Transfer of Merit
By Rev. Jisho Perry
Saturday April 10, 2004
The Body of the Buddha permeates the universe;
it manifests itself in front of all of us;
there is no place where it does not so manifest itself;
it does so for every relationship and in all need
yet it is still in its own true place;
the seas of its merit cannot be counted.1
The Buddhist practice of transferring merit comes out of the understanding that there is value or merit in our spiritual practice. The law of karma states simply that our actions, all intentional or volitional actions, have a moral and spiritual effect or result. Sometimes these are discussed as good and bad, but this is misleading in that there is no judgment in the impersonal workings of the law of karma. We frequently discuss the harmful effects because they are so painfully evident as suffering in our daily lives. We want to learn how to deal effectively with this suffering and convert it into understanding so as not to continue the endless cycle of birth and death. Since enlightened action leaves no wake, it frequently goes unnoticed. We do not often see or discuss the actions that cause merit or good karma. It is also important to note that actions that tend to cause good karma, if done for the selfish purpose of getting a spiritual reward may have an effect that will not necessarily appear to the recipient as if it were a reward. I remember a story from India about the various effects of those who removed a banana peel from a path. Of course the one who carelessly left it there or those who ignored it got no reward; the man who carefully removed it for the purpose of receiving a reward was reborn in a less fortunate state, while the playful child who, almost unconsciously, kicked it aside was saved from being struck by a tumbling stone on the very same path in a future birth. The sage, who moved it aside without thought of reward or punishment, just doing what needs to be done, received the highest reward of spiritual blessings.2 From this it is important to see that the physical action is not the chief factor in the workings of the law of karma, but rather the state of mind of the actor at the time of the acting. It is also important that we do not perform spiritual service for the purpose of some selfish reward. The Buddhist act of transferring the merit of services expresses the desire for selfless service. The Tibetan ( * edited by me : all schools teach ,not just Tibetan Buddhism) Buddhist teach that all suffering is created by the desire to seek pleasure for ourselves while all happiness is created in selfless service to others.
We should know that some actions such as our meditation, religious ceremonies or services, rosary recitation, and all actions done with a pure heart and with the intention of keeping the Precepts result in merit, value or reward. The merit does not make us rich or famous; these things need to be forsaken utterly if we are to know the Truth and have real peace in our lives. The merit we gain is in doing the best we can for the benefit of all living things.
Doing the best we can always entails seeing where we can do better. This is what is meant by “always being disturbed by the Truth.” As we view the imperfections of our actions, we are allowed to see with the eyes of the Buddha: “That which understands error is not itself in error”3 So one of the merits of our training is to be aware of the places where we need to purify our heart, and if we view this with the eyes of compassion, we will also see that what we have done in the past was the best that we could have done for that time. And now in the present moment, we may be able to do a bit better by acting with greater compassion, love and wisdom.
“The four wisdoms, charity, tenderness, benevolence, and sympathy are the means we have of helping others and represent the Bodhisattva’s aspirations” [Italics added.]4 The transferring of merit is a way of expressing all of the four wisdoms simultaneously. After daily meditation and Morning Service we offer the merit of the service to the Buddhas and Ancestors. In the Ceremony honoring the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshwara, we offer the merit to the Bodhisattva to further her work of hearing the cries of the world. In the Founder’s Ceremony we are doing a memorial, offering the merit to the founder of the monastery, or church. In addition “we pray that the merits thereof shall not only be given to our founder, but light the way of all who have not yet found the Truth.” In the Midday Service we offer the merits of the ceremony to all so that they may be able to realize the Truth. (A common mistake that is made in reciting this offering is that the word “they” is emphasized as if there were some difference between them and us. Anyone who knows the Truth knows that there is a fundamental unity with all life; although we get individually the results of our past karma, the Buddha’s enlightenment was, is and will always be universal. This is expressed as knowing that all is one and all is different.) In transferring merit to all, we must first be doing the best meditation we can to act in harmony with the four wisdoms. Thus transferring merit is the gift of our daily services and expresses charity. Instead of doing our meditation and services for our own benefit, we are willing to offer up that merit to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Ancestors to use as best they can. Although charity is usually thought of as giving material possessions, wealth or property to others, it can also be seen in giving our time and energy to help others, and also in our spiritual efforts. The lifelong commitment to selfless service is the reason for Buddhist monasticism. Lay Buddhists express this in the taking of the Precepts at Lay Ordination.
Merit can also be transferred to specific individuals. This is done at the funeral and memorials done for a dead friend or relative. Rosary recitation can also be done for specific people or animals who are in spiritual need, suffering from acute trauma, illness or accident, or who are dying or recently dead. The Ceremony of Feeding the Hungry Ghosts is used as a memorial for those who hunger for the Truth as well as specifically named individuals we wish to be remembered at that time. The transfer of merit can be directed individually, collectively, or both simultaneously. Again it is helpful to keep in mind that “All is one and all is different.”
In or near the meditation or ceremony halls of the temples of our Order are usually found boards with transfer of merit cards giving the name, date and, frequently, the circumstances that inspired the request for the transfer of merit for a person in need of help. Usually there is a tragic death, such as suicide, a person with cancer, one recovering from a major accident, someone who is about to undergo surgery, or is recovering from it, or someone experiencing some major upheaval or difficulty in their life. Drawing our attention to the suffering of others and the transience of all life has in and of itself great merit, and benefits those who feel sympathy and send their thoughts of concern and good wishes to those who are experiencing moments of crisis or intense suffering. There is an exchange here. In giving our concern and sympathy we simultaneously receive much benefit. As Great Master Dogen says, “When ever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.”5 To feel sympathy for the suffering of another and to think tenderly or kindly of him or her is of great value.
Thus in giving merit, we are feeling sympathy, expressing it in a tender fashion and performing an act of charity, thus we have found a wise way of helping others. This is the meaning of benevolence. Acting for the benefit of others without thought of reward for ourselves is another way of understanding benevolence and expressing the Bodhisattva mind. Thus the transfer of merit expresses all four of the wisdoms: charity, sympathy, tenderness and benevolence simultaneously.
Usually, perhaps only in the back of our minds, there is a contract in our gift. This can be expressed as: “I’m going to do this nice thing for you, but you should then do something for me in return.” And frequently when we receive a gift there is a sense of obligation to repay it. Transfer of merit is a gift that does not require repayment. It is enlightened action that leaves no wake. (This image is of the wake of a large boat which, at best, only jostles the boats and people it reaches, and, at worst, overwhelms them.) The idea of repayment comes out of a karmic misunderstanding that pervades the entire human condition. Great Master Keizan explores it thoroughly in Chapter XVII of the Transmission of the Light, [Denkoroku]6, the Story of Kanadaiba meeting Ragorata. A monk had died without receiving the Transmission of the Truth and felt guilty about having received the gifts of the faithful, so he returned as a tree fungus in order to repay the people who, with a pure heart, had offered him food. Great Master Keizan points out that there is no need for repayment, and to cling to such a notion simply adds to the karmic cycle of endless rebirths and deaths. “With the illusion of repaying others karma goes on unending.” Kanadaiba advised Ragorata and his father to continue eating the mushrooms until they no longer appeared. The old man offered his son Ragorata to train with Kanadaiba, but felt that he, himself, was too old, not realizing that there are no barriers to training and that waiting for another time, another life, a better place or some other condition in order to commit oneself to training is not going to help. But if we do the best we can right now, the highest enlightenment can be ours. Ragorata found great value as a result of making a pure hearted gift, even to an unworthy monk. If we train for the sake of training, simply because it has merit or value in and of itself, then we can just do what needs to be done irrespective of any desire for reward or fear of punishment. Then there is no repayment; it is just the work of a Buddha. The transfer of merit can be as this, provided we do it with a pure heart.
In Buddhism giving and receiving are simultaneous. We are already whole and complete just as we are. Nothing is gained in birth or lost in death. When someone close to us dies we are not diminished. If we give something away we are not lessened by this act. If we receive something we are not enriched. In the Scripture of Great Wisdom, the prajnaparmita can be translated as “going, going, going on, and always going on, always becoming Buddha”. This way of translating it emphasizes the on-going process of enlightenment rather than something attained or received. Giving is as thus. It the process of giving up the self we can know something far greater. There is merit in acting on this level of understanding.
We need not ask nor hope for a specific result. One of the Universal Laws is that the Law of Karma is not answerable to one’s personal will. In transferring merit, do not get involved in sorcery or pray that some event should happen. This is the wrong use of religion. It is also completely unnecessary, for another Law of the Universe is that evil is vanquished and good prevails. It is unnecessary and harmful to use religious practice to manipulate things or events trying to make the universe to suit our personal wants and fears. It is of much greater benefit to put oneself in harmony with the enlightenment that already permeates the universe. Since suffering is a universal condition inherent in the very nature of existence, no one can enjoy the harmony of body and mind without the complete acceptance of suffering for both oneself and for others. If we can accept suffering, we can transcend it. Or as Great Master Keido Chisan puts it: “The moment the Buddha is transcending us, he is embracing us.”7
“If we can give up something as small as the self, we can know something as great as the Universe.”8Ultimately, we realize that there is no essential difference between the Buddha and ourselves, and this embraces all of the human condition including the moments of birth and death, illness, crisis, accident, and tragedy. Yet we must still individually act. We must see that we live in the world of samsara or illusion, and within that world is the opportunity to do the work of the Buddha. Our efforts to give selflessly reach their spiritual culmination in the monastic Ordination Ceremony: “To whom do we offer this merit? To where do we offer it? The offering, the donor and he who receives [it] are completely immaculate. There is nothing to be desired. Let us, together with all living things, offer this common merit to the highest Truth.”9