The Merit of Practice

One of my teachers in Zen is Karen Maezen Miller, whom I have known for seven years; I have visited her, and she guided me through my first sesshin. However, her sangha is located in Los Angeles, which is over 300 miles away. So it hasn’t been entirely practical to attempt to join or practice there. I visited two sanghas locally and they did not resonate with me, nor did the senseis. This is not a comment about them, just about the fact that the connection between student and teacher is important and I did not feel the aliveness that signals it for me. There is one sangha I had not visited. I allowed my practice to languish for over a year instead.

For a long time I’ve lurked on the Floating Zendo‘s website, read their blog, learned about their teacher, Enji Angie Boissevain, and listened to her talks. I have used the excuse that getting to the weekly zazen at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays is just too hard to arrange (childcare, Hub’s work). This morning I went to the half-day sit they have monthly.

It’s located at the Quaker Friends House in San Jose. I was greeted warmly, and while there was an altar, the arrangement was very simple. The rituals and service were simple. The three sessions of zazen (40 minutes each) were simple but hard for me to do. After zazen, the teacher gave a short talk.

She told about a story Hui-neng wrote about Bodhidharma visiting Emperor Wu. Before I go on, I feel it significant to mention that many years ago — back in 1998– I came across a quote by Hui-neng that landed in my heart and set up home, so much so that it has become my standard “email signature quote” and the “about me” quote I use when joining social media sites. It became a mantra and koan to me even before I knew what those words meant, and it has been a touchstone for me. That quote:

The secret is within your self.


Back to the teacher’s talk (which I am writing from memory and may have paraphrased a bit, but the dharma is there). Emperor Wu had worked hard to help spread Buddhism, having temples and monasteries built, ordaining monks and copying sutras. He asked Bodhidharma how much merit he had earned. Bodhidharma replied, “No merit.”

Enji Roshi reflected that what Wu had done had generated blessings, both received and given, but merit is entirely different.

I was puzzled. Isn’t it misguided to care about merit? Isn’t that motivated by ego? So I asked, “What is merit? And why would a person want to accrue merit if the point of practice is to become free of the ego?”

Her reply: “But that isn’t the point of practice. There is no ego. And merit is the connection that practice creates, the connection with others and life.” Her answer felt like a splash of water in the face; she had pointed out an assumption I’d made about merit and practice. She asked me if I understood, and I replied that I did, but that I understood it more in my heart than mind. I said it made me feel emotional and thanked her for answering my question. Then as I sat there, listening to her answer someone else’s question, tears welled up and over. I understood the connection because it radiated through her — into and through me. This felt like home.

Maezen is still my teacher, yet Maezen has stressed the critical importance of face-to-face encounters with one’s teacher. For my practice to thrive, I understand that I need a local teacher. Roshi and I talked awhile after people departed, and I experienced the sense that I have met my teacher. I will be returning to Floating Zendo.

sky reflected

Here the viewer does not see the sky but sees the reflection which can lead the viewer to it. A teacher is not enlightenment but a signpost pointing the way toward it.

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3 Comments on “The Merit of Practice”

  1. Mom/Grandma Says:

    To quote your teacher’s reply:
    “Merit is the connection that practice creates, the connection with others and life.”

    For me this needs much thought ….. how do you define “practice”? And is not “connection” ones own personality and how it uses factors of respect, recognition, consideration, and on and on and on in the interchange with our fellow beings?

    How is it so different from Christian thoughts and actions? And how does it satisfy the search for emotional/spiritual identity more fully than a Christian approach?

    Perhaps because it does not identify a specific personal belief in a spiritual being?
    I’d really like to know ….. I’ve appreciated some aspects of Buddhism in the past myself. But I’m not nearly the *intellectual* spiritualist that I think you are.

  2. Kathryn Says:

    I’m no expert, so I will answer to the best of my ability. Keep in mind that I might speak unclearly. I appreciate you for your sincere curiosity and your wish to understand.

    In Zen, practice is defined as zazen. Zazen means sitting quietly. My practice is counting my breaths; it gives my mind something to do while I sit. When you sit and breathe, you become still and quiet, and connect with the indwelling presence.

    The challenge with “connection” is that if you try to use your mind to understand, you will get wrapped up in ideas. Respect, recognition, consideration — it’s possible to get wrapped up in the words and thus miss the actuality. When she answered my question today, I felt her compassion, I felt her light, her love, I felt a kind of portal open and a little flash of insight about how we are ALL connected to each other and to everything that is. This connection isn’t reached by thought. I experienced it.

    In Buddhism, the intellect is an obstacle to enlightenment. So park the thinking mind at the door with your shoes, sit down, and breathe. 🙂

  3. Dan Garner Says:


    Just discovered your blog. I practice solo for now – No Zendo anywhere near me. I do know that my practice is somewhat lacking due to having no sangha. I’ll hopefully be moving to a location with a few sanghas in the next year.

    Dan @