Lam Shenphen Zangpo, kuenselonline.com
Q: As a Buddhist practitioner, I like attending teachings and try to bring them into my daily life. Is this not enough? Why do we also need to make merit?
A: For people with good karma, it is possible to attain enlightenment by just listening to the teachings. The Chinese Zen monk Hui Neng is a good example of this. He awoke merely upon overhearing someone chant the Diamond Sutra.
However, most of us are too lost in the clouds of delusion for this to occur. Even if we listen to the teachings diligently, there is still every chance that we will not fully grasp the meaning. This occurs because of lack of merit.
We all naturally possess wisdom, but the clouds of ignorance cloak it. Merit provides a means for the light to shine through, and so enables us to see reality. In this respect, we can consider merit as a kind of ‘ability’.
Merit actually benefits on two levels. On an ultimate level, it is one of the causes of full enlightenment, while on a mundane level it provides a means to live wisely. How many people, for example, enjoy wealth, good health and live in beautiful surroundings, yet idle away their days watching Hindi soaps, playing video games or drinking. The inability to raise their lungta is entirely due to lack of merit. Even having the ability to relax and savour a cup of tea is contingent on merit.
In terms of mind, how does merit function? Well, our present situation did not arise from nowhere and at random, but is part of a flow of intertwined events that are both the result of the preceding event and the cause of the next.
In practical terms how does this function? Take, for example, a trip to Siliguri. From the moment the idea to visit the city was conceived, a series of events unfolded that allowed us to arrive there. First, we purchased a bus ticket, got on the bus and finally in Jaigaon, got transferred to another vehicle. We did not suddenly appear in Siliguri the moment we thought about going there, nor did we arrive without the right combination of causes and conditions. Our current situation is the same. It arose through a succession of events, with each being the result of the former and the cause of the next.
In this context, merit can be defined as anything that has a positive effect on this flow, such as thoughts, words or deeds that challenge ignorance and lead to the truth. Take compassion as an example. By benefiting others, we lessen our attachment to the false view of an independent self. Prostrations, likewise, crush our pride, while rejoicing in others good fortune serves as an antidote to jealousy. Listening to Dharma teachings, offering butter lamps and undertaking mandala practice are all excellent ways to generate merit.
In contrast, thoughts, words or deeds that preserve the wrong view, such as violence or arrogance, contaminates the flow and leads to inauspicious results.
How do we make merit? If you do not drink, for example, then make a vow to maintain this practice for the benefit of all beings. The ‘merit-meter’ will continue to tick away every moment that you do not consume alcohol. Likewise, if you decide to refrain from taking meat, but cannot do so on a daily basis, then make a vow to be a vegetarian on just one day a week. Later, when the act is complete, dedicate the merit to the enlightenment of all beings. Dedicating merit in this way is like adding a drop of water to the ocean.
In conclusion, merit is an essential aspect of life, and when combined with wisdom leads to full enlightenment. Therefore, we should not underestimate the benefits of merit, but strive to generate thoughts, words and deeds that lead to the truth whenever and however we can.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said: “We cannot accumulate merit if we have a macho sense of pride and arrogance that we have already have enough truth and virtue and now are going to collect more. The person who collects merit has to be humble and willing to give rather than willing to collect…”
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