The merit of no merit

Nineteen: the merit of no merit

“What do you think, Subhuti? If someone were to fill the three thousand chiliocosms with the seven precious treasures and then give them as a gift to the Tathagatas, the arhats, the fully enlightened ones, would the merit of that action be great?”

Subhuti replied, “Yes, it would indeed be great, Blessed One!”

The Buddha said, “So it is, Subhuti, so it is. But if, in reality, there were such a thing as a great heap of merit, the Tathagata would not have spoken of it as a great heap of merit. Such is merely a name. It is because it is without a foundation that the Tathagata has spoken of it as a great heap of merit.”

At first glance, this appears as a mere repetition of the material covered in section eight. Yet, something outstanding is occurring. At this junction, the Buddha is challenging Subhuti to consider the question through his own “Dharma-Eye”—and even greater, to consider it in light of the Tathatic Eye Itself. If in Reality, in light of the Dharmadhatu, a “heap of merit” actually existed, the Tathagata would not, could not have “pronounced” it as such. But since it has no self-nature in itself—just an empty name—it can be linguistically portrayed. The True Reality of the Tathagatas is indeed a “wordless affair” and can never be expressed through language. According to Te-ch’ing, the Buddha means to say in all this is that the “merit of no merit is the greatest merit of all.” (Red Pine, Diamond Sutra, pg.325) Hence, all “named” and inadequate phenomenal criteria are indeed foundationless in the ultimate substratum of the imageless Dharmadhatu.

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