Merit-making & Transference of Merit: Are we getting it right?

by Aik Theng Chong, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 11, 2011

Singapore -- Venerable Ajahn Chah in his article, ‘Making the Heart Good’ said:

"These days, people are going all over the place looking for merit. And they always seem to stop over in Wat Pah Pong. If they don't stop over on the way, they stop over on the return journey. Wat Pah Pong has become a stop-over point. Some people are in such a hurry I don't even get a chance to see or speak to them. Most of them are looking for merit. I don't see many looking for a way out of wrongdoing. They're so intent on getting merit they don't know where they're going to put it. It's like trying to dye a dirty, unwashed cloth….."

What really is this ‘merit’ that is so desirable that so many Buddhists seem to be so earnestly chasing after to perform and accumulate?

'Punna or Merit' means that which has a prolonging effect on our existence. It is brought forth by karmic fruition and is carried into a person’s future lives as well. Such accumulated merits do also contribute to a person’s spiritual growth towards liberation and in accordance to the law of moral causation is conducive to the future
happiness of the doer. The thing about merit is that, no matter how good the acts done to accumulate it, it will still keep us in the cycle of samsara, the world of suffering. In contrast, wholesome acts is what brings us out of suffering onto liberation as it leads to clearing the mind of wrong mental actions, such as thoughts of covetousness, ill will and wrong views.

Let’s look specifically at what the Suttas have to say on the subject of Merit.

In the Itivuttaka: The Group of Threes - Iti 51: Ground for merit-making is mentioned as the practices of giving, moral cultivation and meditation and resulting in long-lasting bliss, a mind of good-will and the wise reappear in a world of bliss unalloyed.

AN8.36 Punnakiriyavatthu Sutta: Ground for merit-making is the same as in Iti 51 above, the practices of Giving, moral virtue and meditation and Resulting in happiness, calm conduct, should cultivate lovingkindness and the wise is reborn into a happy trouble free world

AN8.39 Abhisanda Sutta - Rewards of Merits: This Sutta mentioned the ‘Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’ and the practice of the ‘Five Precepts of not Killing, Stealing, Illicit Sex, False Speech and use of Intoxicant as the ground of merit-making. The rewards are listed as; reward of skillfulness, nourishment of happiness, celestial, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven, leading to what is desirable, pleasurable, & appealing; to welfare & to happiness. And also gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression.

MN61 Ambalatthika Rahulovada Sutta: This Sutta emphasizes body, speech and mind as the observances of merit. It also states that, if actions of body, speech and mind does not bring trouble and unpleasantness to oneself and other than it is merit.

Actions of body, speech and mind would refer to the performance of the ten good deeds of:  Not killing, stealing, sexual misconduct of the Body. No lying, double-tongued, abusive, irresponsible speech of the 4 kinds of unwanted Speech and No greed, hatred and delusion referring to the Mind

SN1.47 Vanaropa Sutta - Discourse on the Merit Gained in Planting Groves: “They who plant orchards and gardens, who plant groves, who build bridges, who set up sheds by the roadside with drinking water for the travellers, who sink wells or build reservoirs, who put up various forms of shelter for the public, are those in whom merit grows  by day and by night”.

The merit from all the deeds mentioned here is of a lasting nature in the sense that whenever these deeds are recalled in the minds of the donors merit is gained. They are the people that are established in the Dhamma, that are endowed with morality and that are bound for the deva realms."

Khp8 Nidhi Kanda - The Reserve Fund: “When a man or woman has laid aside a well-stored fund of giving, virtue, restraint, & self-control, with regard to a shrine, the Sangha, a fine individual, guests, mother, father, or elder sibling: That's a well-stored fund. It can't be wrested away. It follows you along. When, having left this world, for wherever you must go, you take it with you. This fund is not held in common with others, & cannot be stolen by thieves”.

In SN3.4 Piya Sutta - Dear: “Both the merit & evil that you as a mortal perform here: that's what's truly your own, what you take along when you go; that's what follows behind you like a shadow that never leaves. So do what is admirable, as an accumulation for the future life. Deeds of merit are the support for beings when they arise in the other world”.

SN3.17 Appamada Sutta - Heedfulness: “For one who desires long life, health, beauty, heaven, & noble birth, — lavish delights, one after another — the wise praise heedfulness in performing deeds of merit”.

MN117 Mahācattārīsaka Sutta - The Great Forty: Here the Buddha points out that Right view is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, partaking of merit, resulting in the acquisitions of becoming; and there is the noble right view, without effluents, supramundane, a factor of the path which together with the remaining
seven factors of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the eventual cessation of suffering.

The above Suttas’ teaching are directed more at lay Buddhists and preaches the acts of giving, moral virtues and mental cultivation as the main bases for the making and accumulation of merit. Giving is considered to be a good starting point as it creates goodwill amongst beings. Moral virtues is the keeping of the five precepts, and when these two bases are coupled with the practice of the ‘recollection of charity and virtue’ joy and happiness arises in the mind which is conducive to mental concentration in the third ground for merit – meditation.

Merit-making is a Buddhist concept, and not surprisingly we find in MN 8.39, taking the three refuges is also considered as one of the base for merit-making. In SN1.47 the benefit in the building of basic infrastructure that benefit a great numbers people and which lessen the hardship and suffering for those who are most in need of it, is considered a very fruitful act of giving.

The rewards coming from merit-making are numerous and varied, from happiness, long life, good health, beauty, a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression, noble rebirth, rebirth in heaven etc.

The below three Suttas are directed more for Novice monks and for One who are already Ordained.

In MN99 Subha Sutta - To Subha: It is a discourse directed for the basic training of novice monk - Truth, Asceticism, Celibacy, Dharma recitation and Renunciation are listed as the “five duties for the making of merit”. It is stated as a prescription not just for merit-making but also for accomplishing the wholesome.

Samnamndiká Sutta: Bodily actions, verbal actions and a pure livelihood are observances for merit. They arise in the mind and minds are various and different. The minds without greed, anger and delusion are the varied and different minds. Thus observances of merit start here.

The Bhikkhu who is endowed with right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right concentration, right knowledge and right release of one gone beyond the training, endowed with these ten things, I declare is the most skilled perfect recluse with the highest merit.

MN1.9 Sammaadi.t.thisutta.m - Right View: This Sutta also mention the practice of the five precepts, including the abstaining from coveting, not bearing an angry mind and right view as merit, with the roots of merit as non-greed, non-hate and non-delusion.

It speaks more in term of the performance of wholesome acts which would brings the noble one out of suffering onto liberation as it leads to clearing the mind of wrong mental actions, such as thoughts of covetousness, ill will and wrong views.

Transference of Merit

Transference of merit and merit-making for future rebirths is a popular one especially in the Mahayanist tradition. Doing a meritorious deed and sharing that merit with ones’ dead relatives is very much stressed in some countries probably due to the traditional value of filial piety and ancestors worship. This can be seen in the Ullambana or Hungry Ghost Festival popularly celebrated by both the Taoists and Buddhists alike across the Asian region.

In the Ullambana Sutra, the Buddha told Maudgalyayana: “The fifteenth day of the seventh month is the Pravarana day for the assembled Sangha of the ten directions. For the sake of fathers and mothers of seven generations past, as well as for fathers and mothers of the present who are in distress, you should prepare an offering of clean basins full of hundreds of flavours and the five fruits, and other offerings of incense, oil, lamps, candles, beds, and bedding, all the best of the world, to the greatly virtuous assembled Sangha of the ten directions…….

If one thus makes offerings to these Provarana Sangha, one’s present father and mother, parents of seven generations, as well as the six kinds of close relatives, will escape from the three paths of sufferings. And at that time attain release. Their clothing and food will spontaneously appear. If the parents are still alive, they will
have wealth and blessings for a hundred years. Parents of seven generations will be born in the heavens. Transformationally born, they will independently enter the celestial flower light, and experience limitless bliss”.

In chapter seven of the Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, it is stated that one can ‘transfer’ 1/7 merit of an act they have performed to a deceased loved one but such transference have to be performed within 49 days of the passing of the deceased person. After 49 days, the deceased is bound to receive whatever Karma he is deserving of.  Why 49 days is not stated. But one can assumed, in accordance to the Buddhist belief, especially with the Chinese and also in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition where the ‘intermediate spirit’ of a deceased person can take up to 49 days to seek out a new body to be reborn in. It is at this stage in a person ‘life’ that one can help to change his future destiny for a better one.

If both the ‘Ullambana Sutra’ and the ‘Sutra of the Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’ are read literally in conjunction with each other, we will be landed in a contradiction. The ‘Ullambana Sutra’ speaks of changing the destiny of a deceased whose karmas have borne its fruit and is already reborn into a more unfortunate realm. Whereas ‘The Vows of Ksitigarbha’ implies an ‘intermediate spirit’ whose karma has yet to bear its fruition and is still seeking a rebirth. It is  only at this stage within a period of 49 days of death can the benefits of merit be effectively transferred.

We might asked, which of these two Sutras should be considered to the more authoritative version on the subject of the transference of merit to a deceased?

For a Theravadin, the transfer of merit is of even less significant going by the Malinda Pannha, as only a deceased reborn into one of four category in the realm of the ‘hungry ghost’ can benefits from any such act. Rebirth in the Theravada tradition is an immediate affair after a person’s death, so whatever transference of merit is performed, cannot logically be of any benefit to the deceased person. He would be left to shoulder the burden for whatever kamma that is due to him. The transference of merit for a deceased will however benefit the doer of the act as it should bring about a sense of lovingkindness in that person.

In the Khp 7 Tirokudda Kanda Sutta, it is stated: “As river when full must flow and reach and fill the distant main, so indeed what is given here will reach and bless the spirits there. As water poured on mountain top must soon descend and fill the plain, so indeed what is given here will reach and bless the spirits there”.

However, the ‘74th Dilemma, Offering to the Dead’ in book IV, chapter 8 of the  Milinda Pannha, did mentioned that those who are reborn in purgatory, in heaven, or as animals and petas who feeds on vomit, tormented by hunger and thirst and those who are consumed by cravings would not benefit from any transfer of merits at all. Only those in the category that live on the gifts of others do derive benefits from the offerings devote specifically to them by their relatives and those who bear them in remembrance. Even if transference of merit did not goes to the beneficiary living or dead, such offering would not go to waste as the givers themselves would derive some profit from it as well.

The transference of merit is often the most misunderstood of the grounds for merit-making, as no merit is actually ‘transferred’ or ‘given’ to a deceased person except in the sense that it will generate a sense of lovingkindness in one who is performing the act.

As Venerable Ajahn Chah had pointed out at the beginning of this article, the act of merit-making is not just about giving, we should do the all inclusive by encompassing the purification of our virtues and the cultivation of our mind through meditation as well. The goodwill and joy generated in the practice of meditation and the vanquishing of greed and hatred by keeping the five moral precepts will certainly make the act of giving itself even more wholesome and altruistic in nature.
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