ChangYuan wrote:So we all know Buddhism is non-theistic. But, when asked, this is where it gets hard to explain for me.
If there is no "God" in Buddhism, then who do we pray to?
Where exactly do the petitions we make go?
Good questions, Changyuan! These things are definitely not easy to explain because they deal with the interplay of the relative and the absolute. I'm going to rely on Bokar Rinpoche's book "Tara: The Feminine Divine" in order to give an answer.
From what I gather from this book, we are praying to either the true nature of mind (the Dharmakaya), or we are praying to a "Bodies of Enjoyment" (Sambhogakaya) which were spontaneously produced by Buddhas (one who have relized the Dharmakaya). Everything is encompassed by the Dharmakaya, since the true nature of mind is vast like space. This true nature of mind is the medium of transmission, the sender, and the receiver, so in some sense we are praying to the true essence of ourselves.
Why do prayers like this work? ...Er, I haven't dug up an answer to that yet. Perhaps, due to the amazing nature of the Dharmakaya???
Here are some juicy parts from the book:"In reality, all wordly appearances are a manifestation of our mind. Fear, apprehension, and danger are also a manifestation of our mind, just like in a bad dream the mind creates both the threat and the one who feels it.
The creative faculty of our mind is very strong. It is this strength that exerts itself in the fervent prayer addressed to Tara. Together with Tara's immense will to help beings, this strength makes possible the protection...
...We must understand that if phenomena had reality in themselves, no change would be possible. By the fact that they are empty in nature, they are only expressions of the deep conditioning of our mind that can be changed.
...This is also why, when the true nature of the mind is realized, all fear disappears."
Now some good parts from that book about the nature of deities:"Let us suppose that in a dream we meet a deity. We would be sure of the individual existence of that deity. Also, we would be sure of the reality of the "I" who, upon seeing the deity, would feel joy and devotion. However, in truth, the person perceiving the deity and the deity would both be manifestations from the same inexpressible essence, the mind itself. In the same way, for those who live on a relative level, the deities appear on a relative level without being separated from their essence, which is none other than the essence of the mind.
To understand the true nature of deities, we must always remind ourselves of the two levels of reality:
--Ultimate truth, beyond notions of subject and object, I and other, beyond concepts and words, truth is always present and always "true," but it is not experienced by ordinary beings.
--Relative truth, "false" in essence but "true" for the people who experience it, a truth founded on the fallacious perception of subject and object, of an "I" and another."
Thank you, Bokar Rinpoche, for writing such an awesome book! I encourage other people to check it out.