What is prayer? How does it work? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different answers. Ask the groundbreaking prayer research group Spindrift and you might be in for a surprise. Not only does prayer have a tangible effect on life forms, the intention of our prayer can be measured. You’d think that everyone would want to know the science behind prayer. Not so. There are lots of people in the religious and scientific community who are strongly opposed to testing prayer in the laboratory. Fear is an equal opportunity curmudgeon. Discovery favors the curious.
Not long ago I was asked to help pray for someone with cancer. The person who sought my aid was convinced that our chanting would cure that illness. Over the course of eighteen years, I’ve counseled and prayed for many sick and troubled people with varying degrees of success. When praying for the sick, “cautious optimism” is my motto. Over time I’ve learned the hard way that faith and prayer are no guarantee against diseases like cancer or traumatic injury, regardless of expectation – even when chanting many daimoku. It can be said that prayer offers far more than a clinical cure. It’s a radiant and soothing light in dark times that adorns us with dignity at the crucial moment. Prayer has therapeutic value beyond a physical cure.
Before, during and immediately after my own bout with cancer, I mistakenly thought that I understood prayer. Answered prayers can convince us that our method is right. I now realize why many of my prayers went unanswered. My whole take on prayer was chanting for myself and chanting for others in a targeted manner. If I had relied exclusively on the prayer mythology found in Nichiren Buddhism, or most other religious teachings, deeper understanding of prayer would have remained hidden like an ore-bearing vein, lying just beneath the surface. Digging deeper is how we strike the gold.
Theory is of small comfort when facing serious illness or injury. What’s important is that our prayers work. But what if our prayers fail to satisfactorily cure or solve the problem at hand? Popular guidance would challenge us to be micro specific in our prayer and to chant even more. As you will learn, attachment to a fixed outcome may be natural but it is not as efficient as impartiality. With prayer, quality is superior to quantity.
It’s my belief that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is an exceptionally potent force in balancing the integrated systems and elements of the body and mind. Why? Simply put, the sound of daimoku has unique vibratory qualities that affect living tissue to cellular and even quantum level.
Author and oncologist, Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, has used sound therapy that includes singing bowls and mantras on his cancer patients with impressive results. Daimoku is an area of healing meditation that needs scientific scrutiny and clinical trials to substantiate its efficacy. Even though the abundant evidence of daimoku’s healing power is anecdotal and not yet scientifically proven, we Nichiren Buddhists are well within our rights to proclaim its excellence. We should not become disheartened if the evidence shows that our mantra isn’t superior to other form of prayer and meditation in producing a relaxation response or cure. Thus far, clinical studies point to all prayer being equal in producing the relaxation response or benefit of the ordering-force. I suspect this will hold true in future studies of meditation and prayer-force effecting living organisms. For this reason, mindfulness meditation, qigong, yoga, and the spoken or silent prayers used by other spiritualities are capable of producing healing effects.
No one knows exactly how meditation, visualization, and spoken prayer can redirect the ordering force to regain equilibrium, but there is on-going research at some of our most prestigious universities and teaching hospitals to understand how and why prayer works. In his compelling book “A Journey Into Prayer: Pioneers of Prayer in the Laboratory,” former Spindrift president, Bill Sweet, documents the research of Bruce and John Klingbeil in their studies of the nature and effects of prayer on living things. This research is threatening to some. To me it’s fascinating. Shaking up the traditional order is always interesting.
“Defining prayer in terms that could be studied by the scientific method meant that we had to think of God’s response to prayer as universal and impartial; we had to think of God’s grace in terms of a law rather than a selective response. There was no way around this. Science is set up to study consistency of pattern in the material universe. It has no means or methods to study the miraculous, the impossible, or the changeable effects of an inconsistent cause.” “A Journey Into Prayer” (Bill Sweet, pg., 177).
Spindrift began exhaustive studies on prayer – not using humans or animals as their subjects, but testing soybeans, yeast cells, mung beans, yogurt cultures, and ryegrass seeds, et al. Strict controls were established and double blind studies were conducted over the course of more than two decades. These tests applied stress to the aforementioned subjects to detect the influence of prayer on their ability to survive and flourish. The results were irrefutable. Prayer and faith-intention produced measurable effects on the growth of the test subjects. Subjects were stressed by the denial of moisture or nutrients. Whatever the prayed for subjects needed to regain equilibrium occurred when impartial prayer was used. The subjects that were not prayed for declined as a result of the inflicted environmental stress.
One of the most important findings of Spindrift was the different manner of response demonstrated by the type of prayer used. There were two types of prayer methods and effects. The first is, “Thy will be done.” I can sense the alarms going off, some saying, “that’s praying for or to something outside yourself!” If we can apply the same standard that the experimenters used, viewing the grace of God as a universal, impartial law, then it is possible to accept the concept of the viability of a “thy will be done,” type of prayer. I have found this type of prayer as quite rare in Nichiren Buddhism.
The second type of prayer is “my will be done.” Face it – “my will be done” is dominant in most religions, especially ours. We’re like hunters taking aim at our target, but do we really know what’s best for the person we’re praying for or even for ourselves? We constantly assert our will for a desired and conceived result. All forms of practical magick are based on making matter and phenomena conform to the power of our will. Shall we ever forget the infamous utterance of, “Do what thou wilt”?
Prayers based on faith-force produced a unique signature and response from a “thy will be done” approach. The researchers were well aware that even the impartial kind of prayer approach of “thy will be done” may contain a smidgeon of expectation both consciously and subconsciously. Great efforts were made to establish proper controls and distinguish one type of effect from the other.
The impartial prayer effect caused the nourishment or regained balance of stressed organisms in a need-driven manner – what was best for the organism occurred. The ordering force corrected what was wrong. The faith/placebo effect of “my will be done,” prayers produced faith effects, but were hit and miss. This might explain the problem most of us have with unanswered healing prayers for ourselves or loved ones. Consider the ethical conundrum of many people praying for the survival and cure of someone terminally ill. If the person is dying and our targeted prayers are somehow affecting their longevity, not necessarily their survival, are we doing them a disservice by prolonging their suffering? If prayer works in different ways, both impartial and targeted, we must be very wise and careful in how we pray for ourselves or someone else.
Goal-directed prayer is powered by faith and visualization while need-directed prayer “is quality driven for openness to whatever is best for the situation prayed for.” In my book Modern Buddhist Healing, I wrote about this subject, rejecting the idea of impartial prayer verses goal-directed prayer because I felt that it was natural to have a goal in mind when praying and the best result would naturally occur. I even consulted a number of leaders whom I believed were authorities on prayer. The overall scientific evidence clearly indicates that impartial or attachment-free prayer works more consistently than goal-directed prayer. It also produces a quality of ordering-effects that “hit the mark of what is appropriate of what the plant needs.”
How do we pray? If we’ve been taught to pray with a specific goal in mind or visualize a healing process, is our prayer less effective than an impartial attitude prayer that allows for the best result? It seems reasonable that there is room for both approaches. It seems to me that there is a time to use the goal-directed, faith-based method and a time to employ impartial prayer. It has been recently learned that guided imagery, which is a non-religious form of directed prayer, has curative value in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, where the dialogue of psychiatric counseling has proven ineffective. The impartial prayer might be employed as a general rule unless there are urgent, mitigating circumstances. Both are viable and are like different instruments in a surgeon’s hand. Prayer awakens the Great Physician within.