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What Does Dedicating Merit Really Do?, Buddhadharma Magazine, Feb 2019

Published in the Buddhadharma Magazine. February 2019. (Link)

Question: We are encouraged to dedicate the merit of our practice to all beings. It’s a beautiful idea, but what effect, if any, does it really have? And can you offer something you’re not sure you even have?

Nikki Mirghafori: When I came to Buddhist practice, the concept of “dedicating merit” felt familiar from my Persian cultural upbringing in a liberal Muslim family. I grew up with regular kheyraat and savaab, meritorious acts done so that the rippling effects of their goodness would benefit deceased loved ones. I remember as a child participating in giving away food to strangers, and my grandmother’s special prayers, a kind of “merit” dedicated to her deceased brother, my uncle. Of course, such practices are not unique to Persian culture. Many cultures around the world have rituals to dedicate positive actions in the name of the ancestors.

The Buddhist practice of dedicating merit is similar in spirit, but with two significant expansions. The primary and most important aspect is to recognize that our practice, however shoddy it might feel, is a meritorious act of goodness, not so different from other acts of generosity in the world. It is not how calm our mind gets or how many insights arise during a practice period, but simply our intention of having tried, having sat or walked, having aligned our actions with our highest intentions, even for a minute. Even one moment of attempting to settle one’s mind and heart is a moment of cultivating goodness, which in turn inclines our heart and mind toward more goodness, love, and wisdom. And let us have humility and awe about how each little moment of goodness may percolate through the world, in the ways our thoughts and actions affect ourselves and others. So, one effect of the practice of dedicating merit is building trust that our practice is synonymous with goodness in and of itself, and the other is seeing the potential for its powerful rippling effect. It is this goodness, or merit, that we see, recognize, acknowledge, and share.

The other dimension is that this dedication practice—not keeping what’s good just for ourselves and our immediate circle of loved ones—is a radical act of generosity. Dedicating merit then becomes synonymous with the practice of metta, where we are extending our goodwill and generosity of heart in ever-expanding concentric circles, starting with ourselves, benefactors, dear friends, and extending to neutral relationships, difficult ones, and finally, all beings everywhere. Training and expanding our heart in generosity and goodwill is another effect of the practice of dedicating merit.

At some point along the arc of our maturity as practitioners, our practice becomes indistinguishable from our life; our practice becomes our life, and our life becomes our practice. Consider what it would be like to live your life as an offering to all beings? What if, at the end of the day, every day, you dedicate—freely offering up for the benefit of all beings everywhere—all the merit or goodness generated from living your one and only precious life?

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