To accumulate merit and wisdom
To drive a car, you need two things: gas and knowing how to get to where you want to go. Gas is merit, knowing how to get to where you want to go is wisdom. From a spiritual point of view, from where our mind is currently at to the city of enlightenment is a very long journey. The path there is also unknown to us because we have never travelled it before. To complete the path, therefore, we need a lot of spiritual gas and a lot of wisdom.
In general, we can divide a Buddha’s aggregates into their form aggregates (their body) and their mental aggregates (their mind). Merit is the principal cause of attaining the body of a Buddha and wisdom is the principal cause of attaining the mind of a Buddha. When we talk of the “two collections,” we are referring to the collection of merit and the collection of wisdom. What does a Buddha’s body do? It spontaneously emanates for each and every living being exactly what they need to attain enlightenment each and every moment. Buddhas are doing this for us right now. We just don’t realize it because we have different ideas about what we need than they do. What we have emanated around us right now might not be perfect for the fulfillment of our worldly wishes, but they are definitely perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment. If we had wisdom, we would see and understand how this is true. As but a small example of this, we can consider a dedication Buddha once made. He had engaged in some virtue which created enough positive karma for him to be reborn as a Chakravatin king (a universal monarch) something like 50,000 times in succession. Instead, he dedicated all of this merit so that in the future pure Dharma practitioners would never want for the basic necessities needed to sustain their practice. He transformed his merit into his future emanations of his body to take the form of these basic necessities. In the same way, when a being reaches a certain critical mass of merit it transforms itself into a self-replenishing inexhaustible fountain of merit that spontaneously ripens in the form of countless emanations helping each and every living being every day. This self-replenishing inexhaustible fountain of enlightened deeds is a Buddha’s body. Shantideva refers to it as the reliquary a bodhisattva accumulates while on the bodhisattva path that they then leave behind when they attain enlightenment.
The difference between the wisdom of an ordinary mind, that of a bodhisattva and that of a Buddha can be explained as follows: an ordinary person might know how to drive on certain main roads in the city which they live, but outside of that they are completely lost and don’t know how to get anywhere. A bodhisattva is like a driver with a GPS. With the GPS they can program it to take them to any destination anywhere and the GPS will plan the route. The driver then follows the planned route and it delivers them to the city of enlightenment. A Buddha’s mind is like that of a seasoned taxi driver that knows all of the roads from anywhere to anywhere without needing the help of a GPS at all. They always know the quickest way to get to any destination, and in particular they know how how to most quickly get to the celestial mansion at the center of the city of enlightenment. Not only is it simply the mind of a single taxi driver, but the Buddha’s mind is able to manifest itself as countless taxis that they send out to each and every living being so that all the being has to do is hop in, say “take me to enlightenment” and as long as the passenger never gets out of the car, they will be swiftly led to their final destination, even if their starting point is the pit of the deepest hell. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so too for the enlightened mind they know how to connect all mental roads to enlightenment.
Understanding the value of merit and the value of wisdom, how do we actually accumulate them as the precept encourages us to do? In general, anytime we help somebody else in any way we accumulate merit, or positive mental karma. In general, anytime we realize how our delusions are deceiving us we accumulate wisdom. The best way to accumulate merit is to engage in actions motivated by bodhichitta. The power of our merit is multiplied by the number of beings upon whose behalf we engage in the virtue. With a bodhichitta motivation, we seek to help countless living beings, so the power of our merit is multiplied by a factor of countless! The best way to accumulate wisdom is to contemplate and meditate on emptiness. Emptiness is the ultimate nature of things, and it explains that everything is mere karmic appearance to mind, a karmic dream. There is nothing other than these mental appearances, and they are no more real than last night’s dream. If everything is created by mind, by changing our mind we can change everything. At present, we still grasp at things as somehow having some existence outside of our mind, somehow separate from our mind. These things, we feel, can never change regardless of what we do with our mind. We can change our mind, but they will remain the same. This is grasping at the inherent existence of things, grasping at them having some existence outside of or independent of our mind. When we contemplate and meditate on emptiness, we realize this is completely wrong and come to understand how everything is a mere karmic appearance, a mere karmic dream. If there is nothing really there, then there is no basis for generating attachment or anger to karmic holograms. Emptiness cuts the power of all delusions in exactly the same way that waking up dispels all fear of the monster chasing us in our dreams.
The best way to accumulate both merit and wisdom simultaneously is the practice of guru yoga. Guru yoga is a special mental recognition that views everything as an emanation of the spiritual guide. Any virtue we accumulate towards a Buddha is non-contaminated virtue (this is like pure rocket fuel compared to leaded gasoline). Any virtue we accumulate towards the Spiritual Guide is the same as engaging in that same virtue towards each of the countless Buddhas. The reason for this is all of the Buddhas enter into the spiritual guide to receive our actions, so engaging in one action towards the spiritual guide directly is karmically equivalent to engaging in that action towards all of the Buddhas. Just as a small TV can show an image of an entire city, so too a small emanation can reflect countless pure worlds. Likewise, with guru yoga we can learn to rely upon the guru’s mind as our own. His mind already has all of the wisdom realizations. Instead of going through the laborious work of gaining all of these realizations ourselves, it is so much simpler to just adopt his mind as our own, and learn how to use his mind as if it were our own. This is doable (see the series on Activating the Inner Spiritual Guide and Relying upon the Guru’s Mind Alone). Just as through Google we can access all of the knowledge of the entire internet, so too through the Guru we can access all of the wisdom of all of the Buddhas. The spiritual guide is a portal through which we can directly communicate with all of the Buddhas.
The ultimate way to accumulate both merit and wisdom is to train in ultimate guru yoga with a bodhichitta motivation. Ultimate guru yoga is recognizing the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss as the same nature as that of the Guru’s Truth Body Dharmakaya. If we can learn to attain this mind, it is said we can attain enlightenment in merely a matter of months!