Bodhidharma on “No Merit”

In the sixth century, the Chinese Emperor Liang invited the Indian monk Bodhidharma to his capital in Nanjing. The emperor was very fond of Buddhism and often wore Buddhist garments and recited Buddhist prayers. He was, however, most proud of his unbending and unqualified support for Buddhism throughout his entire kingdom. Proud of his knowledge and the contributions towards Buddhism, he asked Bodhidharma, “Since I came to the throne, I have built many temples, published numerous scriptures and supported countless monks and nuns. How great is the merit in all these?”

“No merit whatsoever” was his shocking reply. “You have gained no merit. What you have done produces only worldly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great wealth in your future lives, but you will still be wandering around in samsara.”

Now, the emperor thought, he had often heard teachings from renowned masters who said, “Do good, and you will receive good; do bad and you will receive bad. The Law of Cause and Effect is unchangeable, effects follow causes as shadows follow figures.” But now, this sage declared that he had earned no merit at all. Thus, the emperor was thoroughly perplexed.

The emperor had failed to understand Bodhidharma’s words which mean that one is not really practicing the Buddha-dharma if one does good with the desire to gain merit for oneself. It will be more like satisfying one’s own ego, or promoting one’s own welfare, or even for the sake of being recognized and appreciated by the public. One can gain worldly fortune in this manner, but that is not the goal of a Buddhist. The goal is to get out of samsara–to become liberated and thus escape the suffering that is inherent in worldly existence. You must not forget the purpose of practice. Generosity without correct view is not correct practice. Only when one is generous without any attachment to the self (the giver), the gift, or the recepient of the gift is it true cultivation.