Dedicating our merit

Dedicating our merit

A series of talks based on Don’t Believe Everything You Think given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day starting in March 2013. The book is a commentary on The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas.

To remove the suffering of limitless beings,
Understanding the purity of the three spheres,
Dedicate the virtue from making such effort
To enlightenment—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

  • Focusing on others versus focusing on our self
  • Connecting with others opens our heart and enriches our life
  • Training the mind to give our spiritual virtue away
  • The purity of the three spheres—our attitude when dedicating our spiritual virtue

SDD 37: Dedicating the merit (download)

The verse that we’re doing today is verse 37, the very last one, and it reads, “To remove the suffering of limitless beings, understanding the purity of the three spheres, dedicate the virtue from making such effort—in all of the preceding 36 practices—to enlightenment. This is the practice of bodhisattvas.”

Let’s go through that phrase by phrase because there’s a lot in there. This is the verse speaking about dedicating the merit. Merit is like spiritual goodness; it’s the feeling of enrichment that we have when we really work on ourselves and practice subduing our afflictions, our mental afflictions, and generating very positive states of mind. That’s what merit is, or the goodness—we’re dedicating the goodness. We’re dedicating it to remove the suffering of limitless beings. Now, this is interesting, isn’t it—“limitless beings.” In a Buddhist worldview, our planet Earth isn’t the only place where there’s life; I mean, you look out there, and there’s a whole lot of room, and a whole lot of different solar systems and different planets, and life on them may not require water like it’s required on Earth. Depending upon the kinds of bodies different living beings have, they may have different biological requirements. So, we say that there’s actually a limitless number of beings there; we can’t count them all.

People often ask, “Well, our population on Earth is increasing, where are all these other beings coming from if there’s rebirth?” And we say, “Beings that were born on other solar systems are now born here, and maybe some of them that were born here are born there or in different realms of existence,” but anyway, the idea is that there’s limitless living beings. I find remembering this very, very helpful, especially at night, here (at Sravasti Abbey) because we can actually see the stars. I don’t know, all you people from Spokane, can you see the stars? No? You’ve got to come out here more [laughter]. It’s amazing in the evening; you can see all these stars, and you look up, and you know there’s so many planets and different things that you can’t see because our eyes can’t detect them, and you think, “How many living beings are there? And what kind of experiences are they having right now?” Or even here on planet Earth, we’re over seven billion human beings, but in terms of animals and insects, wow, we’re really outnumbered. So, what are the experiences of all those living beings?

Apparently now there’s one picture of a whale that’s going crazy on the internet; have people seen it? Some cute little whale, it doesn’t look exactly like the whales we’re used to. Nobody’s seen it? C’mon. [Laughter]. What do they call it? You don’t remember. “A whale,” yeah. [Laughter] It’s some kind of—I don’t know if it’s big or small, do you?

Audience: Is it the first one of its kind; they discovered it?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I’m not sure because I haven’t followed it; I just remember seeing this picture of this whale and hearing that everybody’s crazy over it now. [Laughter]. I would normally on an average day never think about what are the experiences of the whales in the ocean, and I hardly ever think of the experiences of people in countries where I don’t know people. And yet, here are all these living beings that are having experiences and from their own viewpoint their experiences are really important to them. They want to be happy, and they don’t want to suffer. And my ignorance of the number of living beings there are and their own experiences is really rather astounding when you think about it. Because who of all these limitless sentient beings, who is the most important one to me? Let me tell you, it’s not you. [Laughter] I’m sorry. [Laughter] I have to be truthful.

Audience: Isn’t it the white whales with the bump on their head? Beluga, they call them beluga.

VTC: Beluga. Are they big or small?

Audience: The size of a dolphin.

VTC: The size of a dolphin. So, beluga whales, but anyway, is my concern in life with the happiness of each and every beluga whale? [Laughter] How about even human beings—with each and every human being? For each of us, our foremost concern is with our self. And yet, we believe in democracy, and as I pointed out to people earlier this week, if we’re going to have a vote about whose happiness is more important and do it in a democratic way then people who have more votes win, right?

So, we have two contestants for winning who’s the most important one. There’s me, and there’s countless sentient beings, minus one. [Laughter] Who is going to win the vote about whose happiness is more important? Well, you all know the elections are rigged if it turns out to be other sentient beings. [Laughter] It’s really supposed to be me; it’s just rigged. But let’s pretend that the elections aren’t rigged—because I don’t think they really are going to be—then it’s really all sentient beings, isn’t it? Compared to the happiness of me, as one human being, and the happiness of all living beings, I’m outnumbered, and I better get this through my thick skull at some point because otherwise everything I do is going to be really skewed, isn’t it? Just thinking of myself, going through life, is not going to work. It’s not going to work just because there’s more of others, but if I just pay attention to myself and my own needs and my own wants, even then am I going to be happy?

This is a question that requires a lot of investigation because our instant thought is, “Yes, if I focus on myself then I will be happy.” Well, we’ve been focusing on ourselves since we were born, have you achieved everlasting happiness? No. If we had, we would not be here today. [Laughter] We haven’t, so thinking that following this self-centered attitude is going to bring us some kind of ultimate bliss is really going about things in the wrong way. Because that has not been our experience so far, has it? Now, think about the times in your life where you’ve felt completely relaxed, completely open, completely without any anxiety: those experiences you’ve had where you’ve been the most joyful, did they have something to do with connecting with other living beings?

They usually do, don’t they? When we’ve been able to have some kind of meaningful connection with other living beings, it really opens our own heart and enriches our own life in quite an amazing way. And so, when we think about that, just looking at our own experience, then it makes us wonder if I’m most joyful when my heart is open toward others, why do I keep following this self-centered attitude that has not succeeded in making me happy until now?

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Because we all want happiness; we all deserve happiness, and yet, what we do usually doesn’t bring it. And it often brings more problems. For example, the more self-centered we are, the more easily offended we are. I mean, really easily offended. Are you easily offended? [Laughter] Yeah, people don’t say good morning to us in the right way: “What’s going on here?” People criticize us. They don’t appreciate us. They don’t comment on all the stupendous, wonderful things we do. [Laughter]. They even tell us that we’re too fat or we’re too thin or why don’t we go get some botox because we have too many wrinkles—they say those kinds of things to us. They tell us to go get a life when we tell them that we spent our vacation time in meditation retreat. [Laughter].

They do all sorts of things, and just casual remarks that people make—often motivated by care and affection for us—we misinterpret, and we get angry at them. Because people give us advice, often they’re well meaning, they don’t mean to harm us, they’re trying to help, but we’re so sensitive—because of our self-centered thought—that we get really like this [Venerable Chodron makes a gesture of irritation].

I read an article in The New York Times this last week, because everybody now is trying to correct everybody else’s things they do that aren’t very nice—except not of course our own stuff but what other people do—so one woman was writing about, I guess she’s overweight, and she wears empire dresses, so it looks like she’s pregnant, but she’s not pregnant. So, she’s telling this story about being on the bus or the subway or something and one man said, “Please take my seat,” and she said, “No, I’m fine standing,” and he said, “But every bump on the bus is hurting your child.” So, finally she sat down, and he kind of patted her belly, and she was furious. She was furious. [Laughter] And I thought, “But he was coming from such a kind place, and by her speaking like that, believe me, I’m never going to say anything to another pregnant woman again. It’s going to inhibit my natural kindness because there’s a 99.99% chance that maybe she isn’t really pregnant, and maybe I’m going to offend her because I’m trying to be kind. I mean, isn’t that ridiculous, that super sensitivity?

I almost wrote a comment, but I restrained myself. [Laughter] The story I would tell—talking about super sensitivity, even when people mean well—is I cannot tell you the number of times, especially in airports because I fly a lot, I’ll be getting on a plane or I’ll be in the restroom or something, and some woman will come up and put her hand on my shoulder, and she’ll say, “Don’t worry, dear, your hair will grow back when the chemo’s done.” [Laughter] Now, very fortunately, I don’t have cancer. I could be like this woman who wrote the article and get really offended, but actually I’m very touched. I’m very touched that a stranger would care about me—even if I’m not taking chemo and I don’t have cancer—that they would reach out and say something kind to a stranger. I find that very touching and very moving.

But somebody else could be really upset by it and very offended by it, so what’s the difference? I mean, I experience lots of things where I could be offended. [Laughter] Like when I’m on the plane, and the flight attendant says, “What would you like to drink, sir?” [Laughter] But it’s such a waste of time to be offended; I just say, “Orange juice,” and then they say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I just say, “Oh, it’s no problem. It happens all the time.” [Laughter]

So, I think it’s important that we look at people’s good intentions instead of being so prickly when they say things to us because so often they are trying to help. And we don’t like it; we feel like they’re interfering in our lives or bossing us around or something like that. But they’re coming from a good place if we could open our hearts to that.

To remove the suffering of these limitless beings—who have all been kind to us, who mean well, and who we often turn into enemies due to our self-centeredness—for their benefit, we’re going to dedicate all the spiritual goodness. For their benefit. So that they may attain the highest spiritual states of liberation and full awakening, full enlightenment, where they will in the future have removed all the causes for their misery and their unsatisfactory states. So, we’re dedicating the results of our own efforts at spiritual practice for the welfare of others. Even our own virtue, we try to train our mind to give that away. So, not only giving possessions and time and energy and service—and in the case of a few people maybe even giving their body, their organs or whatever—we’re giving also our spiritual virtue, which from a Buddhist perspective is actually more important than our body and our possessions and all those things because our spiritual virtue is really what is the cause for happiness, not the self-centered mind. Our good karma is what brings about happiness.

Our self-centeredness sometimes can get even stingy about giving away our merit, our spiritual virtue. One time many years ago, when I lived in Singapore, one man had come to see me—actually I owe a great deal to this man because I was newly arrived in Singapore, and they have a practice in Singapore of giving donations to publish Dharma books for free distribution, and so he said, “If you ever want to write a book, let me know, I would like to make a donation, so it can be distributed freely.” At that time I had no intention of ever writing books. Well…[Laughter] things turn out differently than you think. And anyway, he wound up helping to publish the first little booklet I did called I Wonder Why, and he wanted to learn how to meditate, so he came over and in the temple I was teaching him some meditation. And then at the end—because we always have this practice of at the beginning generating our motivation of love and compassion and altruism and at the end dedicating our merit, our virtue, for the benefit of all living beings—I explained to him that now it’s time to share our merit and to give it away, and he looked at me, and he said, “I have so little merit, I don’t want to give it away.” It’s really kind of heart-wrenching to see this man say that. And I had to explain to him that by giving it away, you create more. When we’re generous, we create more joy; we create more happiness; we create more goodness in the world. So, finally he agreed to do the prayer with me. [Laughter] But he was really kind of scared when I said that.

Agent, object, and action

So, we’re giving away all of our spiritual virtue, and we’re giving it—it says here—“understanding the purity of the three spheres.” This is talking about our mental attitude when we’re giving away our virtue. Of course we have a mental attitude of generosity and care and really wishing that the outcome of our actions ripen in the ultimate benefit of all living beings, but talking about understanding the purity of the three spheres is talking about how we look at ourselves as the person who created virtue, the virtuous action, the object of our virtue—the other person that we were acting in relationship to—and it means seeing that these three components to any action—agent, object, and action—these three components exist dependent on each other.

We usually think—like if we’re going to take an action like hitting the gong—we usually think, “Okay, here’s the person who is going to hit the gong, and here’s the gong, and here’s the action of hitting the gong,” and they’re three separate things that are independent of each other. That’s how we see them. So, the gong from its own side; I’m the ringer from my own side, and the action of ringing is from its own side, but in actual fact, I don’t become the bell ringer unless there’s a bell and an action of ringing. And the bell doesn’t become a bell until it’s possible for somebody to ring it, and so the bell being a bell depends on the ringer and the ringing. Otherwise, if there was no ringer and no ringing, somebody could call this a bowl and have lunch out of it. [Laughter] That would be an interesting restaurant to have, served your food in bowls like this. But this could be a bowl, couldn’t it? So, it being a bell depends on the ringer and the ringing. The action of ringing depends on the bell and the ringer. The bell ringer is not a bell ringer unless there’s an action of ringing and a bell. So, these three exist dependently. They are interdependent on each other; they don’t exist as isolated factors with their own independent essence.

And so, they are empty of having any kind of independent essence. That’s the kind of understanding we want to bring to every action we do, including here in this verse, the action of dedicating our merit for the welfare of all beings.

Working with the verse

This book is based on some teachings that I gave here at the abbey. Someone transcribed them and edited them, and then I thought it would be really nice to put some stories in that people had [told me about] from when they actually tried to practice the different verses in here. There are two very short stories from when people would practice this verse that I will read to you. I changed the names in the stories, but since this is “True Confession” time, actually the first one is about me, embarrassingly so.

I’ll read you the story. This is my experience. “My teacher sometimes likes to chant prayers extremely slowly. He does this in order to contemplate their meaning and to meditate on the emptiness of the person dedicating, the merit being dedicated, and the action of dedicating. But sometimes my mind is restless, and I want to dedicate quickly and move on to the next activity. And my teacher is doing this very slooooow, melodic dedication—one verse after another verse after another verse. And so it was that one afternoon at the concluding of teachings, my teacher was relishing drawing out each Tibetan syllable as long as possible, plus the person sitting next to me was chanting, in a very loud and off-tune voice, the Chinese version of Tibetan phonetics, which it seems were done incorrectly and did not match the Tibetan pronunciation.” So, here’s the guy singing really loudly, off-tune, mispronouncing the whole Tibetan prayer.

“My mind started its own cacophony inside me in reaction to all of this. A precious opportunity to rejoice at the merit of myself and others was going down the tubes, and I was unhappy and angry to boot. I so much wanted to say, ‘Could you sing softer?’” He was so off-tune. I remember this so clearly. “I told myself to focus all my attention on the meaning of the dedication verses and to ignore everything else. ‘Contemplate each word you are saying,’ I told myself, and slowly my mind began to be inspired. By the end of the prayer, my mind was calm and filled with a genuine sense of rejoicing at the virtue and goodness in the world. Instead of wanting to get out of that room as fast as I could, I was marveling at my good fortune to be part of a group of people, headed by my teacher, who had made removing the suffering of living beings the purpose of their lives.”

Here’s another story; this one is not mine. I forget whose it is. The person said, “When I earn money or create merit, I want to use it all for myself. I think I deserve it because the money or the merit came from my hard work. But I began to see that this thinking ignores the reality that I am completely interconnected with others. I could not have earned or created anything without the generosity and kindness of others. To challenge that kind of self-centeredness, I imagined giving away all of my merit; after all, it didn’t belong to me in the first place, and I can never ever repay all the kindness of sentient beings that has come my way since beginningless time. Dedicating the merit challenges my usual habit of taking the good results of my efforts for myself. Also, it opens my heart to others and to the illusory nature of phenomena.”

Those were two people’s experiences with working with that verse and thinking of dedicating their spiritual goodness to others. So, we have a little bit of time for Q&A or comments, so please ask whatever you like.

Questions and answers

Audience: When we dedicate, we say the phrase “cooperative conditions.” Is that the “cooperative conditions” for their good karma to ripen or bad karma?

VTC: Sometimes—like after people die or when people are ill—when we dedicate the merit, we will dedicate for all sentient beings but particularly for someone who is recently deceased or somebody who is sick. In those kinds of situations, it’s like we’re sending all of our good energy to them—that’s a way to express it—we’re sending our good energy to them, and that can help because they may have created virtue, good karma, of their own in the past, and by our sending our prayers and good wishes to them, it acts as a cooperative condition for their good karma to ripen. So, a cooperative condition is like another causal factor that is not the main thing but it helps the main thing bear its result. Like if we plant a garden, the seeds are the principal causes, and the water, fertilizer, and warm temperature are the cooperative conditions. Does that answer your question okay?

Audience: When you’ve done something, when you’ve entered a situation where you’ve been easily offended and found later that you were so wrong, how do you rectify that? [Laughter]

VTC: You’ve been in a situation where you’ve been deeply offended and then you realize that you had totally misunderstood the situation?

Audience: Yeah, you had made your own whole giant story around why you should be so offended and you’ve got this whole big thing going on about it, and then you find out that the whole big thing you had was not even happening, wasn’t the intention. How do you rectify that?

VTC: So, how do you rectify it? Well, we become a little bit humble, and we go to the person who if we had misunderstood their good intentions or their actions or if we had imputed wrong motivations on them that they didn’t have—we go to them and we apologize, and then hopefully we can all laugh at how silly our minds are sometimes. I think we have to laugh, and when that kind of situation, if somebody is offended by something we did and then later when we meant no offense and later comes to apologize, we should definitely forgive them, and we should definitely help them learn to laugh at it. Because otherwise, we’re just so serious about things that we need not be serious about.

You want to hear another story? [Laughter] I must have been 14, and it was summertime. My parents’ wedding anniversary is August third, and my brother and I decided that we were going to get them a plaque for their anniversary; I forget what number anniversary it was. I was in summer school and walking back from summer school, and I was always supposed to take a particular route because then if my mom was nearby, she would pick me up on the route. Well, the place to order the plaque was off the route, so I thought, “Well, she won’t come today to pick me up,” so I went and I ordered it, and I continued on home. And did I get it when I got home: “I was driving that whole route looking for you; why weren’t you there? Where did you go? I was so worried you’d been kidnapped,” on and on and on. I got in so much trouble, and I couldn’t say anything because this was a surprise gift for their anniversary. [Laughter] I just kept my mouth shut. So then their anniversary came, and we gave them the plaque, and my mom felt so bad. She said, “How did you get this?” I said, “Well remember that day when I wasn’t on the route walking home? I was at the plaque store ordering this.” Oh, she felt so horrible. You understand why she felt badly.

But in those kinds of situations, like all you can do is just laugh and forgive and know that hey, people make mistakes. We have to apologize to people when we do that and accept their apology when they do that. It’s embarrassing, though, isn’t it? And it makes us really feel kind of humble and embarrassed, but feeling humble and embarrassed is actually quite good for us, because in general we’re usually pretty inflated. [Laughter] Or am I just speaking about myself here? [Laughter] But we’re usually pretty inflated, especially Americans, don’t you think?

Audience: It’s why we’re so sensitive.

VTC: Exactly. [Laughter] So, it’s good for us to get our pride reduced.

Audience: You can think about it also in this way: “What a wonderful opportunity you’ve been given to ask for forgiveness and to talk to this person and to set them straight.” It’s such an incredible opportunity and sometimes so much good comes from that. It makes you feel so much better.

VTC: Yeah, you feel so much better. And sometimes those kind of discussions where we apologize actually opens the door to deeper communication with the person.

Audience: So, I have a different take on what we’ve been talking about. I have a young family member who misinterpreted a kind gesture on my part and got upset, and so when I realized that, I tried to straighten it out, and so all I’ve been is ignored. So, then there’s the person that said, “I’m sorry that I took you wrong,” but they decide to just keep it bad by not accepting my apology.

VTC: She was the one who had done things?

Audience: Yeah, she got upset because I was trying to give a little advice, which…

VTC: So, you learned that it’s not so good to give unwanted advice. [Laughter] But maybe that’s what you learned, maybe that’s the point of this story?

Audience: It’s like, I don’t know, you just be quiet and wait around and hope she’ll reach out?

VTC: Yeah, but I think it’s helpful if you acknowledge—because she was offended—to acknowledge that “I was doing it with a kind heart, but I recognize that it was unwanted advice that you hadn’t asked for, and I’m sorry that I did that,” and then see if she changes perspective.

Audience: And that’s what I did.

VTC: And she didn’t? Then nothing to do. Yeah. Just relax, smile, be polite, be pleasant, be friendly. [Laughter] She’s the one suffering, isn’t she? Unfortunately. Give her a copy of this talk and then sit down. [Laughter]

Audience: I have a merit question. In all my readings, there are so many ways to offer merit, so how do we match the merit we choose with what we are doing?

VTC: We always want to dedicate for the highest good because what we dedicate for is similar to what we motivate for—it influences what the actual result will be. And if we just dedicate, “May I win the lottery because of this merit,” you may or may not win the lottery, and you may or may not be happy after winning the lottery. Sometimes people have really big problems after winning the lottery. I read about somebody, what had happened? Somebody broke into his house after he won the lottery, and he was killed or something—I can’t remember—but somehow he died after collecting his money. So, anyway, you dedicate for something small, it may or may not ripen like that. So, it’s always good to dedicate for the biggest, best good, which is the full awakening of all living beings. May all living beings be free of ignorance, anger, and attachment. May they all develop equanimity, love, compassion, and joy. May they generate the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature of reality. So, you always dedicate for the biggest thing. And then you can dedicate for other things that are more immediate, like we were talking about the good rebirth of somebody who recently passed away or somebody who was ill or whatever.

Audience: I have another question about merit. It may be about semantics. You’re describing it as like a “spiritual goodness.” I’m really confused about that term and what it means because there’s no concept of spirit within us?

VTC: Oh, “spiritual goodness”—I use the term “spiritual” in the idea of “religious.” Except some people don’t like religion so much, but they find spiritual practice to be a better word, so I often use that.

Audience: We used to do our dedication when somebody passed away, and the person may not be a Buddhist, and somebody else will say, “How do you know that person will receive it?” and I just say, “ I don’t know? I just dedicate.” [Laughter] Is that a correct answer?

VTC: Yeah, because how it influences them is not an evident phenomena to us, but what is good is that we have a kind heart and think of doing that. We don’t have the psychic powers to know the long-term effect of that.

Okay, let’s dedicate the merit. [Laughter]

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.