Part Four: Mind that vows to transfer merit (廻向発願心 ekohotsuganshin
Shin means mind. Gan means vow or prayer. Hotsu is merit. Eko is to transfer or turn over.
Here again we can distinguish a narrow and a broad meaning. In the broad sense, this means to give away the credit. Something good is achieved and one gives the credit to others. Something bad happens and one takes responsibility oneself so that others do not get blamed. We have probably all met people who do the opposite, who take credit whenever possible and when something goes wrong always manage to blame somebody else. Perhaps we ourselves are like that sometimes. In the abstract we can see that giving away the credit is a fine thing to do and makes the world a better place, but when faced with real situations we find the ego clamouring for praise and dreading censure.
In the narrower, or more religious sense, merit transfer is a practice found throughout Mahayna Buddhism, but it takes on a particular slant in Pureland. The core of Pureland is faith in the saving vows of Amida Buddha - and, indeed, of all the Buddhas. This is what we rely upon. We believe, therefore, that we are and always shall be in receipt of bounteous grace. We shall enter nirvana not by accumulating merit ourselves but by participating in the much more vast merit of the Buddha.
Since we are already receiving more merit than we know what to do with, we have no need of whatever tiny merit may be created by our own small good deeds. Therefore it is only natural to give it away.
At the end of sangha events we say:
The original and sacred vows
are the unique and essential grace
by which to enter the Pure Land;
therefore, with body, speech and mind,
we are devoted to the teachings
that all may attain the state of bliss.
The last line of this prayer is transference of merit. We are saying that whatever merit there may have been in our practice or celebration, we give it all away so that others may enter the Pure Land, and we can do this because we rely upon the unique and essential grace that has been granted to us by the original and sacred vows of the Buddhas.
This prayer thus defines the Pureland attitude to practice. We do not practice in order to accumulate merit for ourselves and our own salvation. We do so to celebrate the fact that the Buddhas are already transferring copious amounts of merit to us. As this is so, we do not feel a sense of spiritual lack or neediness. Consequently, giving the merit away itself becomes a further celebration.
Giving merit away is also rather like the actions of those in the Pure Land. In the Smaller Sutra it says that when we are in the Pure Land we shall be occupied collecting celestial blossoms and making offerings of them to other Buddhas and other Buddha lands. Thus, the spirit of all this is to give it all away. This is dana-paramita, the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism.
A refugee is somebody who gives up everything and flees to another country to start with a clean slate. As Buddhists we are refugees. The most sacred act in Buddhism is to take refuge. To take refuge, therefore, is to give away all of one’s credit and flee to the land of the Buddhas so as to start again with a clean slate. Ekohotsuganshin, therefore, is refuge and, therefore, is nembutsu. Thus, the three minds are also the nembutsu and its two auxiliary practices.