Charity (Sanskrit: dāna, derived from the same Indo-European root as Latin: dōnum, gift) is the most fundamental of all Buddhist virtues, so it follows that prayer in the sense of the words accompanying the act of charity would be important in all Buddhist cultures. In one of the most commonly performed rites in the Buddhist world, the memorializing of one’s ancestors, the devotee offers purified thoughts or makes a concrete donation to the Buddhist Order and utters a prayer assigning the benefit of the act to the deceased. The underlying logic is that of karma (literally, deed or action), according to which every deed gives rise to a corresponding, morally-weighted result. The same idea lies at the basis of other Buddhist ceremonies, including the curing of illness on which this project focuses, as well the donation of items ranging in size from prayer flags to entire temples.

Scholarship on prayer in Buddhism is significantly underdeveloped compared to the study of prayer in the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are two reasonable and complementary explanations for this disparity. One is that prayer in the sense of precious communication with God has been central to monotheistic traditions. Prayer has been an important theological category in such religions for millennia. The other explanation is that because of prayer’s centrality to religions based on belief in a transcendent god, scholars have avoided using the concept to explore allied phenomena in non-theistic religions like Buddhism.

This project uses a particularly rich collection of Chinese Buddhist prayers of healing to raise the comparative question of how to define prayer when studying religions like Buddhism that do not revolve around a transcendent deity. I propose a performative definition of prayer, as the words accompanying the performance of ritual. My approach also opens up new avenues for the study of ethics and human flourishing, since it links specific prayer-forms to the virtues inculcated in different Buddhist rituals. The resulting analysis will also highlight the kinds of ideal community envisioned in Buddhism, since healing prayers invoke a host of actors in the Buddhist cosmos, ranging from the practitioner to the sick person in this and later lifetimes, family members, monks and nuns, deities both compassionate and threatening, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.

For its major data the project focuses on a corpus of about 150 medieval Chinese Buddhist prayers for healing. I also plan to convene a conference assembling other scholars working on Buddhist prayers accompanying rituals. The goal of the conference is to help spark a rethinking of the categories of prayer and ritual language in Buddhist studies and the broader study of religion.