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.Ouch.
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.