A prayer (avhāyana or patthanā) is a collection of words addressed to God or to gods.
Normally there are two types of prayers – (1) requests for help and (2) praise of the deity, both of these mentioned in the passage from the Tipiṭaka, ‘to beseech, praise and worship with joined hands’ (āyācanti thomayanti pañjalikā namassanāmā, D.I, 240).
Such prayers can be either silent or vocalized, done individually or in a group. The Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism, contain hundreds of prayers to various gods.
Being a god-free philosophy, Buddhism does not consider prayer to have a role to play in the spiritual life, and the Buddha denied that prayer works.
The things that people long for most – happiness, long life, rebirth in heaven, etc. – cannot, he said, ‘be acquired by vows and prayers’ (na āyācanahetu vā na patthanāhetu, A.II,47).
The Mahāvastu has an interesting comment suggesting how a combination of chance and coincidence can lead people to believe that prayer works. It says: ‘Once a man prayed to a goddess for prosperity and later he just happened to became rich. This is exactly how false beliefs arise.’
Affirmation (adhiṭṭāna or dhiti) does, however, have a significance in Buddhism.
An affirmation is a strong resolve, avowal or determination to do or to achieve something.
When we make an affirmation, it clarifies and brings to the forefront of consciousness the goal we desire, it marshals and intensifies all the power of the mind, and it focuses that power on the goal.
An affirmation can make one ‘resolute for the highest goal, firm-minded/steadfast and endowed with strength and energy,’ (Sn. 68).
When prayers work, as they sometimes seem to, it is actually due to the power of the mind, not the intervention of a deity.
Affirmation had a part to play in the Buddha attaining enlightenment.
He declared: ‘Gladly will I let only my skin, sinews and bones remain after my flesh and blood had dried up, but my resolution shall not falter until I have attained what can be attained by human power, human strength, human persistence.’ (A.I, 50).
These words aroused and focused the energy, the confidence and the courage he needed for his final push to attain Nirvāṇa.
The Buddha also mentioned that a strong affirmation can have a role to play in mental purification.
He said that an effective way to efface negative mental states was to make the affirmation, not to give in to them.
‘Effacement can be done by thinking like this.... “
Others may be contemptuous, we will not be contemptuous. Others may be domineering, we will not be domineering. Others may be envious, we will not be envious.”’ (M.I,42-3).