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Bhutan, prayer flags

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We pray, not because God needs it, but because we do. Prayer is a sacrament, an outer, visible expression of an inner, invisible grace — or intention.

This article appeared in our April 2003 issue. Last year I took a journey into the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which is in the high Himalayas, sandwiched between India, China, and Tibet. There I experienced an entire culture that prays without ceasing. Waking in a village before dawn, the first sounds we heard were monks chanting or households repeating the great prayer of the Lord Buddha — Om Mani Padma Hum. Even when there were no voices, there was still prayer. Everywhere, multicolored prayer flags fluttered in the breeze — atop the hills overlooking the villages, in the mountain passes, by the small farms tucked into the deep valleys. In auspicious places by streams, water-powered prayer wheels turned constantly. In nooks in the cliffs alongside the trails were tiny shrines that contained ritual statuettes made from compressed earth mixed with the ashes of the dead. A monk told us that the wind and the water, like human beings, should constantly offer prayers. Taken literally, this is all nonsense. Tibetan Buddhists have a saying about their fantastic sacred stories and bizarr …

Sam Keen, whose Psychology Today conversations brought Joseph Campbell, Norman O. Brown, and other seminal thinkers to national attention, holds two M.A.s in theology from Harvard and a Princeton Ph.D. in philosophy. His books include the best-seller Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God, and his most recent, Learning to Fly: Trapeze – Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go.


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