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Buddhism's Best Kept Secret: The Lost Art of Gatha Writing (Setting an Intention)

As a young boy I prayed to God every night, begging him to transform me into a superhero. I was very specific with this request and told him I’d settle for just two superpowers: the ability to fly and superhuman strength. Why? Because I was 10 years old is why. But I was clever enough to realize that God would expect some kind of selfless motivation for this tall order of a prayer, so I bargained with him. “If you make me a superhero,” I’d say, “I promise to use my powers for the good of others.” 

I had the Catholic thing down. 

The truth is, my motivation was primarily selfish. Sure, I suppose if I were to stumble onto some petty crime being committed on my way to the video arcade, I just might intervene and make the kid take the Oui Magazine out of his jacket and put it back on the rack. But in reality I just wanted to fly and beat other kids up, and I wanted to do this because I thought it was cool. 

When I first realized I was Buddhist, I had to revisit some of my long-held beliefs and practices since they were beginning to feel…wrong.

But there were certain traditions from my Christian upbringing that I really, really didn’t want to part with. Number one on my list was prayer:  that beautiful practice of reciting a set of phrases with a specific intention or end result in mind. There was the Our Father, the purpose of which was to remind me to accept things as they are, to keep me from succumbing to my desire mind, and to practice forgiveness for myself and others. The Hail Mary was a simple way of asking for some help for us here on Earth when it came to committing unskillful acts. 

However, from the Buddhist viewpoint there is no separate, all-powerful entity we can pray to who will, in turn, intervene in our worldly human affairs. So what’s the point of prayer in a Buddhist context?

What sets Buddhism apart from every other spiritual tradition is that the onus is on us for our own salvation. There's no one outside of ourselves to blame or to beg, to bargain with or to appease. This practice demands that we each be responsible for our own current situations, and this means that the suffering we experience is produced in the mind and can therefore be eliminated in the mind as well. This is extremely challenging to fathom on one hand, but once understood, it’s the most liberating and empowering thing one could ever hope to hear.

In Buddhism, there’s a long tradition of reciting gathas that predates Christian prayer. A Gatha (pronounced Gah'-Ta) is a style of verse or song meant to encapsulate, synthesize, or teach a spiritual concept. It could be a way to highlight the most potent part of a sutra or as a means to formally acknowledge the beginning or ending of an otherwise mundane event. It’s also a practice that can help keep us fully rooted and mindful of whatever we happen to be doing — whether we’re brushing our teeth, having sex, or about to sit and meditate. 

By arranging the appropriate words in a poetic structure, they become easy to memorize and recite spontaneously when appropriate.

Some examples of popular gathas:


Waking up this morning, I smile. 

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

May I live each moment mindfully,

And may I look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

-Thich Nhat Hanh



Entering this room, I see the present moment. 

I bow to the room and breathe. 

I vow to enter with calmness and awareness.



Defiled or immaculate, increasing or decreasing – these concepts exist only in our mind. 

The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

-Thich Nhat Hanh



The merit gained through our Dharma activities,
We now dedicate to all beings for the alleviation of their suffering, 

So that we and all sentient beings would be able
To attain our Buddhahood together.


The fundamental difference between a gatha and a Christian prayer is that as Buddhists, we aren’t petitioning some separate, external source to swoop in and fix sfuff for us here on Earth. When we recite a gatha that’s connected to some sort of intention, I liken it to what happens when seeds are first planted in a garden. The seed is somewhat specific — you might want to plant an apple seed if you eventually want an apple tree to grow. You plant the seed in fertile soil and make sure it receives enough water, light, and attention on your part so that you eventually allow an apple tree to blossom. 

It may not look exactly as you first envisioned it, but it’s still an apple tree. But without an initial intention or aspiration of some sort, no apple tree could be possible. 

It’s important to be consciously intentional in our lives rather than haphazardly so. Whether we realize it or not, there’s always some kind of intention running like an operating system in the backdrop of our minds that will eventually lead to feelings and behaviors that have a very tangible impact in our lives. This is why it so often feels like we end up with the polar opposite of what we really aspire to--that is, because our unconscious intention is creating causes and conditions that are at odds with what we proclaim to want on a conscious level. 

By becoming aware of what our minds are doing in each and every moment, we train ourselves not to be so mindlessly jerked around by our years of habitual conditioning and repetitive thought patterns that we aren’t fully in touch with--which is a simple way to describe karma. We can take the reins and be the master of our minds rather than letting it take over and dictate how we think, feel, and behave. Karma doesn’t have to be viewed as some cosmic justice system of reward and punishment — it’s simply the process of cause and effect that all originates in our thinking minds. 

Trust me: it’s better to work your karma then to let it work you.

Recently, Kimberly Brown and I led our second Annual Intention Setting Ceremony for the New Year. The class broke into five groups, and I asked them come up with an intention for the new year that could be worded in gatha form. 

Each group came up with a wonderful gatha, and with their permission I'm sharing them with you here:


As I begin this Day

May I be gentle with myself and others

Let go of expectations

and discover the joy of being present in the moment



Seeing my cushion I run away

Breathing in breathing out

I turn around

All distractions can wait

Now it’s time to mediate



Recognizing the basic goodness in myself and all beings

I vow to 

Speak love and receive love

Be from the heart and with the heart

Radiate love and presence

For the benefit of all beings.



Noticing desires as unending

May I accept all beings as they are

Offering a smile of kindness

with a wish to set them free



aka Self-Compassion Ghatha

When I life my veil of self-loathing and doubt

I can be more accepting of what arises, without judgment

And realize my true self as a kind, loving, and compassionate person

Thereby destroying the wall between self and other 

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Give this practice a try -- you don't have to be the greatest writer and you don't have to share your gathas with the entire Buddhaverse. But this can be a very useful method for clarifying your purpose and intention by very clearly and creatively writing it out in no uncertain terms.  By doing so, you can better commit yourself to being more present, cultivating qualities that may be somewhat blocked, and taking action when and where appropriate.
An important tip: there are no "right" or "wrong" intentions -- but if your ultimate goal is to be of more help to others, that's the best kind of soil in which to plant the seed of your intention.
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Join Kate Johnson and me for our Compassion and Kindness Meditation Retreat Weekend January 24-26. More information can be found here.
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