Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dedication of Merit

Cleaning Carpets for Easter
Cleaning Carpets for Easter, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2009

Religions have their little secret handshakes. In Lebanon, for example, everybody peppers their language with various expressions that include God—"subhan Allah, ya Allah!, insh'Allah, hamd'illah," and so on. However, only Muslims will greet you with a "Salaam aleikum," to which the proper response is "wa aleikum assalaam, wa rahmatullah wa barakati," which says that you're in the club too. A Christian would probably reply just with a "Marhaba."

Buddhists—at least online ones—have their little flourishes too. For some reason, I find them a bit affected, sometimes even irritating. You know, things like "gassho" and _/|\_ and "metta" and referring to people as "sentient beings" and wishing "liberation" on them. Perhaps they only give me a rash because I don't feel like a fully-credentialed member of the club yet. Or perhaps they really are affected. Some people do manage to wear them well, but they're a pretty small minority.

One little flourish that has particularly irritated me—probably because it sounds similar to "I'm praying for you" or what not, which often has an awfully covert-aggressive, sanctimonious air—is dedication of merit. See, in Mahayana Buddhism we're not supposed to be practicing for our own sake, but in order to liberate all beings. There's a traditional belief that practice produces merit—kusala karma—that will mature as spiritual growth or, depending on your metaphysicals, a felicitious rebirth. However, this is only supposed to work if we practice selflessly. Otherwise, no merit, and the whole thing is wasted.

I hear that in some Buddhist countries at least monks won't thank you if you offer them a meal. The idea is that if they do, then the meal you offered won't have been offered selflessly but for that thanks, and you'll lose the merit you'd have gotten for doing that. From where I'm at, that's a bit of a mindfuck, really, because you'd only care about that in the first place if you were offering the meal in order to make merit, which would mean that you wouldn't get that merit anyway.

Selfish little bastards, aren't we?
Beings are numberless. I vow to liberate them all.

I freely admit that "all beings" is very little more than just words to me; it's not something I can relate to. I practice to liberate myself, and also to be less of a dick with people I relate to, and thereby maybe make their life a little less of a drag. I know that ain't how it's supposed to be, but that's how it is at this point. What am I supposed to do, lie?

Perhaps that's why I started playing with this dedicating merit thing during the past few days. It actually started on a blog; I read a post that was very personal and touching, and said I'd do that in a comment. Then I went to sit for a round, and I did. Guess what? It worked!

That is, it worked for my little selfish self. I don't know if it did anything much for the recipient of that merit. I hope so, 'cuz I did transfer that merit as sincerely as I was able.

What I experienced, though, was a subtle shift in my mindscape. I felt like I was sitting my zazen for somebody—a specific somebody, for a specific reason. It wasn't just about me and my precious spiritual quest anymore. It felt like my zazen mattered more. The upshot was that I felt more motivated to stick with my practice and less inclined to wander off into the mental wildernesses my overactive imagination keeps making up. "Hey, I can't do that, I'm supposed to be doing this for somebody."

I'm going to stick with this a bit and see what happens. If you haven't tried it, though, I highly recommend it. It might be just mind games, but then again, in a certain sense, this whole Buddhist trip is. What's there to lose?

I'm dedicating the merit from tomorrow morning's zazen to Selim, my father-in-law.


  1. Sometimes I find Buddhist emoticons _/|\_ rather superfluous and ornamental. Then again emoticons of any sort are kind of irritating since they are so often over used or misused. I wish there was an emoticon for a pair of scissors for all the times I've gotten this one :-P I find that one to be particularly rude. Emoticons originally were to convey the tone of the writing, an effort to fill in for the lack of visual cues. Now they are mostly sarcastic and there seems to be more attention paid to the tone than to the words themselves.

    On the issue of meditation with metta intentions (or meta-intentions) that is something I've found arising since practicing Tonglen upon occasion. It expands the experience considerably.

  2. Yikes, I'm gonna have to watch out then. I do use that one, and some others, on occasion.

    I've been trying to do without, lately, though, and just use plain ol' profanity instead. They serve the same purpose, but pack more of a punch.

  3. Interesting experiment. I guess a lot of how it impacts on your 'little selfish self' will depend on whether you are tying the idea of 'merit' to the simple act of sitting or the 'quality' of the sitting. The latter is not something that Zen usually advises us to rate - which then gets into the whole Bodhidharma "no merit, vast emptiness" thing and the Soto "Zazen is good for nothing" outlook.

    If the idea of merit becomes a problem I guess you could think of it more in terms of endeavour? I like the Bodhisattva Vows because they are at once very aspirational and vastly ego puncturing.

  4. The idea of merit isn't really a problem for me, because I don't 'believe' in it, in the metaphysical sense. In the concrete, immediate sense, for sure—as in, if you do something selfish, it'll tend bite you in the ass, and if you do something unselfish, it… won't. And yeah, I do think of it more as endeavor—i.e., dedicating the act of sitting, not the quality of sitting.

    Pitfalls everywhere. What I wanted to get across, though, was that dedicating the act of sitting did impact the quality of sitting as well—or, to be precise, it affected my motivational dispositions, which affected the sitting.

    I think there's a slight difference in approach to sitting in the Harada-Yasutani tradition than usually in Soto, though. While we're emphatically advised not to judge our sitting, or, worse, compare ourselves to how we imagine others sit, there is a point to the exercise—a particular kind of effort to be made, and a particular purpose for each particular kind of practice. In that limited context, I think anything that helps attainment and maintenance of that effort and that purpose is 'good.'

    The way I see it, 'no merit, vast emptiness' and 'good for nothing' are true, but to get to the point where they're really true isn't trivial, and along the way there are goals and methods and purposes. Of course, that approach has its dangers too.

    I think it depends on your individual temperament, really—someone who's very ambitious and goal-driven could get hung up on those goals and attainments to the point where they become serious obstacles; OTOH someone who's a bit lazy and has a tendency to daydream might benefit greatly from them. I think I'm more the latter than the former, meself. Different sicknesses, different medicines.

  5. Maybe we're always telling ourselves little stories about things. Maybe we can use that habit consciously. I don't believe in the merit thing literally in some metaphysical sense, either; and yet I put my names on my altar and chant "for" people I know who are suffering, much as you have been sitting "for" people.

    And it is providing a sense of focus, an intention of sharing, that is a real experience and useful. This is how a beautiful idea like "practicing for all beings" is made real.

  6. I sure am. Perhaps I'll post some of those stories here, one of these days.

    And that's a good idea, about trying to use it consciously to focus or improve the practice. Thanks!

  7. Now, I don't want to be a spoiler, but you can't tell us why you are doing it, because now it is selfish again. The left hand should not let the right hand know what it is doing.

    Your declarations spoil the imaginary merit.
    So you may have to sit yet another day for your father-in-law.

    Does it stop being a mind trick when you know the trick?

  8. @Sabio, speak for yourself. It works better for me if I declare it, imaginary merit or no. I tried.

    And no, a trick doesn't stop being a trick when you know it. I've dabbled a little in close-up magic, once upon a time, and learning how to do some of those tricks doesn't diminish them in any way.

  9. Excellent ! Yeah, it might just be me.