Buddhist teacher Lama Shenpen answers a student’s question on the effect of the prayers on the people who have died, especially in view of the karma and it’s results.
A meditation student writes:
“When we die, as we are all compelled by our karma, as the scriptures indicate, to move from life to life according to the imprints of our previous actions of body speech and mind, how is it that the prayers and offerings of those we leave behind can have any effect on our destination?”
This is a big question.
What does it mean at all to pray for or dedicate punya (merit) to help others along the path?
In general we are taught that the results of actions come to those who perform them so what does it mean that we can ‘give’ the good due to us from our good deeds to others? What does it mean to pray for them as if somehow the Buddhas wouldn’t protect them anyway just because of their spontaneous compassionate activity? How can aspirations (pranidhanas) we make on their behalf affect their future?Surely they have to make them for themselves.
There is something dubious in all of this isn’t there?
And yet at another level it feels right that if we hold someone in our hearts that somehow they will be protected and helped by our good-will and good wishes for them.
This is such a universally held sentiment if not belief. Even people with no claim to any spiritual beliefs will feel something genuine about holding someone in their hearts.
I believe this is because it does really mean something at a deep level that we intuitively always know even if we forget it. It means something to say that you hold your dear one in your heart and always will do. On one level you could question that and say it didn’t make sense but at another level it makes more sense than anything else in life.
So coming back to your question, I am not at all convinced that we can actually pass on our punya to others but I am convinced that when I hold another person in my heart (whatever that means) and connect them (and myself) to all the compassion and love of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and make strong wishes and aspirations for their benefit, then it helps the adhistana (blessing) of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the power of my pranidhanas (wishing prayers) to be effective on their behalf.
I believe that somehow this creates the conditions that help the person I am doing this for find good conditions in which to follow the path of Liberation and Awakening because of the connections and volitions involved from myself and all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
How quickly this will be effective depends on all sorts of conditions but I find it convincing to think that none of this goodness will be wasted. It will all help the other person in some way or another.
I even find it convincing that because our hearts are all one what we wish and feel about others can directly affect them. So wishing others well is a powerful force in the world helping people everywhere all the time.
Because I don’t really realise Emptiness I can only believe this because it is what the Buddha taught and I find it intuitively makes sense. I believe that when I realise Emptiness completely I will know for myself that it is true – and all that implies.
“As for the living, if we are ordinary beings, with aspirational Bodhichitta (Heart/Mind of Awakening – ed.) but no real ability at this stage, is it purely for the development of our own mind that we perform these acts or can we actually influence others even in our limited capacity ?”
It benefits ourselves and it benefits the other person and if we then open our hearts completely it benefits all beings.
I really believe that must be true, even if at the level we are at that benefit doesn’t match the power of the benefit of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Nevertheless it links into their power, connecting us all to the mandala of Awakening. It all works by the power of adhistana (spiritual influence, blessing), connection and pranidhanas (aspirations, wishing prayers – ed.).
As for punya (merit, goodness, the power of it that can be “accumulated” and dedicated, “given away” – ed.) in this context I am not sure if it is anything beyond all of that.
A note on the closeness/strength of connections:
The stronger our heart connection with someone the more we can help them directly by our good-heartedness, positive thoughts, words and actions.
Adhistana (blessing) is a power we all have because it’s the power of the Buddha Nature itself. When we say to someone we are with them in our hearts it is more literally true than perhaps we realise.
Our hearts are influencing each other and all beings all the time – we are intimately connected not through causes and conditions, but by our very nature. Nothing can ever change that.
Yet there is meaning in saying that we have closer connections with some people than others – it is mandala principle – how we are connected within a particular mandala affects the kind of influence we can have at any particular place and time.
I hope this answer is helpful.
(“Mandala” is a subtle and profound concept that points to the structure-ness of Emptiness itself. It is explored in depth in the Awakened Heart Sangha’s courses Discovering The Heart Of Buddhism. For the purpose of this context it may suffice to give “mandala” a similar range of meaning as found in the concept of “the world”).
Every week Lama Shenpen answers a student’s question. The students are studying her ‘Living the Awakened Heart’ Training distance study courses. Find out more about the training at:www.ahs.org.uk/training or take part in one of our weekly meditation and Buddhism classes in Leeds.