Dedicating the Merit

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
(Archive #119)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained how to dedicate the merit of our practice for others' happiness, at the 14th Kopan Course in 1981. This is an edited excerpt from Lecture 33, Section Seven of the course. Click here to read more.   

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

If dedication of merit is done with ignorance of true existence, it becomes like food mixed with poison. So, when we dedicate the merit, we should do the practice as purely as possible, without it being mixed with the poison of the self-cherishing thought. We should dedicate as sincerely as we can, not for the sake of our own happiness, and without the thought, “This merit is for me; this merit is for my happiness.” We should make this thought as weak and as small as possible, and we should make the thought that the merit is for others as strong as possible. Our mind should be like this, as we sincerely say the prayers with our mouth. Our mind should be harmonious with our words, as we dedicate ourselves to achieving the omniscient mind for the sake of other sentient beings.

We should train our mind even when we make offerings of water, flowers, incense, light and so on, and not only when we dedicate the merits, but also at the beginning, when we motivate to accumulate some virtue. As we fill each bowl with water or make each offering, instead of thinking, “I want happiness, therefore I am going to accumulate merit,” or “This merit is for me,” we should think that each of these merits is not for me, it is for all sentient beings. When we start to make offerings, we should think like this and we should train the mind this way, instead of thinking, “This merit is for my long life.”

Actually, I don’t think the Injis [Westerners] think so much about the motive of having a long life or being healthy. When we accumulate merit, we don’t think so much about this life, as many Tibetans do. In Buddhist countries, many people have faith, but somehow their dedication is done with a lack of understanding. Although these people have an understanding of Dharma, somehow their practice is often done with the motive of happiness for the self, and the dedication is done to have a long life and to be wealthy and healthy. A slightly better motivation is for the future life and to have a good rebirth—to be reborn as a deva or human being. That motivation is a little bit better, but I don’t think the Injis think like that when they accumulate merit. Injis don’t do it so much for this life, as Tibetans or other people who believe they are Buddhist do.

So, we should train the mind and even when we do prostrations or offer one bowl of water, we should think, “This merit is not for me; I am offering this merit to all sentient beings.” Thinking this way, more merit is created by our actions, but we don’t cling to this merit. From the beginning, it is already dedicated for others, so it is very pure.

Then also think like this, “If I offer this bowl of water, all sentient beings receive one extra merit, the cause of happiness. If I do not offer this bowl of water, there are less causes of happiness for other sentient beings. If I make this prostration to Buddha, they get that much merit, that many causes of happiness. If I don’t do even one prostration, they don’t get this merit.” So it inspires us, and it also destroys our laziness and clinging to our own comfort. When we think the merit is for others and not for us, we can’t stand not accumulating it. If we do this, other sentient beings get one more cause for happiness, and if we don’t do it, they don’t get this cause of happiness, so it makes a big difference.

There is not just one sentient being—there is an uncountable number, so it is unbearable to be lazy and not help them. Thinking like this is very effective for the mind, particularly if we have the self-cherishing thought, “I want to achieve enlightenment, therefore I want merit. I want to achieve enlightenment, because I want to be happy.” The concept “I want to be happy” is at the very center of our heart, so since enlightenment is the highest goal, we think, “I want to be happy, so I want enlightenment, therefore I want to accumulate merits.” Just as fruit that looks nice outside and has a good color, but is rotten and full of worms inside—like that, inside the words “to reach enlightenment for the sake of others,” it is kind of rotten. Inside, there is the worm of the self-cherishing thought. In the depths of our heart, the merit that is accumulated is for the happiness of the self. So as much as possible, avoid this.

Often His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses expressions when he gives teachings. I don’t think this example fits the Injis, but it fits Tibetans very well. Injis don’t have these habits—a very few Italians have it, but they are not here. His Holiness often used to say, “While we are keeping the work for ourselves inside the stomach, the work for others is like raising the eyebrows.” The work for others is like raising the eyebrows and the work for ourselves is kept inside the stomach. I think this is very interesting.

His Holiness is saying that even when some Tibetans practice, there is a kind of habit, even when they do sadhanas or prayers or puja, it always starts, “I am going to achieve enlightenment quicker and quicker for the sake of all mother sentient beings.” The very first motive for doing the sadhana or the prayers, from the beginning up to the end—from the very beginning motive up to the end, the dedication—even though the person is trying to do some virtuous action, when the person says, “For the sake of all mother sentient beings,” they raise their eyebrows. They have either big, open eyes or half-open eyes and they raise their eyebrows when they come to those words.

However, from the very beginning up to the dedication, the motive for the whole thing is the work for the self, the happiness of the self. That is the main aim of doing the sadhana or the meditation. We think, “If I don’t do this, I will go to hell. So I won’t be happy, I will lose my happiness.” The happiness of the self is kept inside and nothing else is more important than that. It is the most important thing, so it is kept on the very inside, just as we keep jewels. Our house has many locks, but inside a box we keep the most precious and valuable things—we keep them very, very deep inside. Like that, we keep very, very deep inside the most important thing for us —the happiness for self. So, that is what His Holiness is saying. The work for others is not inside the heart, it is only on the eyebrows. His Holiness gives advice about how to be sincere, and when he gives advice for everyday life, it is about the practice of the good heart.

Anyway, what I am saying is that when we want to accumulate merit, even at the beginning we shouldn’t think, “The merit is mine.” Instead, we should think, “The merit is for others,” or “That is others’ merit.” Just to motivate like this from the beginning is very good and it becomes a remedy for destroying the self-cherishing thought. We must dedicate like this, completely against the self-cherishing thought.

Also, we should recite mantras or make prostrations with the thought, “This merit is for others.” When we recite mantras it is very good to think from the beginning, with the motivation of bodhicitta, that all the merit of reciting the mantra is for others, it is not ours. We should remember this again and again, especially during retreat when we have to recite so many hundreds of thousands of mantras. It is very good to train our mind again and again. Although we do other visualizations, we should remember occasionally that the merit created by reciting the mantras is for all sentient beings, starting with the parents, then the enemy and the rest of sentient beings—the merit is theirs. When we accumulate virtue with this attitude, our mind is very happy. We are very happy to do it, very sincere and pure.