by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The traditional ideal of merit (punna) is not well known in the West. Often the concept of merit is used as a synonym for karma because of a fundamental misunderstanding of their differing intent. The gathering of merit appears to be a selfish pursuit. What is meant to be gathered are the dispositions and habits of a positive personal character and the skills, through practice, to be an example to others of a path out of suffering, discontent and anguish. Sharing one’s merit through good acts is how one begins to train themselves in the thoughts and actions of a bodhisattva, to act as a bodhisattva-in-training. The difference between karma and merit lies in being aware of the consequences of the first, and learning to ‘share’ the other.
Karma is something that is traditionally earned through the good and bad intentional actions. In Buddhist philosophy the pluses and minuses attach permanently to the ‘self-essence’ that part of consciousness that awaits rebirth, becoming an entry in a Cosmic Rebirth Chart. It is supposed to guide moral and ethical character because the practitioner would limit negative activities so as not to suffer a rebirth in a lower form, be it caste or species. Merit, like karma is also earned. Merit is the skills and practices we learn and then ‘what we bring to the party’ in a given situation or need. It is the skills, abilities, dispositions, habits and worldview that can be offered to others: a friend has a broken-down car and you can repair it, you volunteer at a local soup kitchen because you know how to cook, or you teach what you know to others like volunteering to teach adults to read. In each instance you sharing the merits of your gifts.
The Noble Path begins as one of personal character development. A practitioner seeks to uncover their positive and negative dispositions and habits so that the positive can arise even stronger and the negative be allowed to fall away. Through study, meditation, practice and action the lessons learned are applied to the not-self, it is positive transformation. In the Mahayana tradition training and practice does not stop there. What the practitioner does for themselves is the initial step on the Noble Path. From that beginning the ideal of the social self arises, the ideal of bodhisattva not far behind in the words of ‘Sharing the Merit’.
What is this merit being shared? In the West merit is defined as: the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. In Buddhist philosophy and practice merit is the praiseworthy skills turned into actions directed toward the betterment of others WITHOUT expecting or craving praise and recognition. True sharing the merit is selfless.
‘Sharing the Merit’ ends every practice session whether it is a meeting of the sangha, a monastic gathering, or personal meditation session. It is a ritual dharani spoken with the intent to remind us of our ethical obligations as a socially engaged Buddhist. Within the words, long form below or the short version of “May the fruits of our practice extend to all living beings,” is the intent to engage others and the world around us in such a way that we are examples of positive social connections. It is a vow taken that we will put what we have learned into practice and by doing so, experience it and how it applies to living the Noble Path.
Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. Let us be reminded that a life of engagement and compassion is supremely important. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to become aware of our connectedness to others, and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma.
It is all about sharing the hard-won positive dispositions and actions that arise in us with a committed socially engaged Buddhist practice. All of them hinge their effectiveness on the levels of mindfulness and awareness attained by the practitioner, and the actions that arise from them. As those levels arise one experiences more and more the value of showing gratitude for what is received be it knowledge, friendship, material goods, etc; benefits without limit that are realized with each experience. There are no known limits to these benefits as the sharing of them causes the arising of a chain of sharing with no end.
‘Sharing the merit’ is the act of being generous with not only the skills obtained through Buddhist practice but also with those skills we each already possess from our education and experience, as well as what is gained through a process of life-long learning. In us there is a buddha-nature, a propensity toward compassion and generosity that we offer freely and without expectation for the benefit of others, benefits that we know from experience have positive transformative effects that will encompass all phenomena. It is supremely important that the skills we develop not remain hidden within us but be used to engage our society with compassion and loving-kindness. What is learned and practiced is meant to be shared.
‘Sharing the merit’ at its core is sharing ourselves. It is the actions of a bodhisattva-in-training. Think about what you have to share right this moment . . . and vow to share them. Share them soon, in each moment because a human beings time between birth and death can vary widely but rarely hits the one hundred year mark so NOW is the time to grab hold of that opportunity. Moments between birth and death are crammed with opportunity. The loss of opportunity is a cause of psychoemotional suffering recognized or not. It is a cause of the rise of regret and self-recrimination that hinders self-awareness and societal-awareness of what needs to be accomplished; so this moment is the moment to take advantage of opportunity. And, the thing about opportunity is that you can create more of it than anyone can ever offer you . . . don’t allow them to fall away without engaging them. In each moment there will be opportunities to give of yourself and with that, to learn and to practice so that knowledge will become wisdom . . . and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma.
The realization that an awareness of the dharma coupled with putting into action what is realized is the greatest gift you can give yourself and it is truly a ‘gift that keeps on giving’ and that is where the wisdom arises. Don’t squander and waste any moment as they are given to you as your time between birth and death. Don’t squander and waste any moment in which you can improve your own life and the lives of others. Don’t squander and waste any moment because in those moments are opportunities to recognize the interconnections between you and everyone else, between you and everything else, and between you and the fluid construct of time.
‘Sharing the Merit’ is all about sharing YOU; and it is equally about accepting the sharing of OTHERS.