In his earliest teachings, the Buddha taught that the “wheel of action” begins with sweeping the shrine room floor, with mindfulness and awareness, of course. We sweep the floor mindfully and we accumulate something called “merit.” Sounds like a good deal, but as Westerners, we have two things to figure out before we can take such instructions to heart. First, what is a “wheel of action,” and second, what is “merit”? The first one is fairly simple. A wheel is something that turns and can carry us to our desired destination. The “wheel of action” refers to our human activities or actions (mental, verbal, and physical), which when skilfully and wisely performed, can carry us forward on our spiritual quest. So do we sweep the shrine room floor (or some other equivalent) just to earn the merit, the good karma, that will pay our way to enlightenment?
As Westerners, this is where our rebelliousness comes in. Accumulating merit? That doesn’t sound right or spiritual at all. It sounds commercial, like a business deal. We might acknowledge the idea, but we don’t really pay attention to it. Still, it’s taught extensively: without completing the two accumulations of merit and wisdom, there’s no becoming a buddha (a totally awake being). We may eventually grab our broom out of fear or peer pressure to be a good Buddhist girl or boy and do the right thing.
The catch is that we could sweep all day and all night for years only to find that our wheel of action hasn’t carried us very far. Why? Because the accumulation of merit works on a deeper level than just our relative sense of good and bad. It’s a process of working with our mind—not just our broom —and bringing the light of awareness not only to our physical actions, but also to the emotions, thoughts, and basic sense of ego-clinging that’s going on while we’re pushing that broom. It’s a practice of training the mind to let go, to relax the tendency to cling, cling, cling onto everything from nice things, to fixed ideas, to our rollercoaster of emotions.
To relax our clinging, however, we have to see it first and be willing to experience its gritty, uncomfortable tugging. Where do we look to see it? We look at our life, our actions, our relationships. We look to see what’s pulling us under, what’s causing us pain and suffering, and what’s bringing us happiness and joy. When we work with our actions every day, we break through our conditioning; we free ourselves from destructive habitual patterns. Finally, we learn to let go of our clinging to the whole universe of ego.
As we let go of our self-centered views, our potential for loving-kindness and compassion begins to come alive. It becomes a real experience. Then sweeping the shrine room or sitting through planning meetings, or dealing with the next thing to come up (it’s always something, right?) isn’t just work, just more effort — it’s also an experience of opening our heart and including others in our path. Our ordinary actions begin to transform into actions performed to brighten the world and ease the cares of others. That’s the accumulation of merit.
From this perspective, the magic of merit is that it leads us to wisdom. It helps us wake up. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says: “When we practice letting go, over and over, the tendency to not grasp is imprinted in our mindstream instead. Thus, the accumulation of merit leads to the higher realization of egolessness, of transcendental knowledge, or wisdom, and a total sense of freedom.” And that’s the accumulation of merit and wisdom.