No Merit

When Bodhidharma first met Emperor Wu, the Emperor asked, “I have built temples and ordained monks; what merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma said, “There is no merit.”

I began the day reading the first few pages of Real Change by Sharon Salzberg. I bought copies for a bunch of people because Roshi Paco Lugovina, the founding chair of the ICS board, is quoted in two separate places. Last night when I got the book, I looked up Paco in the index and read his quotes. Wonderful. He sounds like a Roshi. 

This morning I started at the beginning and was struck by Sharon’s description of her own morning practice. She begins the day by dedicating the merit of her morning meditation to someone who is suffering, someone in particular. This has a different flavor than the practice which I learned with Roshi Bernie, “dedicating the merit of this mediation to all those who suffer from …” Then the Ino, the person leading chanting in the Zendo would intone, “we especially pray for…” and then read the list of ill sangha members. 

I never kept up Bernie’s version of the practice at home. I am moved by Sharon’s twist, the dedication to someone, in particular, someone she can envision. Beautiful, I think.

I think of our co-worker George who is going through some health challenges and his wife Carol and I dedicate the merit of my morning meditation to them.

A lot is coming up. I am dedicating the merit of my practice to someone that I am frightened for. That is very intimate. I am not just thinking of their stress, their fear. I am connecting through my fear. 

Thinking about suffering is weak. There is too much separation, reminding me of the childhood injunction to cultivate “compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.” I am frightened for them. I am frightened for myself.

Sending the positive energy of the meditation to George and Carol, I am grateful to them for helping me to meet my fear. Despite the difference in our ages, Diane and I are getting older together. In all likelihood, we will not die together. One of us will care for the other at the end of life and then be left alone eventually to die. Fear of being left alone. Gratitude for the opportunity to care.

Tonglen, the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist practice introduced to me through Pema Chodron’s books. Breathing in fear for George and Carol, breathing out gratitude for the teaching. Breathing in fear. Breathing out gratitude.

I think of Bodhidharma and the Emperor. Taking pride in what he has done, his generosity, the monasteries he has built, the statues and stupas he has erected, the Emperor asks this strange monk “How much merit have I earned through these activities?”.

“No merit.”

If no merit in building stupas and temples, where is the merit in meditation?

If no merit in meditation, what is there to give away?

Suddenly the whole metaphorical language of karma begins to crumble for me. I have loved Buddhism for the belief in the inherent goodness of all beings, a sharp contrast with original sin. People are inherently good not inherently evil. Each one of us. We just don’t know it.

Now I see Karma dragging original sin in through the back door. Well, maybe not original, original. Maybe in the very, very beginning, I was good. But lifetime after lifetime, I have been doing bad things, accumulated bad karma which I should be working off by doing good. But what’s the difference, really, if I begin this life with bad karma or original sin?

Suddenly, I am seeing it differently. At least for the moment. The adventure of this life is not about redemption from the burden of birth, whether called karma or original sin. I am seeing a quest, a hero’s (or heroine’s) journey.

Then I am reminded of our ICS Core Value, of Lifelong Learning. Probably when that ICS value was crafted by our teachers, they were thinking of accumulating knowledge and skills, a process of looking outward. They were looking at the outside world.

I am seeing it as an inward journey, of facing and befriending demons.

On our cushions and in life, we confront demons, the things that frighten us. As we embrace these fears, we are transformed.

Or we are “too” frightened. We run away. We quit Zen rather than face the demons that are arising. Or we quit therapy.

The demons remain.

The refrain from the old Fram Oil Filter TV commercial echoes. “Pay me now or pay me later.”

That is Karma. The lessons of life are there to be learned. This lifetime or the next or one after that.

I find enormous freedom in this view of Karma. Face the demons now or face them later. This lifetime or the next. My choice.

I find enormous courage in this freedom. And given the choice, I generally choose to face the fear, embrace the demon, and the consequence is always gratitude. 

Breathing in fear, breathing out gratitude.


  1. The Blue Cliff Record. Translated by Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary. (Boston and London: Shambala, 1992): p. 3,
  2. New York: Flatiron Books, 2020.