Pranidhanas, praying, visualising: what works?

A pranidhana is an expression of your spiritual wishes – putting into words your heart’s wish for freedom and peace, including envisioning the intermediate steps which will lead you there. It is a recognition and reminder of your intention, a statement of determined motivation. How is reciting this wish-list different from praying for your desired result and sitting back waiting for an all-powerful being to attain it for you? Even if you don’t believe in such a being, there is a persistently popular idea that the more you think about a thing the more likely you are to obtain it – you can find plenty of books asserting this. So what are the forces at work here – in pranidhanas, or in praying to an all-powerful being, or in simply dwelling upon your desires?

One power which is definitely involved here is that of clarifying what it is you most deeply wish for. Whatever method you use once you’ve honed in on your aim, you’re unlikely to attain your goal if you are not clear what it is. By focussing upon it you also connect with the emotional power of your desire. Perhaps this is why there seems to be an inherent power in the universe which propels us towards whatever outcome we consistently imagine. But of course there’s more to it than that.

powerless and subservient

The way we understand the process affects the result. If we see ourselves as beholden to the power of a separate God-figure, we build a view of ourselves as powerless and subservient to such a God – a world-view which will not be helpful in our aims. Of course, if no such God-power exists to answer our prayer, then we are actually relying upon chance. If, on the other hand, we are simply expecting the ‘power of thought’ to obtain our desired result for us, then if it doesn’t happen we know we aren’t thinking hard enough! It’s our fault. We discover our powerlessness – or at least the ineffectiveness of intensive daydreaming.

However if we understand pranidanas as a means of keeping faith with our single-minded intention, as reiterating our determination to keep aligned to our true compass-bearing, then every thought of the goal galvanises us towards it. The difference here is that we link it to action, rather than waiting upon an unknown force. That does not mean there is no such natural force or tendency, but we do not envisage ourselves as separate from that process. Some intentions may indeed align better with the way the universe works; there is also a simple effectiveness in seeing everything as leading towards, or distracting from, a certain end.

denying karma

An important consideration, especially for followers of Buddha’s path, is where karma stands in all this. The principle of karma says that if we want a certain outcome, we need to create the causes for that consequence. Expecting a God-figure – even one dressed in Buddhist garb – to make it happen for us, is to ignore or deny karma. And we need a pretty ‘refined’ definition of karma if we think that merely picturing a result will bring it about, with no further involvement from us. (When imagination is used as a tool in some Dharma practices, its purpose is to affect our behaviour of body, speech and mind.) If a pranidhana spells out intention, then its purpose is to lead to action.

When we understand our deepest heart wish as being an expression of our “Buddha Nature”, this clarifies matters further. Even a strong wish based upon self-interest – despite leading to a strong emotional pull – is weak compared to the power of allying with our Buddha Nature, what we are at heart. A self-based wish will generally be at odds with the wishes of others at the very least. A wish emanating from the nature of reality, as openness, clarity, and sensitivity, will inevitably be in accord with the way things truly are, giving it an apparent power of its own. You are flying with the wind of truth, working with the grain.

if we are self, Buddha is other

Bear in mind that as long as we only partially realise our intrinsic Buddha Nature, we will ascribe any such power to something separate from ourselves. If we see ourselves as self, then Buddha seems other. However, to hold fast to a view which relies upon us being separate – as in the case of an all-powerful being – is to give ourselves an obstruction to future clarity. We must be free to discover our true nature, not limit our perspective at every turn.

So if praying can have that limitation, of separating ourselves from our true nature, can it hold anything worthwhile? I would suggest that real prayer is not a list for Santa, it is tuning into our Buddha Nature, or however you name the reality of the universe. This unleashes the reflexive process of both discovering there what we truly desire, and connecting with the true nature which is what will manifest that ultimate wish.

If you want your wishes to come true effortlessly, you will need to unveil completely your True Nature, as spontaneous all-accomplishing compassion. Until then, we all need to rely on karma, and put some effort in!

5 thoughts on “Pranidhanas, praying, visualising: what works?

  1. I think that most people would agree that having a clear intention is a necessary step towards effective action. To formulate a wish list and then regularly remind oneself of this is, in today’s terms, like having a “to do” list. If we understand pranidhanas as a means of focussing on (and remembering) our “to do” list this fits very well with the consensual reality of our 21C secular culture.

    When I look at the words of traditional pranidhanas such as Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara or the Samantabhadracharyapranidhana I cannot see how venerating or making reverent salutations or obeisance to the Buddhas, Sugatas, Sambuddhas, Protectors, Conquerors, Great Lions, Lord Protectors etc etc .. is not pleading to external powers for assistance and protection.

    I see no reason to assume (or evidence for) the presence of any inherent power for good in the Universe. If the Long Sde is truly non-conceptual then it cannot be classified as either good or bad.The well-known law attributed to Dr Sod, of which surely we all have direct experience, rather suggests the opposite and explains why Samsara is the way it is without the need to invoke any sort of mysterious powers!


    1. Is Awareness (you refer to Long Sde) inherently neutral, amoral? Or as “Buddha Nature” is it basically good, i.e. in harmony with what we would call goodness? Its qualities are seen as positive, not conducive to suffering. Enlightenment is said to be blissful and compassionate, not robotic and unemotional. The Buddhist idea of samsara is that it is our misinterpretation of reality (in the light of a mistaken idea of self) which causes suffering. Without that distortion, reality could be wonderful – why else would we have the wish for Awakening?

      As for demonstrating a relationship towards “Buddhas, Sugatas, etc”, perhaps the pertinent question is does it help if we personalise our view of Awakened Heart/Mind? That is what’s going on in addressing salutations, veneration, and pranidhanas to particular figures. If there are no such figures but there is an Awakened Nature, would that kind of attitude or relationship with It be productive for us? I do intend to write on this topic in future.


      1. I don’t see the word “Awareness” as synonymous either with the Long or with Buddha Nature. RS defines Sems Sde as the Space of Awareness and Emptiness (sunyata) as the space aspect of primordial awareness. But these are all just words and you express the limitations of naming so very well in your recent poem.

        So is it really axiomatic that “our” Buddha Nature axiomatic is “good”?
        If “its qualities are seen as positive” then it has been conceptualised, judged and is presumably the good aspect of a more fundamental (non-conceptual) Human Nature which also has a “bad” aspect (perhaps Mara-Nature?) the truth of which we all (including Buddha) know from experience (not to mention from the daily news reports of evil doings from around the world!).

        I can go along with the misinterpretation of reality as a fundamental cause of suffering and it is tempting to believe that reality without distortion would be wonderful (wishful thinking strikes again!).
        The wish for awakening however is a far more primordial aspect of human nature than the hope of finding something wonderful. It is surely this that drives the exploration, experimentation and seeking after pure knowledge that has brought humankind (through scientific endeavour) to this age of enlightenment (for good or ill!). The Path to Awakening may yet be lined by technological advances!


  2. I agree the wish to Awaken is intrinsic to what we are, call that what you will. Do I catch a trace of wishful thinking in your suggestion that scientific endeavour is striving for “pure knowledge”?


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