I can’t speak for all Buddhists. I don’t know what their intentions or motivations are when they pray. I know that for some it is devotional, for some it is for personal gain. For others… who knows? When I say that I pray, you should throw away your notions of Christian prayer and the purpose that it holds. When I pray, I’m not asking for someone else to come to my aid. I’m asking for my greater self to come to my aid. I’m actualizing and putting into practice those things that I know will be of purposeful aid.
When I recite the 5 remembrances, I watch the memories and feelings that arise and deal with them right there (or at least attempt to). When I recite the Gatha of Atonement, I’m not atoning to another person, or a god. I atone for my evil karma, and allow my better self to realize how unskillful my actions have been. I allow the Universe to see me at my most vulnerable.
When I pray and light incense, I’m attempting to manifest those best qualities of myself that I know I hold the capacity for. The prayers allow me a chance to vocalize, internalize, and put into practice those qualities. And they allow me a moment to be mindful of the times when I’ve failed to hit the mark.