PadmaVonSamba - thank you. I enjoy your explanation of merit, but this doesn't really answer my question. My question is - why is merit necessary in the first place in order to awaken? If Buddhahood is completely beyond cause and effect, why does accumulating merit (or for that matter, doing any dharma practice), which is relative and conceptual, eventually result in Buddhahood?
What you say is correct. Buddhahood is completely beyond cause and effect.
Dispelling the obscurations to realization, however, is all about cause and effect.
In fact, the entire point of all dharma practices is the removal of things that block our realization of buddhahood.
So, even though Buddhahood itself is completely beyond cause and effect,
realization of it depends a great deal on cause and effect.
It's like the old metaphor of the Sun hidden behind the clouds.
The Sun is still shining whether we see it or not.
From the vantage point of the Sun, it doesn't matter whether there are any clouds blocking our view or not.
So, as with Buddhahood, it is unconditional.
But for us here on the Earth's surface, we can only see the Sun when the clouds are not obscuring our realization of it.
Likewise, even though Buddhahood is unconditional, we don't have realization that because of the obscurations.
So, that is why we have to work at clearing away the things that obscure our realization of Mind's true nature.
"Merit" is a funny word for "punya" which means karmically wholesome action.
So, it's not like racking up points.
It's not as though you collect 100,000 merits and then you get the Buddha prize: