The dedication of merit is a spiritual practice that, as far as I know, is unique to Buddhism. Further, it appears to be a practice found in all schools of Buddhism. However, it’s often a practice overlooked by westerners who may find the whole idea of “merit” confusing.
The English word “merit” means to be good or worthy of praise. Buddhists sometimes speak of “making” merit, and describe merit as something one accumulates through good deeds.
But of course, to a Buddhist this also begs the question, “if the self is an illusion, who is it that accumulates? Who is it that is worthy?”
Read More: Self, No Self, What’s a Self?
It may help to look at the Sanskrit or Pali words translated as “merit,” which are punya or punna, respectively. These words are sometimes defined as an inner sense of well-being. This inner sense comes from doing the right thing.
The Theravada monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu said that developing merit provides an essential foundation for Buddhist practice. “To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist, one cannot wisely let go of one’s sense of self until one has developed a wise sense of self,” he wrote.
However, other dictionaries define punya or punna as “actions leading to good fortune.” In some schools of Buddhism, practitioners traditionally were told that accumulation of merit would eventually lead to a more fortunate rebirth that allows for the realization of enlightenment. If this doesn’t work for you, just think of it as a kind of provisional teaching that is helpful for others.
But very simply, dedicating merit simply means to share the merit with others. The dedication of merit is one way to not “cling” to your good deeds, or to not allow your merit-making to turn into a strategy for constructing a self. For this reason, merit dedications are a common part of Buddhist liturgy.
How to Dedicate Merit
There are many merit-making chants, but before we get to those let’s look at intention and understanding.
It’s often taught that a proper dedication must be purified of the three conceptual spheres, or the three spheres of an action. These are (1) the individual performing the action, (2) the object or subject of the action, and (3) the action itself. To be purified of the three spheres means that one fully realizes that the self, the “others” receiving the merit, and the merit itself are empty of a permanent self-essence.
One way to understand this is to consider that the dedication is not about you or your merit or the recipient; it is about all beings in space and time. In their book Natural Great Perfection: Dzogchen Teachings and Vajra Songs, Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Lama Surya Das said,
“When we practice bodhicitta prayers or meditations, it may look like we are alone, like we are practicing for ourselves, but we are not practicing for ourselves, and we are not alone. All beings are interconnected, and in that sense they are present or affected. Milarepa sang, ‘When I am alone, meditating in the mountains, all the Buddhas past, present, and future are with me. Guru Marpa is always with me. All beings are here.'”
Two Dedication Chants
There are infinite chants dedicating merit, some brief and some long. This is from the Theravada Forest Monk tradition:
May all beings always live happily,
free from animosity.
May all share in the blessings
springing from the good I have done.
By this merit may all attain omniscience.
May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing.
From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death;
From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings!
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]