When I first read Śāntideva, his practice of redirecting good karma (pariṇāmanā, often translated “merit transfer”) struck me as somewhat curious. As I tend to a naturalistic view of karma, I wasn’t sure how habits could realistically move from one person to another. Dale Wright’s article on naturalized karma speaks of redirection mainly to criticize it.
I gained a newfound respect for the practice, though, when I attended a vipassanā meditation retreat in S.N. Goenka’s tradition, in 2005. Many people I know swear by Goenka’s overall technique; it frankly didn’t do a lot for me. What made a huge difference, though, was at the very end of the retreat, when Goenka urged us to a practice very much like traditional pariṇāmanā. Wish everyone well, he said on his videotape. Think of people you know and wish them the best.
Fine, that’s the easy part. But then he said: wish your enemies well. Think of your enemies, and devote wishes to their being happy. So I thought: who is my greatest enemy? As a lifelong leftie, in 2005, it didn’t take me long to identify George W. Bush. And so, as part of the practice, I tried sincerely to wish that man well.
The experience was more than unsettling. I cried in the process. But it helped me grow a lot. I had spent a long time feeling such poisonous hatred for that man, which did terrible things to me and my own well-being – in a way that Śāntideva warns us about. It’s a terribly unnerving, but highly rewarding, thing to wish your enemies well. Since your enemies are only human it makes philosophical sense to do so, really, if your main aim is consequentialist – that is, to produce the best results for yourself or for humanity. The trick is that it requires you to give up retribution as a goal, and even for a consequentialist, that’s not easy.