The Pureland Way of Sharing Merits

May these meritorious virtues
Adorn the Buddha’s Pure Land,
Repay the four weighty roots of kindness above,
And relieve suffering of the three paths below.
If there are those who see or hear this,
May all give rise to Bodhicitta,
And at the end of this retribution body,
Be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss together.

Question: Why do we practise sharing of merits by chanting the above 回向偈 (Verse for Sharing of Merits)? Why should we adorn Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, since it is already ideally adorned by his boundless merits? Why do we need to give rise to Bodhicitta and be born in Pure Land together?

Answer: The above verse for sharing of merits happens to be the one most commonly used in Pure Land practice, though there are others too. When we practise the unsurpassable Dharma, there are merits generated, which we can then direct for the benefiting of one and all by having the thought of sharing these merits by chanting the verse. This itself is part of Dharma practice. In Pure Land practice, there is the specific aspiration to use these merits to help oneself and others be born in Pure Land, where liberation is guaranteed.

Because of the excellence of Pure Land, we hope all can be born there. This is why we direct and ‘park’ our merits in Pure Land, to try to ‘do our bit’ in adorning Pure Land. Even though it does not really need our adornment, when we wish to adorn Pure Land with our merits, we are expressing our aspiration to deserve to be born there. Just as Pure Land was created to benefit all, we practise the Pure Land teachings to benefit all. This intention is summarised by the giving rise of Bodhicitta. (*The last lines are perhaps better translated as – ‘By the end of this retribution body, be together born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss’.)

Q: Why is it that the verse seems to exclude the three upper realms? Shouldn’t they be included too? After all, asuras (demi-gods) suffer greatly from futile fighting out of jealousy against the gods, while even the gods suffer greatly when they are on the brink of death – especially when they realise they are likely to fall to the lower realms. Needless to say, we humans have much suffering too. As such, why not change the line ‘and alleviate the suffering of the three lower realms’ to ‘and alleviate the suffering of all realms’? In this way, all beings can be benefited.

A: ‘三途’ (Literally ‘three paths’) is usually taken to represent the three lower realms (hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals), in contrast to the three upper realms (humans, asuras and gods). However, the ‘three paths’ can also be seen to include all the paths of rebirth within the Spheres of Desire, Form and Formlessness, which encompass both the lower and upper realms. If we take the meaning of ‘Three Paths’ to be the latter, all beings are already included in the verse. All beings are also included in other ways in this line – ‘Repay our fourfold gratitude’, which includes:

  1. Parents
    (of the past, present and future lives – which includes all beings)
  2. Society or Country
    (which includes humans)
  3. Triple Gem
    (which includes enlightened beings, who don’t need our merits, to whom we express our great gratitude anyway, by practising the Dharma well)
  4. All sentient beings
    (which includes beings of all realms – hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras and gods)

The three upper realms are thus already included in the verse. Generally, ‘fourfold gratitude’ is taken to include the upper realms (which are more fortunate), which complements ‘the three lower realms’ (which are less fortunate). Together, they include all in the universe. In the practice of sharing merits, it is customary to include all beings as beneficiaries, as a practice of cultivating universal generosity and compassion. Even when we wish to share merits with specific individuals, it is best to do so after sharing with all beings (which would also include those individuals). The practice of sharing merits of all beings is meritorious in itself, creating more merits to share with more!

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!

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