Understanding the Accumulation of Merit and Wisdom
Why accumulating merit and wisdom is important
When we intentionally develop positive qualities, we’re building a certain spiritual force, a sense of energy for good in our lives. If we think about negativity as weakening us and depleting our source of power, the accumulation of positive actions carried out through our body, speech, and mind enriches us and fills us up with spiritual force. And all good things come from that.
In Buddhism, we call this the accumulation of merit. Not in terms of wearing a merit badge—it’s not something we need to be showing off. It’s something that accumulates as a quiet force for good in us. It gives us an ability to be strong in a very deep way so that we can face all forms of adversity with strength and with a positive attitude.
We might think about it as a kind of a credit system where we’re building a big savings account. The thing is, if we only think of ourselves, we’re actually depleting our merit, spending from our savings account all the time. If we think of others, if we offer it to others, merit becomes a source of spiritual power and spiritual force. As we accumulate it and give it away, we’re practicing generosity. It works because as we imagine that we are offering our own positive energy for the benefit of all beings, this very intention accumulates merit and recycles it back so it can never be depleted. By giving it away, it is always growing.
Being able to make wishes and extend them out to all beings is a very quiet, deep force within us for good. After all, we’re not separate from other beings. Through our practice we realize we’re all connected; our accumulation of merit doesn’t exclude us. And it’s not exclusive to us. It’s inclusive of all of us.
Then there’s the accumulation of wisdom. The accumulation of wisdom in Buddhism is a little bit different from the accumulation of merit because it’s actually based on selflessness. What do we mean by that? Self, our idea of a self, is largely an unexamined and vague concept. It’s something we just take for granted: I have this body, I have a name, I have a history, and that’s me. But if, in meditation, we try to see clearly what’s what and look at the basis for this idea of a self, we see that nothing substantial can be found. There’s just some sensation here, a feeling there, a perception here. All of these things that the concept of a self is based on are constantly changing.
Take the body, for instance. You know, this body is changing all the time. Our ideas about it are changing all the time. The perceptions we have are changing constantly. We can’t name anything that our idea of a self is based on that isn’t in constant change, constant movement. How can we identify a self if that self is always changing? Sure, me, myself, and I are useful terms. Distinguishing between self and others and naming things can help clarify a conversation. But when it comes to looking at what’s true, self is just a concept—a changing concept that isn’t reliable or stable.
Wisdom is seeing clearly how things truly are. To see clearly, we need to examine all the concepts we hold onto. When a concept arises in the mind, we have to look behind the concept and investigate: What is this label referring to? What is the actual, true substance behind it? When we look behind that label, we won’t see anything that isn’t changing. There is appearance, and appearance is constantly changing. Wisdom is recognizing and understanding that there is no permanent, unchanging existence. It doesn’t mean you throw away your intellect and all the labels. You don’t—they’re convenient—but they’re not what you thought they were; they don’t have the substance that you’ve given them.
The accumulation of wisdom is holding this recognition in the background and seeing everything through that insubstantial lens. Recognizing it now, keeping it in your mind now, and experiencing through that lens right now. And wisdom confirms the importance of accumulating merit through positive actions and positive conduct; it drives home why merit is so important.
Take, for example, what happens when we grasp and obsess about some story with somebody that was hurtful to us, some words or actions that were painful. If we really look through the lens of wisdom, there’s no substance to the story; it was just a momentary word, a momentary action. We’ve been giving it so much power, so much weight—and that person’s mind has probably changed by now. Just as our mind and our perceptions are constantly changing, everybody else’s minds are too! In this example, we see that we’ve been ascribing to situations weight and permanence that they simply don’t have.
In fact, when we have cultivated the lens of wisdom, we can let go of anything that inhibits our accumulation of merit because we recognize that nothing has the substance we’ve been giving it. In this light, accumulating merit and wisdom is the absolute best approach for making progress on the spiritual path and developing spiritual realization.