Question: How does sharing of merits work? Will the ‘concentration’ of merits be ‘diluted’ if they are shared with all beings instead of one person?
Answer: If you have a loaf of bread and someone you encounter is hungry, you can share the bread, and the hungry person can benefit accordingly. Sharing of merits to benefit someone works in a similar way, except that it is more spiritual and less physical in nature, although merits can manifest as material blessings for the needy too. Some believe that for someone to be able to have others share merits with them, the beneficiary must have corresponding good karma to receive the merits in the first place. This is an instance of one good turn deserving another. Sharing of merits is possible also because we have collective and thus common karma that connects us in interdependent ways. Even when we cannot tell if someone deserves merits or not, we share our merits with all anyway. This is an important practice to further perfect our compassion and generosity. The more we share our merits sincerely, the more possibility is there that we will be compassionate and generous in word and deed in everyday life too.
As a natural law of the creator of merits being more deserving, merits cannot be totally shared with others. From http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/05/can-dedication-of-merits-solve-problems : ‘According to ‘Chapter Seven: Benefiting the Living and Deceased’ (利益存亡品第七) in the ‘Sutra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Fundamental Vows and Merits’ (地藏菩萨本愿功德经), the Bodhisattva taught thus: ‘If there are men and women, whom when alive, do not cultivate good causes, and create many of all kinds of misgivings, after their lives end, family members little and great, for creating blessings [merits] to benefit all noble [Dharma] matters, of seven parts, [the deceased] then receive one, with six parts of meritorious virtues [merits], of the living ones self-benefit from. As such, thus, in the future and now, good men, women and others, when strong and healthy, should self-cultivate [merits], with every part [of merits] self received.’ (若有男子女人，在生不修善因多造众罪，命终之後，眷属小大，为造福利一切圣事，七分之中而乃获一，六分功德，生者自利。以是之故，未来现在善男女等，闻 健自修，分分己获。) As a natural law, only one-seventh of the meritorious blessings one personally creates can be shared with another through interconnected collective karma. While merits are partially ‘transferable’, wisdom, however, cannot be transmitted this way. To attain Buddhahood, we have to cultivate and perfect both our merits and wisdom (福慧双修).’
The above refers to helping those who especially did not create enough merits personally in this life. However, as mentioned, they must have done some good in the past (life/lives) to karmically deserve such merits being shared with them as everything operates on cause and effect. We should always help when we can, bearing in mind that we might be conditions through which others’ causes of merits can ripen.
It is natural for many to think that if merits are shared with many or all, they will be diluted in effect due to each being receiving less. However, it is not as simple as dividing the one-seventh of a loaf of bread into countless parts for countless beings, which would mean every individual receiving an infinitesimal amount of merits. The recommended practice is always to dedicate merits to all beings before specific individuals, because, as above, we should practise greater generosity and compassion in everything we do, including sharing of merits. A motivational interpretation is that when we bear more beings in mind while sharing merits, this creates even more merits due to the power of generosity and compassion. Instead of limiting the merits shared for individuals, they are amplified for more. This means we should always practise generosity and compassion to create win-win situations for one and all.
Why do we still share merits with individuals despite having shared merits with all beings, who would include these individuals? Although all are interconnected in this interdependent universe, unless we are fully enlightened with a total sense of equanimity and non-self, it will remain true that our minds will be more inclined or partial towards certain people. such as loved ones. As such, just as the physical things in the more immediate environment (such as the weather) affect us more readily, we can more readily affect those we feel closer to in relationships, whom we have a greater sense of care and connection towards. (This is a reason why close family members’ and friends’ creation and sharing of merits with one can be stronger, due to the presence of stronger karmic affinity and sincerity. This is especially helpful when practising support-chanting.) In this sense, it does make sense to share merits with individuals too – but while we also train to open our hearts and minds to be impartial by sharing first with all.
The best example for sharing of merits is when a Buddha, say, Amituofo, shares merits with a being mindful of him. The truth is, all perfectly compassionate Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are already mindful of and sharing their boundless merits with all beings. From http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/10/mindfulness-of-buddha-card , as ‘The Great Buddha Crown’s Śūraṅgama Sūtra’s Section On Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva’s Perfect Penetration With Mindfulness Of Buddha (大佛顶首楞严经大势至菩萨念佛圆通章)’ teaches, ‘The ten directions’ Tathāgatas are sympathetically mindful of sentient beings, like a mother recollecting her child.’ (十方如来，怜念众生，如母忆子。若子逃逝，虽忆何为？子若忆母，如母忆时，母子历生，不相违远。) However, we have boundless negative karma too, which makes the effects of receiving of merits from them unfelt most of the time. This is also due to our sense of spiritual connection to, say, Amituofo, being weak, defiled and scattered – to the extent that despite Buddha’s great living compassion, it feels little or non-existent. This problem is similar to us sharing merits with others, the effects of which are seldom mindfully experienced – due to lack of merits on our part in the first place and lack of sensitivity on the beneficiary’s side. However, this does not mean that sharing of merits does not work. Its workings in the background are mostly as intangible and taken for granted as us breathing air, without us being aware of its precious value.
To experience merits being shared with us more tangibly, we should deepen our spiritual connection to the one who shares merits with us. The deeper this connection is, the more open we are, and not only are the effects of merits felt more, the actual merits shared with us can be more too. In everyday life, as we habitually cling to a strong sense of physical self, the opposite sense of spiritual connection to others is correspondingly weaker. As analogies, you can think solidly choked pipes despite having a good drainage network, or having a poor Wi-Fi receiver despite having strong signals already available. This ‘mental block’ diminishes the experience and flow of blessings in our lives.
When we practise mindfulness of Amituofo, we are not just connecting to our Buddha-nature, which opens our hearts and minds, we are also opening ourselves more, by lessening the illusion of self, to experience the blessings of Amituofo. When the walls of self dissolve, this is when his merits can flood in more readily, uplifting us to great spiritual bliss. Sincere (wholehearted) mindfulness of Amituofo is the key to tap into his sea of blessings, that already envelops us as omnipresent Buddha light, waiting to rush in. This connection is the only way Amituofo can help us dilute our negative karma, and to enable birth in his Pure Land. It adds on to our otherwise limited merits and amplifies their effects, without which it will be much more tedious to lessen or negative karma or accumulate enough merits to enter Pure Land. Technically, in terms of individual merits, only Buddhas fully deserve the experience of Pure Lands, as they are the fruits of their perfect spiritual cultivation. However, they can share their merits with us to enable us to experience them too. All this is powerful due to the law of interdependent interconnection.
To summarise, the sharing and receiving of merits is not as straightforward as imagined, as many factors such as the above are involved. A crucial part of our spiritual practice is to lessen our sense of self(ishness) and to increase our sense of selflessness, by realising more and more, that we are interconnected, not just to all beings but to all Buddhas too. The practice of focused mindfulness of Amituofo helps us to do so when we train to be mindful of him with as little sense of self as possible, to awaken our Buddha-nature and its connection to Amituofo’s Buddha-nature, which in turn is connected with all Buddhas, who are connected to all beings. By the way, it is good news that ‘demerits’ (the opposite of merits; negative karma) cannot be shared. If it can be, there would be cosmic chaos, with many hateful beings easily causing more suffering in this world, which in turn spurs more hateful vengeance. As such, good is essentially greater than evil!