with people who disagree with your deepest convictions. That’s what I do when I meditate.

11 Replies to “How Not to Pray for Me”

  1. I think that the kind of “I’ll pray for you” that you’re referring to here is a falsely pious way of saying “my god will beat up your god and then you’ll see.” I find it to be mildly threatening whenever I hear it.

    As a spiritual person struggling with maintaining my own spiritual identity while still desiring the community of church, I find that whole mentality to be completely counter productive.


    1. Well, it certainly doesn’t seem like a good way to invite someone into one’s religion…


  2. Ah yes, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I am so incredibly wary of telling people I’ll pray for them without knowing their background. And there are people who tell me they’ll pray for me who make my skin crawl even though I am a praying person. But an undergraduate degree in Eastern religions taught me a lot… and I draw on that in my life as much if not more than my graduate degree in Christian theology. I do think you responded with far more compassion than many could muster, including myself.


  3. it’s amazing how so many who claim to be religious are so pious and assume other that don’t believe as they do are ignorant. good thing we have such good friends who represent religion (or lack thereof) so well.


    1. I think some people are just looking for a reason to judge others, and religion is just one of the many ways you can do this. I’ve encountered atheists who have similar disdain for anyone who doesn’t agree with their beliefs, and I’ve certainly encountered this in the secular mommy world around parenting choices.

      I kind of think if we’re not approaching each other in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way, what’s the point of interacting at all?


  4. You intrigue me to learn more about buddhism.
    I also agree with you about that girl who said she’d pray for you!


    1. You can check out the Dharma Service at SL Buddhist Temple one Sunday, if you’d like. They’re really very welcoming there, and I find Jodo Shinshu Buddhism very accessible and family-oriented. They have an adult study class with Hirano Sensei afterward that was quite interesting to me.


  5. Oh my. I completely agree with you. That type of “praying for you” has little to do with faith and much to do with ego. It is the same as those two annoying expressions “I feel sorry for you” and the oft-abused Maya Angelou quote I mentioned before “when you know better, you do better.” She is quite lucky you’re practicing Buddhism or she might not have met such a compassionate response


    1. As I was writing my replies, I kept thinking, “Crap, now that I’ve said I’m Buddhist, I need to represent Buddhism well.” I think I did well. The other woman chimed in with another comment tonight, and I was a little more firm in my assertion that I am finished with the conversation, but I was still compassionate I think. (I hope.)


  6. lots of thoughts. . . but you know. . .more than anything, i’m glad I get listed as “one of your closest friends”. . . 🙂 we’ll talk wednesday 🙂 i think you always handle things with finesse. . .I’m both less eloquent and more spitfire 🙂 (dangerous combo)


    1. Of course you’re one of my closest friends! I love how honest you are…and how spitfire. 😉


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