Buddhists, especially young practitioners, are often confused when it comes to the term, 'Buddhist prayers', especially when Buddhism, is atheist-friendly. In what sense can there be a 'prayer' in the god-less philosophy of Buddhism, when the Buddha has expounded on occasions, the futility of prayers?
Often after the end of a Buddhist activity, practitioners are highly encouraged to make aspirations, whether is it personal goals or more altruistic motivations for the well-being of others. For the youths in the group, I've always encouraged them to make an aspiration to work hard and achieve good results, and also to build trusting and loving relationships with their family and friends.
I think Venerable S. Dhammika has explained it very well in his recent article, differentiating aspiration, or affirmation in this case, from prayers.
avhayana or pathana) 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 Tipitaka, ‘to beseech, praise and worship with joined hands’ (ayacanti thomayanti panjalika nemassanama, 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 ayacanahetu va na patthanahetu, A.II,47).
Affirmation (adhinnana 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 bring 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 Nirvana. The Buddha also mentioned that a strong affirmation can have a role to play in mental purification. He said that effective way to efface negative mental states was to make the affirmation not to give into 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).