“Building monasteries, doing charity and honouring monks are only cultivation of blessings.
We must not mistake blessings for merit.
Merit is in the spiritual body, not in the field of blessings.”
~ Hui Neng
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Bodhidharma once said that the Emperor Liang – a pivotal figure in the spread of Buddhism in China – had ‘accumulated no merit despite building monasteries, translating sutras and ordaining monks’ (taken from the words of Wong Kiew Kit in his amazing work ‘The Complete Book of Zen’). The above quote was Hui Neng’s response to a magistrate who wanted to understand why Bodidharma had said that. Hui Neng was the 6th Patriarch of Buddhism but is also considered by many scholars to be the 1st Patriarch of Chinese Buddhism.
Reflecting on this quote, one begins to realize that though good deeds done in the outer world are, indeed, respectable and wonderful, the act of doing these deeds itself does not make oneself meritorious.
From a yogic perspective, one’s soul is trapped within the endless cycle of birth and death so long as karmic impressions still linger on one’s ‘atman’ or ‘essence’ (soul). Bad deeds leave negative karmic impressions; but good deeds leave karmic impressions too, albeit positive ones.
Therefore, the only way to liberate oneself from the cycle of birth and death is to erase all of the karmic impressions covering one’s atman. This is done through the practices of non-thought and detachment in meditation, and exists only in the realm of the absolute and undifferentiated spiritual body, not in the relative and subjective world of manifestation that ordinary people perceive as absolute reality, which is where blessings exist.