Why such discomfort with the word "prayer" and activities that would fall under it's domain?
This question comes from a re-post on the Dangerous Harvests blog, and for context it is referring to contemporary (convert) Buddhists in post-enlightenment, post-modern societies whose cultural history doesn't have ancient connections to Buddhism. That would include the societies of nation-states such as the from the Americans, Europe, and so on. More directly it implies the more economically powerful or "developed" nations such as the United States of America.
I read the post last night and composed a comment in response. It had to be divided into two longer comments given the character limit imposed by Blogger. I think the reply was very concise but also very dense, so I decided to sleep on it. I still like the tight and compact form I originally composed, but upon reflection it seemed that there was still a little more that could be said to help clarify what I was getting at, so rather than submitting a three-comment-long response I decided my reaction would work just as well as a full length post here.
What follows is an expansion of and elaboration on the original comment(s), and it's still pretty tightly packed even with some additional exposition and examples added in. My response is based on roughly ten years of observing convert Buddhists online and in print as well as privately studying various forms of Buddhism, and I don't claim any special titles or expertise in the matter. Nonetheless I hope it may help answer the question that was posed. It also provides another angle to my recent exposition on prayer and provides a kind of follow up to some thoughts on contemporary convert Buddhists and God.
Well, your own post suggests a large part of the problem, both in something you identify and in the way you try to parse things. This get's a little long so I had to break it into two comments. [Or transfer it to this post instead.]
Buddhism has historically accepted that what modern post-enlightenment folks think of as the material or physical world is only one facet or angle of a larger reality. Focusing on it exclusively as the only reality was considered to be an error refuted by the Buddha.
Thus, when people from such modern societies speak of spiritual beings or places like the Buddha-fields, including Amitabha's Pure Land, there is often an automatic dichotomy set up between symbolizing something and referring to something "real" (i.e. a being or place technically defined as spiritual or supernatural, but that in a way that still treats it as a physical entity that occupies some other dimension with different laws of existence).
In all major religions, there are different ways of understanding such beings and places dependent upon the perspective of the practitioner or seeker. The religious perspective isn't a monolothic point of view nor does it necessarily conform to the stereotypes imposed upon it, despite the best efforts of some adherents to suggest and reinforce the basis for such stereotypes.
Take the idea of some super-being hovering over things. For those too cool for "backward" or "outdated" views of religion this perspective is contrasted in an either/or fashion with an archetype representing some inner quality (read as "ideas and feelings generated and sustained solely by the brain in conjunction with its social activity") that is conceivably (and typically implied in this case to be) compatible with a strictly materialist view.
A cleaner, safer, hipper Buddhism
In other words, religious ideas and imagery are deflated and compressed to fit within a primarily or exclusively materialist paradigm in which there *may* be thing which exceed our current level of understanding but which must ultimately be resolved through what is taken to be the highest, most advanced, and greatest system of beliefs, attitudes, and methods ever devised by humans for knowing about the world. That is, ontological materialism and (cultural) scientism. The idea of transcending such a system is taken to be a tiresome fantasy for the hopelessly gullible or desperate.
Some folks may not like how that sounds or might be unable recognize it in their own thinking yet some element of it can still be present at a subconscious level, influencing the emotional aspect of their response to particular ideas (it's too long to go into here but view is that humans acquire, frame, and share information in a deeply social context and thus like it or not emotional responses are foundational to our knowledge and what we do or don't accept). Religious ideas and related actions, such as practices such as rituals, including prayer, are associated with ignorance, gullibility, outdated views, and so on (even though this has to do with how religion is incorporated into and used in society rather than something inherent to religion itself), so being associated with these ideas and practices is to be associated with the wrong kind of people, the wrong part of the social landscape, and everything that is perceived to be part of that neighborhood.
One solution to this is to sanitize some ideas and practices by extracting them from that shameful, embarrassing context. To strip away most of what would contradict the aforementioned preferred system of knowing and framing existence and reshape what's left into something more comfortable. More acceptable.
Meditation practices that increases compassionate response, reduces psycho-social stress, and can be detected as having an empirical association the brain? In. Prayer to something greater than our individual selves? Out.
The idea of rebirth as a form of physical recycling and social transmigration (i.e. "how our lives affect others")? In. Consciousness transcending the brain or individual and the potential for other forms of existence or experience beyond what is considered to be the limits of the material realm? Out.
A different outlook
The idea of (a) Presence in true silence is found in writings about mystical and contemplative experiences around the world/through time, along with intermediate presences that exist between the individual and this greater Presence. (The capitalization suggests something that, when experienced, appears to precede, supersede, and subsume all other examples associated with the term. Theological examples include "God" and "Being".)
For those who take mystical experiences and contemplative encounters seriously, the most authentic form of prayer is experiencing such Presence. Other forms may be involved in assisting with this goal, and as such are intended to link what we might call mind, heart, and body (including action) together in an intentional and conscious way in order to become a more receptive participant with or conduit for such presence.
Still other forms of prayer are forms of social identification or control, emotional triggers, psychological support, a form of catharsis, or a form of magic that attempt to know the unknowable or give a sense of control or acceptance to that which is beyond our control. The wording of prayer may allude to some Presence but this may exist only in the imagination or assumption of the practitioner as a collection of beliefs and experiences that do not constitute a genuine encounter (assuming there is such thing).
Also common is the fluidity between those felt intermediate presences, manifesting as natural things (i.e. shooting stars, animals, breezes, people), or states of mind/heart, or ones own hopes, fears, and temptations, and so on. These may be depicted as lesser gods and deities, greater spirits, angels and demons, kami -- even the timeless Bodhisattvas such as Kuan Yin. In a sense they can be thought of as caretakers, guides, and gatekeepers that may provoke people to be seekers or act as tests of a seeker's resolve, insight, and maturity.
The upshot is that if one isn't committed to a strictly materialist view as that has been defined and solidified in the 19th and 20th centuries, spiritual language is uncaged and untamed. The Buddha really is looking out for you *and* this represents a Buddha-nature flowing through all beings. The Pure Land is a place or state of existence beyond the experience of a limited material existence which is accessible by the power of faith, far beyond physical death, *and* is a perspective on the nature of reality that can be accessed while we are still living as said mortal beings. These and other spiritual individuals and places would not be limited to being just these two sides of the aforementioned dichotomy either.
The premise is that what we might, through identifying with our physical bodies and (localized, individual) minds, experience of reality would be limited, and any experience of something greater could appear or be interpreted as different layers or levels of existence. That which is encountered in such (a) "beyond" would have to be understood in frames that our evolutionary history permits and that we have learned to use to divide up our world, reducing them to what we would conceive of as people and places.
These presences would be appear to be both within and without, as distinct and as one, etc, fluid and dynamic. They would seem real and imaginary, here and there but neither here nor there. Persons, non-persons, both, neither, and beyond any such categorization, like a cut gem stone being turned in the light.
Of course, it's also possible that "that which is beyond" our typical conditioned and familiar consciousness and psycho-social constructions would mold itself/themselves into our constructs as well. It could also be both, a chicken and the egg in which we are they and they are us and we are they. Fun, eh?
Naturally, a materialist can rightfully and logically argue that whatever we are translating into such familiar frames is just a product of ignorance, over-active imaginations or agency detecting mechanisms in the brain, wishful thinking, etc. This is likely true in many cases. Also, wherever these images come from, including perhaps the needs of highly social beings collectively living in a landscape of shared stories, many just accept the identity and characterization these images because of their socialization and interpret them as strictly literal (or figurative) for similar reasons.
The object of prayer
In daily life there is no need for most people to go into such an academic treatment as this. Whether they pray for petition, inspiration, invocation, something else, or some combination thereof, and whether they do so out of psychological need, habit, as part of a belief system of varying levels of depth and nuance, or because they have directly perceived or intuited some experience of a larger/deeper reality, it is a part of how they relate to their world.
Many convert Buddhists in the Western world operate out a historically and socially derived mindset that, for better or worse, tries to pin everything down analytically, conceptually, logically, and verbally, into black and white distinctions. Within a subset of that mindset, other ways of knowing and potential aspects of reality outside of a defined view are suspect. For some, this is particularly true of religion, and especially anything that is associated with Abrahamic religion. (For other people it may be true of those who don't share their narrow metaphysics defined by a form of religious fundamentalism, to give a different example.)
Prayer, in it's unqualified, unapologetic forms, honors and reaches out in these others ways of knowing and being to that which is seen as well as unseen, the understood and the mysterious. It colors outside the lines, within the wrong lines, and sometimes uses colors we can't even grasp -- some that aren't even colors.
This brings up the question of the object of payer and takes us back to the issue of Buddhist prayer originally raised in a direct way.
Is the Buddha or Buddha-nature simply another word for the innate human potential in a strictly materialist framework, like tapping into the full depth of the human brain as well as our social connections? Is it the expression of Nietzsche's Übermensch? Is it the ultimate ideal of secular humanism dressed in a monk's saffron robes?
If so, then Buddhist prayer becomes a safe and acceptable phrase (and activity) for those strongly attached or firmly committed to the materialist paradigm. his is not a criticism, but another piece of the answer to the question being explored. In this view religious imagery is the expression of human imagination mixed with longing and a need for explanation and control, a response to the existential dilemma of self-aware beings cognizant of their own mortality, and it is only this. There is nothing more to be found other than the products of our evolved human nature as creative social beings, and at best religious imagery records and reveals this nature.
If not, then we are back to the possibilities already raised (and of course others not described). To the shifting nature of Presence and its attendants, to the calm space in the center of the paradoxes, or perhaps caught in the sparks of a paradox which have fallen into the either/or mold of the analytical aspect of the human mind, and there cast as idol that is limited to a single nature and meaning. In this view there is something greater, and we are of this, but we are not the sum of this. It's fullness may exist within each of us, but it is not limited to any of us or our current state and our potential far exceeds our current conventional notions about life.
My goal here isn't to say which view is superior. But this seems to be where the wrangling over materialist Buddhism (sometimes labeled as secular Buddhism) and issues such as prayer comes to a head. If a Buddhist says she is prayer to herself and to her Buddha-nature, is it to that fullness of something greater within (and without, and beyond, etc) or only to her potential as a finite human being as define by contemporary bio-medicine and secular culture?
This is why there is such consternation about things like prayer among many contemporary Buddhists, especially those raised in places like the US.