Eye-Opening Understandings of Merit Never Explained in Western Zen

“Bodhidharma’s Emptiness,” is a story often pointed to as a foundational Zen text, yet one of its central concepts – merit – is assumed intelligible to any western reader.  I studied this story for my “Shuso Ceremony,”#  and though I became intimate with it some 20 years ago, there’s much of it that I’ve taken for granted.  The story appears as the second case in the Shoyoroku, or the Record of Serenity, and as such is of primary importance for understanding Zen.  How is it that “merit” has gotten so overlooked? 


In the story, Emperor Wu learns that an illuminated teacher from India, named Bodhidharma, has traveled to the Great Chinese Empire to transmit Buddhist teachings.  Emperor Wu was an enormous supporter of Buddhism, showing his patronage by building temples for monks and nuns to live in, and by spreading the Dharma.  He desires to know from Bodhidharma what “merit” there is in doing such deeds.


Bodhidharma, however, catches the emperor off guard by telling him, “No merit.”  This must have been a dangerous thing for him to say because, in those days and in that culture, he could have been beheaded if the Emperor felt insulted or embarrassed.  Emperor Wu was probably expecting Bodhidharma to affirm his activities, but he instead becomes confused, and returns to his palace.


Much later, the story goes, perhaps years later, Emperor Wu realizes the truth of Bodhidharma’s response and regrets not understanding his words sooner.  Generally speaking, many interpreters of this story say the main point of Bodhidharma is not to do any actions, even those that support Buddhism, for the sake of merit.  Don’t practice for the sake of merit, but for the sake of seeing deeply into the nature of reality. 



The story isn’t just about emperors.  It’s about us.  We are like Emperor Wu, though we may not consider ourselves as powerful as an Emperor.  If we’re totally honest, in each one of us is some part of our mind that is seeking to know what merit there is for our good deeds.  We’re looking to be recognized from some outside authority.

# The Shuso Ceremony is a public event where a novice monk demonstrates their leadership abilities and understanding of the Dharma. 

But what is “merit” referring to in the story?  Does “merit” mean the same thing for us today as it did for Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma, and other Asian Buddhists?  My teacher often brought up how difficult it is to explain the concept of “merit” to westerners, as we don’t have it as an integral part of our culture.


The Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese Characters that have been translated as “merit” is kudoku.  I don’t want to assume that an English translation of the word kudoku actually does the translation justice.  How may our culture define merit, and how close is that definition to the word kudoku?


In American culture merit is something that is intangible, but it usually refers to the quality or worth of someone or something based on the characteristics of that person or thing.  In an academic setting, merit is used to evaluate a student’s studies.  In a work setting, merit might be used to evaluate a particular task.  In a meritocracy, merit refers to evaluating individuals based on their particular performance, as opposed to other qualities such as race, gender, age or familial relationships.  When someone is said to have “merit” it often means they are honest or trustworthy, that they will do what they say they are going to do.


“Merit” in the United States, then is a term used to evaluate the worth of people or things.  When Emperor Wu questions what his “merit” is, he is, in a sense asking for an evaluation of his activities.  But I find something curious about the Emperor asking about “merit” as we understand it in America.  It doesn’t initially strike me as a question non-Asians would ask a renowned teacher.  I hear them ask questions about how to meditate properly.  I hear about how to deal with problems in their family or in their workplace from a Dharma perspective.  I hear them ask questions about how to see the world differently.  But I don’t hear them asking about merit. 


In order to understand why “merit” takes on a central role right at the beginning of a collection of koans, I think we need to understand what “merit” means from an Asian context.  My teacher tried to explain to me that merit was like the electricity in a set of Christmas tree lights.  The movement of electricity through the Christmas tree lights is what causes it to light up.  It’s this light that helps us to clarify or to see more deeply the “tree.”  Otherwise, the tree remains an ordinary tree.  The tree is always an ordinary tree, but the lights around it helps us to recognize the extraordinary qualities of the tree, and to point us to a deeper truth.  In the same way, the generation of merit moves through the universe and highlights the truth (Dharma) for us so that we can see it more clearly.  The highlighting of the truth or Dharma through merit making creates a kind of “north star” so that we know which way to steer our lives, or what to place importance in.


After every sutra we chant there is an “Eko.”  Eko is not echo like in English.  “Eko” is referring to the transfer of merit that has been generated by the recitation of the sutra.  Every time we chant a sutra we believe that this ephemeral “merit” is generated and that it can then be dedicated.  Depending on the sutra, the dedication goes to various people, such as the Buddha, Dogen Zenji or Keizan Zenji.  By dedicating the merit to these people, we are highlighting, like the lights on a Christmas tree, what they represent:  the Dharma.  Otherwise, they are just ordinary people like you and me.  Sometimes we dedicate the merit to the Arhats.  Sometimes we dedicate the merit to sick people or those deceased.  If you listen carefully to the Eko you’ll understand better who the ceremony is dedicated to.  The point of the dedication is not that things will turn out the way humans want them to, but that they will turn out the way the Universe wants them to.


One difference, then, between “merit” as understood in the West and kudoku is that kudoku can be produced through spiritual practices such as chanting or sitting zazen.  In the West, we don’t necessarily associate chanting or meditation with the production of merit, as we don’t generally value those activities as we would, for example, earning an academic degree, making a scientific discovery, or with business prowess.  Kudoku is not exactly the same as “prayers” either.  We’re not necessarily asking for a change in health, such that a sick person may recover from illness.  Recovery from illness may happen or it may not.  In either case, it is independent of kudoku.  My teacher said we make the dedication of kudoku so that the kudoku generated goes where it needs to go.  We’re not in charge of where it goes or what happens with it once it gets there, but that what needs to happen in the Dharma happens in accordance with the ripening of karma.


A deeper understanding of “kudoku” can help clarify these differences.  Kudoku consists of two Chinese Characters:  功 and 德. In Japanese this is pronounced “kudoku.”


The first character, 功,(ku) is the combination of two separate characters which mean “construction” and “power.”  There’s a sense of great effort or even new creation being produced.  Think of the effort it takes to birth a human, an animal, a business, or to grow a simple garden.  Possible definitions of ku include the following:


  1. Achievement
  2. Merit
  3. Good result
  4. Patient dedication
  5. Effort
  6. Wisdom achieved through refined work.


The second character, 德,(doku when following “ku”or toku when by itself), is more complicated to explain, as it has layers of possibilities, depending on context.  In Chinese it is pronounced “de” and is the central Chinese Character in the Title of the Tao De Jing.  De or Toku is often translated as “virtue.”  Incidentally, some Japanese Buddhist priests use “virtue” synonymously with “merit.”  Toku is a very important quality for individuals to have or cultivate in an Asian context.  The Chinese were and are concerned with how to attain Toku.  It is equated with learning to become good, as it is assumed that becoming good is what it means to be a fully developed human being.


One has more or less Toku depending on their actions.  When a person performs their deeds in a way that is in alignment with the natural Way of things, then those actions are virtuous (Toku), and the person is said to have Toku, or to lead with Toku.  It is similar to the idea of merit in that our good deeds have good results, and can be used as a measurement for future successes or failures.  However, Toku is not based solely in human ideas of worth.  It’s based on the degree to which that person has aligned their activities with the Way or Dao.  Toku is a kind of power that one possesses.*  For humans, aligning oneself with the Dao doesn’t necessarily make you successful in the eyes of humans.  You can be keenly tuned in to the Dao – living in a way that is in harmony with universal laws (Dharma), and still be poor.  Conversely, you can be wealthy and be totally out of harmony with the Dao.


A person with Toku is not concerned that others think badly of them when they follow the Dao.  They are more concerned that others think well of them when they are not in alignment with the Dao.  Consider the following words from Dogen Zenji:


Even though people criticize you, if it is the activity of the buddhas and ancestors and in accordance with the sacred teachings, you should follow and practice it.  Even if people in the world praise you, if it is not prescribed in the sacred scriptures nor what the ancestors have done, you should not practice it.  (Zuimonki 3-13)


Rulers in ancient China were quite concerned with the amount of Toku (power) they had personally accrued.  If the country was in good harmony – there were no famines, war was at bay, the people were generally happy – it was indicative of a ruler with ample Toku.  The opposite would be the case if the ruler was bereft of Toku – the people would be unhappy, there would be constant wars and famines. 


Before China existed as we know it today, it was separated into many smaller states which were in constant warfare.  It was believed that the ruler had a great responsibility to receive the “mandate of Heaven” in order to rule justly.  It would be obvious to the general populous that if a ruler had virtue (Toku), they also had the mandate of Heaven.  But if they lacked virtue (Toku), then they lost the mandate and were vulnerable to being deposed.


In this sense, developing Toku was important for emperors like Wu, because it would ensure that they remain unseated.  Ruling with Toku was equated with having power and influence over others.  It should be noted, though, that it wasn’t just rulers that could acquire Toku, but even the common person. 


Buddhism finds a way to adapt to Chinese culture by linking itself with the Chinese concept of Toku.  When ku (功)and toku (德)are put together, we get the word kudoku.  Kudoku, then, may be seen as a way to generate virtue, something the emperors (as well as common people) coveted for themselves.  Buddhism basically said that you can generate virtue (kudoku) through chanting the sutras.  But it is my understanding that Buddhism adds another dimension to how this concept is understood within Chinese culture.   The Eko of a chant, the dedication, recognizes that kudoku has been generated.  It takes it one step further and suggests a direction to “send” that kudoku.  The contribution to Chinese culture, in my view, is that the transference of kudoku (generation of virtue or merit) is not to be held on to for oneself, but released out into the universe so that the Dharma can be recognized by others.


Emperor Wu, as I understand his question, was wondering what merit was in it for him in particular.  Yes, he was doing great things, but he was thinking somewhat selfishly about it.  He may have been concerned about holding onto power.  When Bodhidharma said, “no merit”, could it not have been that the merit – kudoku – that Emperor Wu generated was never intended for him in the first place, and that he didn’t understand that?  We don’t hold kudoku for our self.  The kudoku generated by our deeds (whether it be chanting, zazen, or some service project) is never for us.  It’s to be let go of.  If we don’t let it go, it never gets out there in the universe to do its job.  It would be like only one light on the Christmas tree working.  If only one light on the Christmas tree is working, it’s considered broken.  In the same way, merit needs to be shared rather than amassed for oneself.


Furthermore, we don’t generate kudoku for the sake of kudoku.  Just as we don’t have Christmas lights for the sake of the Christmas lights.  The lights on the tree point to something deeper.  They highlight an ordinary tree revealing its extraordinary nature.  In the same way, kudoku helps highlight the deeper truth of the Dharma.  The Dharma appears all around us in ordinary form.  Because of this it is hard to see.  Kudoku is a kind of light that helps us to really see.

* For an indepth discussion of the concept of virtue, see, Ivanhoe, Philip, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, 2nd edition, 2000, Hackett Publishing Company.

Part 2 of video below will be available on October 5th

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