In his address yesterday at the University of Utah, the Dalai Lama said:
There are a lot of problems that humanity is now facing. So much killing and starvation. … When we look at the television [and see what is happening] in the Middle East or Africa — children, due to malnourishment, their faces, it’s so sad. In the meantime? Violence, bombing. … So now, [we need] to tackle this problem, [but] not through prayer. … I’m Buddhist. In my daily practice, prayer is also included. For the individual, prayer is relevant and useful. But for society and the world, prayer — I think there is not much meaning. … I’m quite skeptical [about] peace through prayer. … During war, I think both sides pray to God. … I think God finds it difficult [to decide whether] his blessings should go to this side or that side. … Peace comes only through action — not through prayer.
(You can see these comments at this link, beginning at about 23:25.)
I think the Dalai Lama’s main point is that society can’t simply rely on prayer for peace and correction of social ills. If we want a better world, we must take affirmative actions to make that happen. We can’t pray for things to be magically fixed; we must do the work. I wholeheartedly agree with this.
But can prayer play any role at all in making the world a better place? Personally, I think it can, if prayer is changing people’s hearts and helping members of society be better people, better neighbors, and better citizens. If someone prays for wisdom and guidance to know how to help with a situation, and then acts on the guidance that is received, I believe prayer can make a difference.
Of course, there is the risk that prayer will make people complacent, like we’ve “done our part” by praying and there isn’t anything more we have to do. Perhaps that is what the scriptures mean when they refer to “vain repetitions”?
I like a quote that is attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”