37. To dedicate all merit
In order to dispel the suffering / of beings numberless as space is vast,
To dedicate the merit of my practice / to everyone’s complete awakening,
With wisdom purified of three domains: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 37 audio above.
Exactly a year after we began our study of the 37 practices, we have arrived at the end, which is the same as the end of all our practices: dedication of any virtue, merit, and benefit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. It is taught that no practice is complete until we have dedicated the merit. In fact, dedication is one of the three aspects that make any practice we do authentic or genuine: refuge and bodhicitta at the beginning, the main practice in the middle, and dedication at the end.
Many years ago I asked Lama Norlha Rinpoche if he could recommend a practice for me to do while falling asleep. He instructed me to do taking and sending meditation (verse 11) but said I must always remember to dedicate the merit before falling asleep. Since I was hoping for a practice that would seamlessly take me through the transition from wakefulness to sleeping and not give me a chance to get lost in thinking, staying awake to dedicate the merit at the end seemed to defeat the purpose of my request. But that’s how important it is to never do any practice without dedication.
From the commentaries: In his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, reveals the neat trick Togme Zangpo accomplishes with verse 37:
“This dedication is the last of the thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva. It is an excellent one, too, for it gathers all the merit accumulated from these practices and dedicates it to all living beings throughout space that they may attain happiness and be free of suffering.” This final verse in essence serves both as a dedication of all the previous practices, and as a reminder to dedicate all our practice and merit no matter what the source.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche explains the verse’s instruction to do this in keeping with the wisdom paramita (verse 30), the understanding of the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena: ” The bodhisattva applies the superior knowledge of emptiness to the three spheres [aka, the three domains]. This means that he or she purifies the dedication process by realizing that there is no one to dedicate merit, no merit to be dedicated, and no one to receive the merit. Subject, action, and object do not truly exist … Without understanding that the three spheres do not truly exist, it is quite difficult to comprehend how to dedicate merit in this way.” He then gives the example of awakening from a dream: “In the exact moment of dedication, you awaken and instantly realize that no one has been dedicating merit, no merit has been dedicated, and no one has received any merit. It was all a dream. This is how to understand the process of dedicating merit.”
In short, even as we are doing our dedication in relative reality, we remain in touch with its ultimate reality, as Togme Zangpo has also instructed us to do with regard to generosity, patience, and the other transcending actions. What makes these actions transcendent — and thus makes them causes for awakening — is remembering that whatever we experience has no independent, permanent, true, separate existence in ultimate reality. Relatively, we are dedicating the merit — and it’s very important to do this. Ultimately, none of the elements of the dedication exist in the ordinary way in which we perceive them. And it’s very important to remember this.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains why it’s so important to dedicate merit: “If you fail to seal your merit with authentic dedication, then however vast the offerings and positive actions you have performed may be, their results can only be ephemeral, and vulnerable to the destructive effects of your negative emotions, such as anger, pride, and jealousy.” Gampopa points out in his indispensable chapter on patience, quoting Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, “Whatever excellent deeds — generosity, making offerings to the buddhas, and so forth — one may have gathered over a thousand eons may be destroyed by one burst of anger.” This is both a reason to cultivate the paramita of patience and a reason to dedicate the merit of our dharma practice and meritorious actions on the spot. It is said that merit we dedicate immediately to the enlightenment of all beings will multiply immeasurably and will never deteriorate or be lost until we reach buddhahood. Even if we later slip up and lose our temper!
As long as space endures (the work ahead): In closing, I’d like to share a verse from Shantideva’s dedication chapter that Pema Chodron typically has participants recite together as the dedication at the end of each of her teaching sessions:
And now as long as space endures,
And as long as there are beings to be found
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.
I’m not sure whose translation this is, but it’s quite lovely. Stephen Batchelor has a slightly different, also lovely, translation, which can be found via the resources page. And I retranslated this verse to be chanted with a similar tune to the 37 practices verses, with the meter adapted to reflect the slightly shorter lines of the Tibetan:
As long as sky and space exist, / and beings are still wandering,
For just as long may I remain / dispelling all their suffering.
Audio for Shantideva’s dedication/aspiration above.
I will write a separate post for the concluding verses, which we will also cover in this week’s class. We will have one more class June 28 to wrap things up and share our insights and experiences during this year of study of the 37 practices, and to talk about how to remember and apply them going forward.
Next practice: concluding verses
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)