In Buddhist temples we often perform merit transference ceremonies in which we wish for the transference of merit to people in need. We hope that they will be relieved of suffering or helped along their spiritual path. We can understand what is happening in such acts at different levels of sophistication.
We began our examination of karma by looking at it as accumulation of good and bad seeds. This “economic” approach leads naturally to the question whether merit (or even demerit) can be shared, transferred or even traded? Some Buddhists take the view that no such transactions are possible, that merit or the lack of it is a characteristic attaching to the individual. This then runs into philosophical debates about whether it is possible to help another person along their spiritual path. If everything depends upon personal intentional effort, how could one help another, but if it is not possible to help another, what could possibly count as good action? The answer has to be that help is possible, or Buddha would not have taught, but what does that mean in terms of merit? If a person further along the path has, by definition, more merit, then if somebody helps another along the path this must amount to a transference of merit. Thus the idea of merit transference was readily equated with the benefit that we receive from the Buddha. So when we "transfer merit" we are not just sharing our own little stock, we are praying for grace.
Thus, it is possible to conceive of the Dharma as being a merit transference from Buddhas to deluded beings. If we couple this with the idea of merit as being really the absence of (bad) karma, we conclude that Dharma dissolves karma. This is then in line with the principle that Dharma ends rebirth - at least, rebirth within this realm of conditions.
The Buddha famously forbade speculation about the state or being of a Buddha after parinirvana - i.e. the state of a being who is generating no karma. This intentional lacuna, however, invites the very speculation he forbade. If there have been many Buddhas throughout space and time then they must still exist somehow and thus has arisen a sense of the existence of a multitude of celestial Buddhas all engaged in merit transference to assist beings who, because of their deluded blindness, have only limited capacity to receive the beneficence so readily available.
So, if innumerable Buddhas are copiously blessing us with limitless grace, it follows that the small amounts of merit that we might individually generate by charitable deeds must be tiny by comparison and so, in a real sense, redundant. This, in turn, leads to the happy conclusion that the correct Dharmic attitude is to give away merit as fast as one acquires it. It cultivates a sense of almost reckless generosity that is the exact opposite of the original idea of merit accumulation. It implies never claiming credit for good deeds done which also tallies with the bodhisattva ideal. The bodhisattva, by definition, is somebody who has no concern for personal salvation, but is concerned only with the salvation of all sentient beings. The Buddhist practitioner, therefore, is somebody who renounces accumulation.
A bodhisattva, therefore, is constantly transferring merit simply by not generating new karma, or, to put the same thing differently, by not being ego-ridden. The delusion of self distorts the universe and that distortion is karma. When we say the bodhisattva vow, "Innumerable are sentient beings, I vow to save them all," we might think that this is a tall order and that we shall have our work cut out to achieve such a momentous task. However, if we consider that the implication of this analysis of karma is that the vow could be phrased "I vow to save them all from me," we might get a different sense of it. A person who can climb down from his ego naturally saves all beings from the karma that would otherwise be generated. The way to transfer merit continuously is to give up self-power.
Our exploration of karma and the associated idea of merit has taken us on a journey along a number of philosophical pathways that all have implications for how we think about spiritual practice.
We have seen that there are two different ways of viewing karma. In the simple sense there is good and bad karma and good karma is called merit. Karma bears fruit, either in physical circumstances or in psychological ones and thus beings receive reward or penalty for intentional deeds done. This is a clearly moralistic approach that encourages pro-social action.
Then we saw that there is a more spiritual or mystical sense of karma as whatever is unnatural and we found that this approach interprets the Dharma as an antidote to ego, such that in the extreme case a person becomes a bodhisattva who gives away all their merit without a thought about it.
This also tends toward the idea of two domains - the conditioned and the unconditioned, the realm of birth and death and that of the Unborn and Deathless, samsara and nirvana. This is a deeply dualistic notion that marks Buddhism as a religion, distinguishing a sacred domain from the profane. However, religions also point toward a resolution of such dichotomies and Buddhism also does so. For the worldling, samsara is “real life” and nirvana is mysterious whereas for the enlightened nirvana is reality and samsara is delusion. The relevance to our understanding of karma is that the worldling is concerned with accumulating credit one way or another whereas for the awakened the products of karma are simply the means by which the holy life is lived and displayed. Taking no thought for self, go forth in faith.