The general concept of merit-dedication
By definition, bodhisattvas are those who follow the Buddhist path in order to deliver other sentient beings from suffering. In the spirit of altruism, they transfer all the merits and virtues obtained through their own practice, either meditative or non-meditative, to other sentient beings. In Buddhism, this is called “merit-transference” or “merit-dedication,” which has a particular meaning in the practice of a bodhisattva.
Since such practitioners cultivate their mind on the causal path, they aim to cut off all kinds of delusions such as view, thought, ignorance, and so on, thus attaining wisdom. At the same time, they also wish to share their merits and virtues with all other sentient beings. They deliver themselves by delivering others and benefit themselves by benefitting others. This is the whole idea of the bodhisattva teaching, and the practice of merit-transference is therefore essential on the bodhisattva path.
Under such circumstances, bodhisattva-practitioners usually pray at the end of their practice as follows:
“I wish to eradicate the three obstructions and all afflictions,
I wish to obtain wisdom and true understanding
I make a universal vow that the obstacles of my offenses will be totally eliminated,
And that I shall constantly practice the bodhisattva path life after life.”
Two different versions of merit-dedication gatha for the two paths
In order to expedite their pursuit of the Buddhist path, some practitioners may choose to follow the Pure Land school of Buddhism, aspiring to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. It is important for practitioners of the (non-pristine) Pure Land school to sincerely dedicate or transfer the merits and virtues obtained through their own practice (either meditative or non-meditative) in the Three Domains* within the Six Realms in their present and past lives. They then make the wish to be welcomed and received by Amitabha Buddha towards the end of their lives. This is known as the Path of Importance in Pure Land Buddhism, as noted by Master Shandao.
Merit-dedication in this case has another meaning. The following merit-dedication gatha is commonly used by Pure Land aspirants on this path:
“I vow that this merit,
Will adorn the Buddha’s Pure Land,
Repaying the four kinds of kindness above
And aiding those below in the Wretched Realms.
May those who see and hear
All aspire to perfect enlightenment
And when this retribution body is done
Be born together in the Land of Bliss.”
Practitioners of the pristine Pure Land school of Buddhism, on the other hand, have established the Three States of Mind, that is to say, they have renounced all merits and virtues obtained through their own virtuous practices. They now take Amitabha-recitation as their main practice, in order to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Following the teaching of Amitabha Buddha as stated in his Fundamental Vow, they recite Amitabha’s name exclusively for the rest of their lives, ensuring that they will be reborn in the Land of Bliss. This is known as the Path of the Great Vow in Pure Land Buddhism, as stated by Master Shandao.
Amitabha-recitation is actually an “other-power” practice. In accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, whenever we recite Amitabha’s name, Amitabha Buddha will immediately dedicate the merit to help us gain direct rebirth in his reward land. It is not the “self-power” of our recitation that produces this effect, but the “other-power” inherent in the all-sufficient name of Amitabha, which is triggered through our recitation.
In this case, it does not make sense to “dedicate,” like in the Path of Importance, and “return” Amitabha’s merits and virtues, which are accorded us through Amitabha-recitation, to his Pure Land to “adorn” it for the sake of being reborn there. This is why Master Shandao says that no dedication is necessary if the practitioner exclusively recites Amitabha’s name in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss in accordance with the Fundamental Vow.
Nevertheless, Master Shandao did write a “Merit-dedication Gatha” in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, as follows:
“May the resulting merit and virtues
Be distributed everywhere without discrimination.
May we all aspire to perfect enlightenment for the sake of other sentient beings,
And be reborn together in the Land of Peace and Joy.”
Questions about merit-dedication in pristine Pure Land Buddhism
What does this gatha mean? Do we need to dedicate at the end of Amitabha-recitation practice? What is it for? How is this gatha different from the previous two? Since the merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation are not really ours, can we dedicate them to benefit other beings, not just in the present life, but in the past and future life as well?
For our own rebirth, dedication is not necessary if we exclusively recite Amitabha’s name according to the Fundamental Vow. However, we can share the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s name, as proposed in Master Shandao’s gatha, so that other sentient beings can be equally (without discrimination) delivered by Amitabha Buddha.
For our own worldly benefit in the present life, dedication is not necessary either. By exclusively reciting Amitabha’s name for the rest of their life, practitioners receive Amitabha’s real merits and virtues in the form of splendid and auspicious light. Such practitioners are naturally embraced and protected by Amitabha Buddha in their present life, thereby eradicating their karmic offenses, obstructions, and afflictions.
In order to benefit others with Amitabha’s merits and virtues through our Amitabha-recitation, dedication is allowed, and even necessary. We can add our own prayer in the middle of the gatha. Amitabha Buddha is more than happy to make good karmic connections with all sentient beings with us as intermediaries, and to deliver them from suffering with mundane and super-mundane benefits in their past, present, and future lives.
By comparing the two different versions of merit-dedication gathas for the two paths of Pure Land Buddhism, we find that merit-dedication has multiple, significant meanings. It is also a yardstick distinguishing the two paths.
*The Desire, Form, and Formless Domains