Transference ritual

Can you give me the benefits of your good karma?

It is common for a Buddhist pūja to end by a dedication of the merit that one has gained by doing to pūja to the welfare of all sentient beings. An example of the wording of such a dedication is the following, from the ceremony book of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO).

May the merit gained in my acting thus
go to the alleviation of the suffering of all beings.
My personality throughout my existences, and my possessions,
and my merit in all three ways, I give up without regard for myself,
for the benefit of all beings.

Just as the earth and other elements are serviceable in many ways
to the infinite number of beings inhabiting limitless space;
so may I become that which maintains all beings situated throughout space,
so long as all have not attained to peace.1

Many Zen organizations have a ceremony of chanting the Four Great Vows of Zhiyi, one Japanese version of which is as follows:

shujō muhen sei gan do 衆生無邊誓願度
bon-no mujin sei gan dan 煩惱無盡誓願斷
ho mon muryō sei gan gaku 法門無量誓願學
butsu dō mujō sei gan jo 佛道無上誓願成

However innumerable all beings are, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable the Dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all.
However endless the Buddha’s way is, I vow to follow it completely.2

When performed as a ritual, few problems arise from these words. They serve as a reminder that, in the Mahāyāna context at least, the main purpose of doing any kind of ceremony is to cultivate bodhicitta, the resolve to become awakened in order to work for the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering. The words also serve a reminder of the Buddhist dictum that any action that is truly beneficial (kuśala-karma) is both good for oneself (svārtha) and good for others (parārtha). They are reminders that ultimately the distinction between self and others is a false dichomy, since it is very difficult to draw the boundaries between oneself and the myriad of factors from the world in general that makes one who one is. They are reminders that since everything is ultimately empty of self-identity, nothing can be outside oneself since there is nothing inside oneself.

While the “transference of merit” poses few problems as a ritual, there may be certain philosophical problems associated with it if the idea of transference of merit is taken too literally. In this lecture, my aim is to to explore both the spirit of transference of merit as it occurs in Mahāyāna Buddhism,3 and then to show some philosophical problems that could very well arise from the very idea that merit (or any other kind of karma-vipāka) can be transferred.

The words quoted above from the FWBO pūja book are, like most of the wording of that book of ceremonies, a paraphrase of sentiments expressed in a work entitled Bodhicaryāvatāra by Śāntideva, to which we turn next.

  1. The FWBO Puja Book. (Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1990). ↩︎
  2. This translation occurs on the website of the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, a temple in the Sōtō Zen tradition: ↩︎
  3. The transference of merit is by no means unknown in Theravāda Buddhism. The idea is found in all forms of Buddhism. In this module, however, the focus will be on its expression in the works of Mahāyāna writers. ↩︎

Work Cited

  • The FWBO Puja Book: A Book of Buddhist Devotional Texts. Fifth ed. ed. Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1990.


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