What does it mean to receive or dedicate merit?

Merit is a kind of karmic currency that is earned through good actions and makes a favorable rebirth more likely. Buddhas generate much merit. It is a common practice in Buddhism to pray that merit is transferred to those in need for it, especially the sick and the dying.

In Pure Land Buddhism this idea of merit transference takes on two distinctive forms: the transference of merit toward the goal of entry into the Pure Land, and the transfer of merit from the Buddha to the practitioner. This latter is somewhat similar to the notion of grace in theistic religions.

An important Pure Land teaching is that of the three minds: the sincere mind, the deep mind, and the mind that transfers merit toward birth in the Pure Land. Another key teaching is the importance attributed to the vows made by Amida Buddha, especially the vow to accept all beings who turn toward the Buddha and call out to him. These teachings, together with the notion that the merit of the ordinary individual is relatively tiny, yield the principle that one’s personal merit is of very little account and can readily be given away. If one lives one’s life depending upon the transfer of much greater merit to oneself from the Buddha, which ensures one’s birth in the Pure Land, then one is unconcerned with accumulating merit by one’s deeds. One easily relinquishes whatever merit one has and dedicates it to the purpose of Pure Land entry for all. Receiving merit from Buddha, one feels limitless gratitude and has no need to claim credit for one’s deeds. 

When a Pure Land practitioner considers the calculus of merit it is apparent that we inevitably receive more than we give. Every day the sun rises and shines upon us. We did not make it, we do not own it, and we did not earn it. What could we possibly do that would equal and justify such benefit? In addition we receive many other blessings, and we live in a land and time when the dharma has appeared in the world. It soon becomes evident to the practitioner we are far from worthy of all the gifts we receive, and gratitude and humility become foundations of Pure Land spiritual life.


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