May all sentient beings
- have happiness and its causes.
- be free from suffering and its causes.
- never be separated from sorrowless bliss.
- abide in equanimity free of bias, attachment and anger.
"Merits" means skills. When you have skills you can share them with others. In the ordinary
sense of the word, "merits" means that which you can sell to or buy from others. You are
promoted in your job or academic level according to your merits. Similarly, in the spiritual
field, the things that you do to promote your peace and happiness are called meritorious acts.
It is these acts that elevate your spiritual level and lead to the attainment of enlightenment.
These spiritual merits are committed with a pure state of mind which follows you as your own
shadow which never leaves you. When you do vandana you do it with a pure state of mind. You
admire and appreciate the qualities of the Triple Gem and wish to emulate and adopt them in
your own life. When you make such conscious effort to espouse them your mind creates room for
them and you endeavour to live a life similar to those noble ones who are the embodiments of
peace and happiness.
Some Buddhist once said: "If the merits of one's practices are to be dedicated to all beings, would not that become a situation of too little food for a large crowd? Rather just reserve the merits for one's own benefits or dedicate them to only a few people lest the efforts become ineffectual. Furthermore, one could help only so many but not all, hence one should be practical in this matter." There were even people who acted as Dharma teachers that forbade disciples to pray for or dedicate merits to others. The reason given being that, novices as having insufficient spiritual strength are incapable of helping others. These views stemmed from lack of proper understanding of basic Buddhist principles to such an extent that even the correct practice of dedication of merits to all beings could not be adopted.
Having cultivated these noble qualities you wish to share them with your dear ones, known ones and even unknown ones. Sharing what you highly appreciate and admire with others is a very generous and compassionate act. Therefore in Buddhist tradition sharing merits with others is also a meritorious deed which is called the dedication of merit. Rejoicing in other's merits also is considered to be meritorious. This means you support and promote the wholesome thoughts, words and deeds of yourself as well as those of others. As you do this with pure intention, this kind of wholesome deed is called wholesome kamma. What you really do in your vandana is make an effort to cultivate the thought of practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. By accepting the Triple Gem as your only guides and determining to practice the precepts you lay the foundation of morality. By contemplating the qualities of the Triple Gem, reflecting on the nature of all conditioned things and reciting the verse on Right Concentration, you develop the spiritual atmosphere to take steps in the practice of meditation. All these are meritorious thoughts.
The fundamental principle of Buddhist practices is to break up the confinement of self so as to expand view and mind to the openness of the whole Dharmadhatu in oneness. The merits accrued from all good deeds and Dharma practices, if not dedicated to Bodhi, i.e., to things related to the noble goal of enabling all sentient beings to soon reach Enlightenment, would belong only to personal karma. As such, even though they would lead to meritorious consequences, they could hardly enable one to reach Enlightenment. If all one's Dharma practices and deeds are rooted in Bodhicitta, and the resulting merits are firstly dedicated to the noble cause of all sentient beings' Enlightenment, then even though the contributions, as much as one could offer, are only drips and drops, they are still inseparable from the Enlightenment of the whole Dharmadhatu. Consequently, the merits become inconceivable. Therefore, there is no such problem as having not enough food for a large crowd. On the contrary, it is precisely due to such compassionate dedication that supernatural intervention from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas could be inspired.
In memory of deceased relatives people perform numerous merit-sharing ceremonies in order to purify their own minds. They may give something to religious places or to the poor, observe the precepts or teach the Dhamma. Some people may even become ordained for a short period of time and stay in monasteries. Having done one or more of these things relatives or friends perform a ceremony in seven days, three months, or one year in memory of the deceased.
Before the ceremony starts the lay people fill a pot with clean water and keep it before them during the chanting. They also have two bowls, a smaller bowl inside a larger one. Towards the end of the ceremony relatives or friends of the deceased pour water from a pitcher or tea-pot into an empty bowl placed in a larger bowl saying "may my/our departed relatives share these merits." (idam no natinam hotu sukhita hontu natayo.) They let the water overflow into the smaller bowl. Symbolically overflowing water signifies the generosity of living relatives or friends. Water represents life, for there is life where water is. The water in this ceremony also represents the merits without which none can be peaceful and happy just as without water none is able to survive. Just as water gives beings life, meritorious deeds give beings vitality to live. The empty cup represents the deceased relative or friend who is empty of happiness. Just as the cup fills up with water, so the minds of the deceased will be filled with joy and happiness after sharing the merits. Of course, not all the deceased will be in a position to share our merits. Only those who are born in an unfortunate state of existence called "spirits who subsist on the offerings of others" can share our merits. During the merit-sharing ceremony verses are recited by monks or nuns at the end of the pouring of the water into the empty cup.
This merit-sharing ceremony, according to the Tirokuddha Sutta, was introduced by the Buddha himself in order to help King Bimbisara of Magadha in sharing merits with his deceased relatives who had been reborn among the spirits who subsist on the offerings of others.
Even though novice practitioners are still with karmic debts and have only little spiritual strength, as long as their motivation is pure and there is no offering or reward involved, then they could pray for and dedicate merits to others. Such deeds are unrelated to their personal karmas but rings in the endless chain of salvation activities of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Furthermore, for a practitioner to cultivate Bodhicitta, mature wisdom life, and accumulate spiritual strength, it all depends on paying attention in daily life to each and every thought, word and act so as to be in accordance with Bodhicitta. Only after days, months and years of uninterrupted endeavors in such efforts could a practitioner gradually break away from the confine of self-centeredness, and merge into the openness and clarity of the Dharmadhatu in limitless oneness.
After having dedicated merits toward Bodhi, one certainly may also include beings and matters that are in sight or in mind in the dedication. Buddhas' compassion is boundless; from minor inconveniences in daily life to ultimate liberation of all beings, all are carefully well taken care of and guided by them.