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Buddhadharma : Spring 2019
ASK THE TEACHERS 21 would be like to live your life as an offer- ing to all beings. What if, at the end of the day, every day, you dedicate—freely offering up for the benefit of all beings everywhere—all the merit or goodness generated from living your one and only precious life? GYOKEI YOKOYAMA: Eko, or “transfer of merit” (Skt., parinamana), is a Buddhist practice to benefit others through our thoughts and actions. We offer merit to sentient beings, deities, devas, and even ghosts (the ghosts, who might otherwise haunt us, may, through merit, become our guardians). This reflects the Buddhist teaching that buddhanature is true in all beings, beyond any bias, discrimination, or stereotype. Traditionally, merit is also offered to the dead. While the intention is firm in our mind, we offer sweets, tea, and various other items. There is no belief that these items can be transferred to the next life, in the same way that we say, “You can’t take it with you.” But we say the merit, which arises from sincere intentions, can be transferred. It’s said that chanting a sutra or offering incense wholeheartedly, with a genuine intention, brings about merit and helps the dead move further toward enlightenment. But what effect, if any, does this really have? We can see how it works by look- ing to our own experience. Occasionally, I see people throw trash out of car windows or onto the sidewalk while walking. The consequence of that action is immediately visible, right in front of us; the effect of not littering, even if we don’t consciously notice it in the same way, is visible as well. Beyond the visible, beyond what we see on the streets, are the effects on people’s minds, how litter or its absence changes the atmosphere, which in turn changes us. And beyond that, in the realm of inten- tion, are effects that we will never know through our senses or consciousness. In my home village, people work in the rice fields, and as they do, they hear the sound of the temple bell in the dis- tance. They say that when the sound of the bell reaches their ears, they feel peace- ful. The sound literally resonates in their minds, and as it does, they feel they are truly working together. Anyone can have an experience like this. In the meditation hall, sitting silently or chanting a sutra with no one else around, it’s natural to wonder what effect there might be, if any. We may doubt that we are inspiring the world, or making any change, or offering anything at all. But it’s the same as the bell. There’s no difference. Ultimately, in Buddhist practice, there is no separation between giver, receiver, and gift. Whatever we do, whatever we offer, we are not practicing for sentient beings. We are practicing with sentient beings as sentient beings. It’s infinitely interdependent. Gyokei Yokoyama is a Soto Zen priest with the Long Beach Buddhist Church, a nondenominational community in Long Beach, California COURTESYOFGYOKEIYOKOYAMA