Merits are benefits that accrue over time. They are the fruits of well-in- tentioned behavior. Since karmic laws are laws, it is well-known to Buddhists which actions bring the most merit. All moral behavior creates merit. Ultimately, it is often the small, private decisions to desist from evil and do good that bring the most merit to practitioners. Merits are not gained through greed-like attachment to their fruits, and yet it is possible to gain merit knowingly, in known ways. In the next few sections, I will describe some of the more common ways Buddhists can gain merit. These practices will benefit both the practitioner and his family and friends. For this reason, they should be understood as joyful acts, whose principal purpose is to being more joy into this saha world.
There are many kinds of offerings we can make. Some are made for the good of all sentient beings and some are made for the Dharma. Some are made to the body, mouth and mind of the Triple Gem. Some offerings are given to the sangha in the form of clothes, bedding, food or medicines. Offerings made to the Buddha include incense, flowers, lamp light, perfume, fruit, vegetables, other foods, precious things, pearls and clothing.
In addition to these offerings, members of the BLIA daily should make an offering of themselves to the world. This is done through our humanity. All of us can, and should, offer faith, kindness, respect, comfort, concern, compassion, tolerance, responsible help, wisdom and generosity to everyone we meet. In doing this, we offer the best of ourselves to all sentient beings. This is the highest offering anyone can make.
The Avatamsaka Sutra says, “The way to become conscious of the Buddha realm is to make your intention as pure as emptiness.” Master Yinshun (1906-2005) in The Way to Buddhahood (Chengfo zhi dao) said, “The merits gained from any deed depend on intention.”
Through offerings, we purify our hearts as we prepare our minds for higher realization. When offerings are made with a pure heart and a certain intention to aid others, their benefit is immense. Never waste your time making offerings for the purpose of achieving samsaric gains in the material world. All good, all merit, all virtue and all of our inten- tions should be directed wholeheartedly toward the benefit of others.
All of the Buddhas, and all of the great bodhisattvas, gained merit through their vows. Amitabha Buddha created the Western Pure Land on the strength of his forty-eight vows. The Medicine Buddha created the Eastern Pure Land on the strength of his Twelve vows. Aksobhya Buddha is known as the “Immovable Buddha” because he vowed never to show disgust or anger toward any being. His vows created the Abhirati Paradise. There is no Buddha anywhere who did not achieve Buddhahood without making vows.
The foundation of every Buddha’s great vows are the four universal vows of a Buddha or bodhisattva. These vows are: to save all beings
without limit; to end all delusion; to learn all methods for doing this; to become perfected in the Dharma.
I hope that all members of the BLIA one day will take these four great vows. The merit gained from taking these vows is without limit. At the same time, these vows are the single best means for helping us find and actualize the great resources of compassion, wisdom and concern that reside in all of us already.
The four means of embracing are: giving, kind words, altruism, and empathy.
There is no better way to practice humanistic Buddhism than this. Do not ever think there is anything devious or dishonest in acting in accordance with the four means of embracing. Consciousness is the greatest gift human beings possess. When we are conscious of helping others find the blessings of the Dharma, we are not being dishonest in any way. We are only being intelligent and compassionate. Think of the joy we are leading them toward!
Giving does not mean just giving them money or things. It means giving them loving-kindness, compassion, community and friendship.
Kind words does not mean that we flatter people or cajole them toward the truth. It means that we engage them with our whole minds through our use of language to express the deepest compassion in our hearts.
Altruism does not mean that we become doormats to others, or that we fritter away our energies doing the bidding of any and all. It means that we offer them help in such a way that they will receive some awareness of the bodhi mind through our behavior. Human inter- action is truly beautiful when it is based on the higher consciousness of the bodhi mind.
Empathy does not mean that we are phony or that we have ulterior motives. It means that we do everything we can to understand other people and the difficulties they have. The strains and hardships of delusion are many. It is an imperative of higher awareness that we do our utmost to help everyone we can in every way we can think of.
The six perfections are: giving, morality, patience, diligence, medita- tive concentration, and wisdom. These are the six major virtues of a Mahayana Bodhisattva.
Giving means giving the best of ourselves.
Morality means refraining from evil so that the inherent wisdom of the bodhi mind can be revealed.
Patience does not mean spinelessness or weakness. It means patience.
Diligence means that we are trying all the time.
Meditative Concentration is best learned in meditation and best practiced amid the work and the trials of this world.
Wisdom arrives as a natural result of practicing the above five perfections.
The seven spiritual wealth are: faith, morality, conscience, persever- ance, listening and learning, meditative concentration and wisdom.
These seven spiritual wealth concern others, but they focus on our inner states. By often turning our minds toward these spiritual wealth, we ensure that our emotional foundation always will remain humble and wise. Joy in the Dharma and success in its practice must never lead us into arrogance or a deluded semblance of wisdom gained merely through formal adherence to the injunctions of Buddhism. We will not gain merit that we do not deserve. True wisdom is always based on humility. Remember, even if you were to become enlightened today, your enlightenment was made possible only through the work of others. Sakyamuni Buddha preached the Dharma, and his work has been continued to this day only through the selfless contributions of thousands of Buddhists in the past.
The Noble Eightfold Path includes: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditative concentration.
All of us should check ourselves often to be sure that everything we do is in proper accord with this path. Sakyamuni Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path because it is the best way for us to get control of our defilements and monitor our progress.