What Is The Purpose of Buddhist Prayer?

Watching the TV news about the tragedy in Japan, I was surprised to see Buddhist people praying, with clasped hands.
Since Buddhism doesn’t incorporate a belief in a supreme being/God, what is the purpose of prayer?
Intercessory prayer is common among Christians-there is always something that yuo need, which you can ask God to grant.
But if you are a Buddhist, who are yuo praying to?

Prayer is used more to focus mind and energy than implore a higher power.

It also depends on the kind of Buddhist, of which there are many. Pure Land Buddhism looks nothing like Zen, for example. (Rather, it looks a lot more like Christianity, IMHO.) Also, are you sure they were Buddhists? Plenty of Christians in Japan, not to mention the countless multitudes who have a little of this, little of that (Christian wedding, Buddhist funeral, etc.).

In Chinese Buddhism, various boddhisattvas (like Guanyin) are revered as gods/saints who can answer prayers.

They’re likely praying to theAmida Buddha. Although “praying” is the wrong word here.

Heck, I’m an atheist, and sometimes I pray.

It helps you collect, process and articulate your thoughts. Even if you don’t really believe anyone is listening, it can be comforting to kind of send your thoughts out there anyway. A little comfort never hurt anyone.

It’s a deviation from true Buddhism. While traditional Buddhism is a philosophy that doesn’t believe in a god (but rather following the karmic path with the ultimate goal of reaching the state of Nirvana, becoming nothing) that doesn’t mean that it will be followed that way by all of its followers. Much like the different branches of Christianity throughout the world, Buddhism also has followers who integrate their own folklore or beliefs into the philosophy, essentially turning it into a religion. This is further reflected by the prayers to Buddha and various other Boddhisattvas, the offerings of food and gifts at temples for good favor, and the selling of good luck charms. Prayers, offerings, and charms are done with the hopes that it’ll increase one’s karma. I think Buddha is the equivalent of a god to many Buddhists and, as mentioned above, the idea of praying to a higher divinity during a time of crisis helps provide a moment of calm to recollect ones thoughts, or at the least provide hope in a time of turbulance.

Christian prayer isn’t always supplication (asking God for something, thanking God for getting it.) Sometimes it’s meditation - a focusing of body, mind and spirit. For example, I was taught as a Roman Catholic to pray before the sacrements to prepare myself for what’s to come. That’s the model for Buddhists. They pray to get themselves centered, either on the task at hand, or their connection with the universe.

That’s the closest I can explain it, anyway.