A Buddhist Monk’s Prayers For The Old And Sick

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India 2011

Can Buddhist Monks Pray For The Old And Sick?

Recently, a life long friend of the family has been diagnosed with lung cancer, a tough break because she is not a smoker. My mother asked me if I could say a prayer for her. I can, and have, but there was more to say about what I could do for her.

When I chant the Loving-kindness sutta for someone in person as a “blessing”, I usually explain what it means beforehand and then I chant it for them. Some people have cried afterwards because the meaning meant so much to them. In reality, it is a blessing to hear the teaching so one can put it into practice. I always tell people this. So look at the translation here and see what you can do with it. So what more could be said if you do loving-kindness prayers to yourself and others?

However, will my chanting cure cancer? I am neither a healer nor a fraud. So what can I do to help? I then told my mother about illness what can be done from a Buddhist perspective.

According the Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta, illness and lifespan (among other things) is based on the effects of previous kamma combined with things that cannot be prevented like the length of the human lifespan… if you are lucky to be born human. A small table is below:

KillingShorter lifespan
HarmingIllness during that lifespan
Saving LifeLonger lifespan
Helping Other’s IllnessHealthy during that lifespan
Chart for cause and effect

If you have killed living beings, you will live a short life if you are born human. If you have harmed living beings, you will have illness and physical trouble. This is called obstructive kamma. Conversely, if you have saved lives, you will live a long life, and if you have helped living beings with illness and health, you will live a healthy life. This is called supportive kamma. These kammas are usually in reference to past life deeds, but sometimes the effects are seen in this life too, so it is never too late to do things right in this life for this life. However, most effects will be for the lives to come afterwards. That is the Buddhist explanation of why bad things can happen to good people. The idea that God is “testing” people’s faith when he “gives” a six year old leukemia is sadistic if you ask me.

Back to the table above. One doctor in Kaua’i told me that he has a great immunity and he did not know why. If you were to ask me, it was likely because he has been a doctor in the past life and just continued with his efforts in this life. Therefore, all of the medical work he has done in the past has given him the immunity in the present. Not only that, because he does not get sick, he can help more people which will help him in his next life. Wholesome kamma and its effects can magnify each other in a feedback loop upwards, but also downwards. If you gave donations in a past life, you might be wealthy in this life. If you are wealthy, you have more extra money to give donations. Look at Bill Gates and what he does. If you grow up in a bad neighborhood due to bad past and present life kamma, this can cause you to be “forced” to join a gang, which will likely cause you to do more bad deeds. Those deeds lead to future bad circumstances. It is not fair, and digging yourself out of a hole is not easy.

However, no matter how good your kamma is, you cannot live to be 200 years old. According to a friend of mine who was the chief marketing officer of a life insurance company, who got that title for his abilities to search data and find relevant conclusions, zip + 4 is the the best indicator for how long you will live. He told me that Zip + 4 is a numerical grouping of 12 households. This single fact matters the most for how long you will live..statistically speaking. Interesting huh? Is Zip + 4 kamma? Yes. It is all interrelated and intertwined. You cannot live in a certain area unless kamma allows for it. I live in a monastery in Myanmar with good nutrition, 4 medical doctors, a free and fully stocked in-house pharmacy and zero political activity. Yet the surrounding areas might not be so lucky. That is Zip + 4. There are other types of kamma too. One is called time-and-place-kamma. The place where my grandmother grew up in Hartford, CT was a very nice place to grow up at the time. However, today that area is one of the worst areas in the city. So it is both the time and the place kamma that matters. Kamma is very complex and difficult to know. In Buddhism, understanding how kamma is produced and its effects are the basis to destroy the causes for a new birth. Without enlightenment we cannot avoid rebirth. No matter how good the kamma and birth, eventually, suffering will follow. The common phrase, “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” needs a Buddhist extension:

Life’s a bitch and then you die again and again and again until you figure out the cause of life itself and destroy it.

I also asked the insurance database guy if he ate organic food because I heard of a study that said those who eat only organic food have a 25% less chance of getting cancer. He gave me the “Are you kidding?” laugh with a single quick exhale out of the nostrils and said, “Of course! Our whole family eats organic food.”

So besides switching to organic and hoping that her zip + 4 is the right one, what else can she do? She was asking for my help and prayers so the question was there anything “Buddhist” I could do for her?

Of course I can do something. I have chanted the Loving-kindness sutta for her from abroad. Currently, she is part of my morning chanting routine where I wish my family loving-kindness in the section of sharing merit for my family. Usually this section of chanting if for sharing merit with the deceased relatives. However, while I’m chanting these phrase repeated three times as mentioned below, I mentally and visually focus on my living family with loving-kindness while chanting this. During the first chant, that lady is there along with my parents and my aunt who has some health problems too. The second and third round go to other members.

idaṃ vo ñātīnaṃ hotu sukhitā hontu ñātayo

May this merit accrue to our relatives and may they be happy. (3x)

Loving-kindness is pretty much the prayer of the Theravada Buddhist world. Many monks, including myself chant the Loving-kindness Sutta nearly on a daily basis. While a huge chunk of the cancer is caused by kamma, there are times where loving-kindness helps, and it can never hurt either. Who doesn’t want loving-kindness? Once, while going for alms in Kaua’i, I had a fanatical Christian call me the “Devil”! However, when I asked him if it was okay to continue wishing loving-kindness in front of his house, he said it was okay as long as I stayed on the road and not on his property. Why would I ask? If my presence made him uncomfortable, I would not want to do it. The Loving-kindness Sutta says, “One should never wish suffering on another.” If you follow that rule alone, loving-kindness naturally comes.

We can also ask the Devas to help. Asking for protection from the Devas is also a standard chant that many monks do. The Devas are beings that live in the Heaven Realms. Why do monks need to be the ones ask them? I don’t know… you can ask them too if you want. Here is the phrase below:

Bhavatu sabbā maṅgalaṃ

rakkhantu sabbā devatā




sadā sotthi bhavantute.

That might work, but the Devas are somewhat human in their emotions. They often only want to help good people. That is why they like and protect the good monks of the world. It sort of goes like this… Would you want to give a band-aid to a known “Ruthless Serial Killer” who has no remorse and wants to do it again? You should always want to help anyone, but it might be a wittle more difficult in this case. So morality plays a big role not only with your own kamma but with winning the favors of the Devas too. So how can you be likable by the Devas? Besides becoming a meditation monk who strives to follow all of the 227 monk rules, below are a few answers:

  • Follow the 5 Precepts
    • Not to kill
    • Not to steal
    • Not to engage in sexual misconduct
    • Not to lie
    • Not to take intoxicants (like even a sip of alcohol let alone other drugs)
  • Practice loving-kindness
  • Make donations, share merit, wish for long life with good health

The list above, not only wins you favors from the Devas and humans too, but it also wins you good kamma which also helps you in this life and beyond. Kamma mostly works best for the future lives and there is a very technical explanation for that. In short, it is like a train that starts rolling. The first moment (which is what affects this life) does not have much power, but the following moments (that affect future lives) have great and immense power. The effects of kamma work like that for present and future lives. That said, it can still affect you in this life too, so never stop doing good deeds.

It is like living paycheck to paycheck versus putting it in the bank. Just because you have good kamma for this life does not mean you don’t need to do good for the future’s kamma. Take Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs. Both had great kamma, but one decided to invest his kamma for the future while the other one perished. Earlier in Steve Jobs’ life, he was asked to join the Bill Gates’ Billionaires’ Giving Club, but Steve Jobs refused. Not long after, Steve Jobs got sick and eventually died. Meanwhile, Bill’s wealth has more than doubled since he has made a pledge to give the majority of his wealth away. Not only did he pledge to give most of his wealth away, but he encouraged others to do the same.

If you were an angel and you could help someone be filthy rich, would you pick Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in the next future human life? I guess that depends if you are a devoted iPhone user. Have you read the book Outliers? The book explains why Bill Gates was successful and why he had so many “magical” advantages in contrast with other programmers of his time. If he had done similar deeds before in a past life, perhaps the Devas’ help along with his kamma’s effects are reflected in that today? So try to be a good person and follow the five precepts, make donations, and practice loving-kindness.

But what else can she do? Is there any magic that can be done? Maybe. There are cases where “Statements of Truths” can become very powerful and work miracles.

  1. If she has already been following the five precepts for x-number of years, she should make a “Statement of Truth”
    1. I have been following the five precepts for x-number of years and by this statement of truth, may I be cured from cancer.”
  2. If she has not been following the five precepts, she should make a determination.
    1. I determine to follow the five precepts for the rest of my life and by this statement of truth, may I be cured from cancer.”

What else can be done outside of that?

Well Buddhism plays a bigger role when those miracles do not work. We are left with the “Truths of Life” that all created things are impermanent, suffering and non-self. Ultimately, life must come to an end. She is a good person and she has lived a long life, far exceeding the lifespan of Myanmar with her zip + 4 address in America.

Reflection on Death is always a good thing to do anytime. What will happen when you die? Where will “you” go? In Buddhism, unless you are fully enlightened, you are guaranteed to go somewhere. You will either go up, down or on the same plane of existence. But what determines where you go? Again, it is your kamma.

The kamma that affects where you go after death is sort of like a lucky draw (raffle). One single deed is picked from the pile of all other deeds. Certainly, you have heard of the expression, “My life flashed before my eyes.” Studies have shown that those who experience Near Death Moments (NDE), seem to concur that an actual “life review” happens just as they are about to “die”. They experience everything they have done in just a moments time.

The next life is determined from a single deed that pops up last and sticks. However, the odds are higher based on power, size and proximity to death. If you build a monastery for monks who follow rules and practice the teachings on a detailed level, that is considered “a pretty powerful deed” and could come back to you at your near death moment quite easily. If you were to do so closer to the time of death, it would be fresher in your mind during the time of the near-death moment and again easy to recall. One can offer smaller things to monks like a kuṭi or robes or a meal. They too might come to mind during the time of death, but they are smaller and less likely. Offering medicine or medical needs can also do great things and have the effects related to longevity and happy bodily health.

There are many people suffering in the world who need help and you can help them to make good deeds as well. There are animals that need homes. Even the insects need help. I cannot tell you how many ants I have saved from the doom of the great water fall in my sink, or the great water swirl of the toilet. Today, one ant didn’t make it after I tried to save him while bathing. If wholesome kamma comes to mind just before death, you will get a favorable birth. If unwholesome kamma comes to mind just before death you will get an unfavorable birth. Any type of kamma can come at the near death moment. Even Bill Gates can have unwholesome kamma come to his mind during his near death moment. The trick is to stack the deck and do good things. Generally, the bigger the better.

Habitual kamma is very powerful as well. Habitual kamma is when we do good deeds on a habitual (daily) basis, like chanting, meditation, or giving alms. If you don’t feel right unless you do these acts, or you do them automatically without thinking, it is habitual kamma. You might die during your regular chanting time, and habitually focus on that even though you are not chanting. Not only do we need training on how to control our minds while we are living, but we also need training for our death moments.

The death moment is the most important, but it is the sum total that matters. If you are a bad person who is lucky enough to slip into another human life by chance, there will be many obstructive kamma to overcome. I have had my share of obstructive kamma, but I also had quite a bit of supportive kamma to overcome those problems. So the sum total matters a great deal. Right now, I’m giving the gift of learning the Dhamma (Dharma).

Why is giving to saṅgha (the monk community as a group) the best? Actually, it is the Dhamma which is “the gift that exceeds all others” because it can bring liberation from suffering. By donating to the community of monks as a whole, you bring associations with the dhamma in future lives as well as today. You are helping others in their quest for liberation. What you give comes back to you and one day you will have a chance to try it too. Monks can remember their past lives wishing this to come. If the receiver is successful in his quest for liberation, the merit is uncountable because it was supportive kamma for that monk to achieve liberation. There are good stocks and bad stocks to invest in.

Because of this, it is best to choose a monk or community that is purified (or strives for that) in their morality which is called the adhisīla (higher monk morality), because it can give better results. It is called “higher morality” because the monks agree to take on extra rules that lay people are not required to do such as not using money, etc. How many grown up lay people do you know that choose to not use money? If the monks are using money, they are not following the higher sīla. Why is it important? It is very very clear that the Dhamma cannot be attained by monks unless they follow or strive to follow the entirety of the rules.. but quite simply.. if they are using money, their sīla is corrupt, and they don’t care to fix it because they would have to give up the things bought with money plus the extra money itself to fix the sīla. However, they know it is wrong, and even joke about it. Because 95-99% of the monks of the world use money, and break most other rules, it does not seem so bad, like my doctor in the 70’s who smoked a pipe inside the clinic while talking to my parents. Usually monks who use money normally receive money as gifts. Money and alcohol are both not allowable. If the gift is not allowable, it bears no fruit and can cause damage too. Can you gain merit by giving alcohol to a six year old? Would the result be good or bad?

This is not my own idea. This is part of the 6 Vinaya volumes and also the Dhamma Nikāyas too. The Aṅguttaranikāyo Nikāya (Numerical Discourses) has hundreds, if not thousands of references to monks needing to follow the rules. This one below is quite strong:

`Stained by lust, anger, and blinded by ignorance

some monks and brahmins take delight in sense pleasures.

Those foolish monks and brahmins drink alcohol, engage in sexual intercourse, accept gold, silver, and money, and obtain their requisites by wrong livelihood.

All of these are called corruptions by the Buddha who shines like the sun.

Those foolish monks and brahmins who are corrupted by these corruptions,

impure, and defiled, do not blaze or shine.

But instead bewildered, blinded, slaves to desire, and full of craving

they increase the size of cemeteries by taking birth again and again. ́

(AN, 4. Rohitassa Vagga, Sutta no. 10)

So it is best to talk to your monk(s) and figure out a way to support them properly, so they can attain the Dhamma without using money. Helping a monk follow morality will yield incredible results for you.

If you have morality when you give, that also yields better results. If you give to the abstract “Saṅgha” then that gives the best results. To do so, you should reflect on the past, present and future Buddhist monks who have attained the dhamma or who are still striving to get off the wheel of saṃsāra (wheel of life and death).

So the meditation monks represent those who are seeking the truth in themselves and to find out there is no real self to exist. When they do to the fullest that Knowledge prevents a “self” from being born again because there is no more fuel to create another birth. It is like a candle that has no more wax. But where will “you” go? There is no more “you” to suffer. It is called Nibbāna. That is different from annihilation view. You can see a video here on the subject.

Although I’m giving a hard-line Buddhist teaching, don’t worry. Heaven is not exclusive to one religion, but it only lasts for few hundred million years which is mistaken for “eternity”…until it ends. It is real, but not the exclusive domain of a God. It is the resultant domain of living previously as a “higher human.” Always live by standing on the higher ground, and you end up in a higher place, maybe even Heaven. Real faith in Jesus is to be a nice, good and giving person… period. In fact the Christian Bible says that if you are not walking with Jesus (that means acting with his teachings), after death, he will say he does not know you and banish you! (Matthew 7:21-23).

Traditional women have a better chance of getting higher favorable births because of their motherly-love and always giving-nature while the men usually do the dirty work in the business or hunting world. The next time you see volunteers, a donation committee, or a religious community, count the number of women versus the men in attendance. That is why there are more women than men in Heaven Realms. Remember that traditional women were the norm up until 70 years ago. Third world countries may have an “upper edge.”

So that is my advice to our dear friend of the family who is also a good mother too. I’ll do my part and wish her well. It is also part of my duty to teach the real teachings and also give advice that she can practice for herself. In review, she should:

  • Follow the 5 Precepts and make statements of truths
    • Not to kill
    • Not to steal
    • Not to engage in sexual misconduct
    • Not to lie
    • Not to take intoxicants (like even a sip of alcohol let alone other drugs)
  • Practice Loving-kindness and other meditations
  • Make donations, share merit, wish for long life with good health
  • Build associations with good quality monks and monasteries that are practicing well or help bring other monks to those qualities.

May you all be well and healthy and reach the final goal of Nibbāna and make an end of old age, sickness and death.

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