Saturday, October 15, 2011


by Scott Bradley

As a foundational founder-story Zen could hardly have done better than Bodhidharma's interview with the Emperor of China, an ardent promoter of Buddhism. His first question to Bodhidharma concerned the amount of merit he might expect to have accumulated by virtue of his endeavors on the behalf of Buddhism. "None at all," Bodhidharma replied.

For this reason, it amazes me to find so much belief in and discussion of merit among the ancient Zen masters. Dogen is an excellent example. I have several times read snippets by him which have determined me to read some of his works. I have one at hand. And yet I do not get into it more than a page or two before he begins expounding on the need to gain merit.

To my thinking, this belief is so contrary to the spirit of Zen that it negates it altogether. It must be that I do not understand Zen. Within Mahayana Buddhism generally, yes, I understand that this belief pervades. We are condemned to the cycle of birth and rebirth. Bad karma, failures in past lives, keeps us from escaping that cycle. Only by accumulating more and more good karma can our release be secured. Merit and the attainment of enlightenment are the only means of being saved from this cycle. Perhaps this is but a caricature, but despite all the words to the contrary, in the end this seems to me the gist of it. In any case, I generally think of Zen as having transcended all this religiosity.

It's not simply ideas at stake here. Taking as the norm the near universal religious belief that we must earn moral brownie points in order to secure a better situation after death, to believe otherwise is revolutionary. It turns the entire spiritual project on its head. If there are no conditions to meet, then the entire edifice comes tumbling down. Suddenly, Reality is again one. This is it. That is it. All is secure.

It is not that this need to achieve merit is alien to our character. Like our attachments to right and wrong, benefit and harm, and gain and loss, they are fundamental expressions of our egoic selves. But if we are to realize release from that narrow confine, we must go beyond what seems perfectly normal to us. This is not about right and wrong — it is not that moral discrimination is wrong — but about another, freer way of being in the world.

I have often quoted Zhuangzi's "every enslavement is also an ennobling". These attitudes which have their roots in our egoic selves, the me-mess, are not demons to be slain, but opportunities to realize transcendence. They point to another possibility.

Never is rejection and denial a means to spiritual liberation.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. Maybe not precisely in this case but as good a time as any to say it. I sometimes feel that the lesson is passed down and not the solution.

    Imagine a monk has many years to solve any riddle the master sets them and a master challenges a monk on merit. The master hopes given enough effort the monk will see that merit requires a separate self. This separate self the master knows full well is contrary to a key part of the Buddhas teachings and expects the monk to gain enlightenment by finding this themselves.

    The master dies and so left confused the monk passes the teaching, not the solution, to the next generations of monks.

    Buddhas teachings are few and simple, the rest is commentary, and not often by people who are qualified.

  2. @ Ta-wan--Good point. The simple teachings of Buddha, Jesus, perhaps Mohammed, Plato...all are elaborately embelllished by the interpreters.


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