Can Merits Really Be ‘Transferred’?

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Question: When we practise ‘transference’ of merits, are merits really ‘transferred’? If yes, how is this possible?

Answer: ‘Dedication (or sharing) of merits (or meritorious virtues)’ (回向功德) is a better term. This is an important practice practised in all Buddhist traditions, for relieving one another’s suffering and for cultivating personal compassion. It is thus a universal Bodhisattva practice, as summarised by the Tenth Great Vow of Universal Virtue Bodhisattva (普贤菩萨), for expressing spiritual aspirations, for the welfare of all beings too. More can be learnt at https://purelanders.com/2021/02/24/universal-virtue-bodhisattvas-practices-and-vows-chapters-tenth-great-vow-universally-dedicating-pure-land-prose-and-verses.

The dynamics of one’s karma is complex and is often interconnected with others’ karma – since we are interdependent. For example, there is individual (or other) karma (别业) exclusive to one, but there is also collective (or common) karma (共业) of a more than one person; a group of persons with similar karma, due to them being connected, by having created similar karma.

As an example of how merits can be shared, when we see poor persons in need of food, if it is possible for us to offer them food, and for them to receive the food, they surely karmically deserve the food. If they do not, it would be impossible for them to receive it. It would be uncompassionate if we simply think it is due to their ‘unchangeable’ negative karma that they are hungry, thus doing nothing to help, when they might be helpable, as karma does keep changing. If we would not wish to be left helpless when in distress, why should we not help others in distress, since they should feel the same? Just as they can be agents of change (to some extent in the moment), so can we be, with our choice of thoughts, words and deeds.

What if there is someone, whom there seems to be lack of karmic affinity with. Can merits be dedicated to him or her? Well, the fact that we are discussing about that someone means there is some affinity with that person already. Thus, it is possible. As mentioned, it is a Bodhisattva practice to dedicate merits to all beings, who include those we do not know, whom we can still have unconditioned loving-kindness (无缘大慈) for. To open the heart and mind to encompass all beings is already to create affinities with them, even if they are relatively weak at first, compared with those we know better. (Bodhisattvas always practise to deepen good affinity [善缘] with all beings, so as to more efficiently guide them to Buddhahood.)

Back to the example of receiving offered food, the fact that one can receive dedicated merits actually means one has some merits (even if from a distant past life), as expressed via the ones dedicating merits to them. However, as a natural law, only one out of seven parts of each ‘set’ of merits is ‘dedicatable’ to others, with six parts remaining with the ones who created and dedicated the merits. This means it is always better to create merits personally. Interestingly, the practice of dedicating merits to all is itself very meritorious, able to create more merits for oneself, although this should not be the focus, lest it leads to greed, while not expressing true compassion. To conclude, dedication of merits is thus a win-win practice for one and all. More can be learnt at https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/05/can-dedication-of-merits-solve-problems.

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