Buddhism and Merit

In many classic Buddhist texts, and in traditional Buddhism, you often hear about the term merit. In traditional cultures, some lay people often try to accumulate good merit in hopes of a good rebirth (as a monk, a heaven realm, whatever) and so on. Merit is something we de-emphasize among Western Buddhists because we like to move onto the more “authentic” or exciting practices and might chafe at the notion that as non-monks, it’s harder for us to reach the higher states of awakening.

But what is merit, really? Why so much literature about it? Why such a big deal in traditional Buddhist cultures?

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, he describes merit this way:

The word merit (Sanskrit: punya), when rendered in Chinese is made up of two characters. The first character means “daily practice or daily work,” and the second means “virtuous conduct.” Merit is a kind of spiritual energy that can be accumulated when we maintain a steady practice. This energy protects us and brings us joy and insight.

So merit is not like “buddha points” you accumulate through good acts. For you folks who grew up with video games like I did, it is not like experience points either. There’s no tally keeping track of the points you accumulate, nor does such-and-such act have a fixed value of merit either.

Merit, from what I can see, is more like energy or momentum. If one’s merit is small, they may not feel like they are capable of much in Buddhism, but through various good actions, practice and so on, one builds up spiritual momentum, and in time, they feel a much greater sense of confidence than they thought possible before, but not only that, the momentum carries one beyond death to greater and greater rebirths.

The late Ch’an master, Ven. Yin Shun wrote in his book on Mahayana Buddhism that accumulation of merit and momentum is a key part on the path of a bodhisattva:

Those who truly resolve to study Buddhism should practice diligently. One should accumulate spiritual provisions, build sharp capacities, and have a firm mind. Without asking about sudden or gradual enlightenment or about when one will become a Buddha, one should just keep on cultivating. This is the normal way for bodhisattvas.

When we get hung up on whether we have enough merit, or which practices get us to Enlightenment faster, we’re missing the whole point. What I’ve come to realize is that if you keep building up merit and momentum, you’ll reach a point where your Enlightenment is no longer in doubt. You’ll eventually reach it in this life or another; it doesn’t really matter when you reach it, because you can clearly see the fruits of your own efforts even now. Knowing that, you’ll feel a growing determination to try even harder, accumulate yet more merit, and reach even greater accomplishments you wouldn’t think possible before. You can even feel that energy with those around you who are carried along, and benefit from your energy and confidence.

That’s the beauty of it.

So what are the ways one can accumulate merit in Buddhism? These are just some suggestions, you can try as much or as little as you like:

  • Meditation, practicing mindfulness and/or concentration
  • Chanting or reciting sutras.*
  • Reciting mantras or the nembutsu.
  • Donating time and energy to help others.
  • Giving to others, without expecting anything.
  • Prostrations before a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
  • Studying Buddhism and the Dharma.
  • Taking a vow to follow the Moral Precepts. Refraining from unwholesome acts.
  • If you make a mistake in following the precepts, then confessing your mistakes and resolving to try again is also good merit.**

The list goes on and on. Really, anything wholesome can be a form of good merit. If you’re new to Buddhism, don’t try so hard. Find something you can do, and try that a few times, and as you grow as a person, then you can do progressively do more. Each person is different, so decide what works for you. I stopped doing a single, set practice each night recently, and just set aside time to do a few things above. Sometimes a meditate more, sometimes I read sutras aloud more, sometimes I prostrate more, but over the long-term I do a reasonable balance of all of them.

In the past, I have often said that we should be a light for others, who are mired in darkness. Through the building of merit and repeated practice, our light grows stronger and stronger. That’s why in Buddhist art, you see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with such great halos. It symbolizes who they are great light and guidance for people suffering in the world. But there’s no reason why you can’t do this too.

You don’t have to believe me though, try it out for a while, and you’ll understand what I mean. Or I suppose in American slang you could just say “keep on truckin’!” ;)

Namuamidabu

* – I prefer reading sutras aloud in English these days to myself. Somehow reading aloud to myself helps me remember them better, and has the same effect as reciting, but rather than chanting in a language you don’t know, better to read in a way you can understand and appreciate. Also, English is an ugly language for chanting, but sounds cool when you read aloud. Such is my experience. I never chant in foreign languages anymore with the exception of some mantras.

** – As Ajahn Brahm says, A.F.L. – Acknowledge, forgive and learn. Don’t punish yourself for failure.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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14 Responses to Buddhism and Merit

  1. Kyōshin says:

    Of course from a Shin point of view any attempt to produce merit is inevitably corrupted by self-oriented weight of blind passions becoming ‘poisoned good’. Thus Shinshu rejects self-conscious merit-making. As do some Zen teachers – consider the famous encounter between Bodhidharmand Emperor Wu:

    http://www.sotozen-net.or.jp/kokusai/friends/zf12_3/zen12_3_06.htm

    and the following:

    http://jodoshinshubuddhism.wordpress.com/2007/12/10/when-all-is-done-by-the-buddha/#comment-212

  2. Gerald Ford says:

    Yes, that is the Shin Buddhist perspective, which I do not share. For my part, any effort is better than making no effort. If a house is burning, and you want to save someone in it, do you just sit there and lament your self-interest in saving that person, or do you just save the person anyhow? Of course, you and I know that we’d save the person right away.

    Same with practice and merit. Regardless of whether there’s self-interest or not, one can see the fruits of good practice. That’s just the way it works. If one progresses in practice long enough, than self-interest will fall away as well, as one attains Bodhicitta and progresses through the Bodhisattva stages. Knowing what I know now, this is why I no longer agree with the Shin Buddhist position on this and other things.

    Shunryu Suzuki, another Zen master, said that:

    If it is our innermost desire to get rid of our self-centered ideas, we have to do it. When we make this effort our innermost desire is appeased and Nirvana is there.

    Better to try, flawed and all, than not to try at all. :)

    P.S. I read Bodhidharma’s conversation with Emperor Wu differently. Emperor was, as I stated above, more concerned about building merit, than about attaining bodhi, hence Bodhidharma shot him down with the emptiness comment. A person who awakens Bodhicitta will do what it takes to attain it, hence his efforts are more pure. In the Eightfold Path, the term “right” means that which is conducive to Enlightenment, bodhi, so intention does matter. What your intention is, however, is just as important. ;)

  3. Kyōshin says:

    You misrepresent my point. I did not say ‘any attempt to act’ but ‘any attempt to produce merit’. The suggestion of Shinran, and as I said many Zen teachers, is that the self-consciousness of the latter is liable to cause effort to become tainted (not that effort should not be made). Your analogy of the burning house is ill-fitting but if we extend it to your own argument then your practicer saves the person with the thought of doing good rather than simply that they need saving. That is precisely the attitude that is liable to corrupt practice,

    “If one progresses in practice long enough, than self-interest will fall away as well, as one attains Bodhicitta and progresses through the Bodhisattva stages.”

    As you know Shinshu and Zen don’t dispute such a perspective but just see it as a long, hard path rather than an easy, sudden one. They also argue that the Bodhicitta can be awakened, or discovered, prior to the ending of self-interest and that it then provides an impetus to practice and action that is ‘Other than self’ and thus lies beyond the poisoning effects of self-willed practice.

    “Knowing what I know now”

    Which is?

  4. Yueheng says:

    Isn’t rejecting self-conscious merit-making to be “grateful” to Amida also…self conscious?

  5. Kyōshin says:

    Yueheng Says: “Isn’t rejecting self-conscious merit-making to be “grateful” to Amida also…self conscious?”
    ———————

    It would be but the notion that Shin followers ‘try to be grateful to Amida’ is a total misconception of their path.

    For the record, as I indicated in my previous comment, I’m not trying to criticise Doug’s post. It is simply that he frequently posts about Shin and therefore I felt that it was worth pointing out this post does not represent the perspective of that tradition.

    As an aside I accept that ‘self-consciousness’ may not have been the best term to use. What Shin rejects, as expressed in the Larger Sutra, are “the mind that believes it is bad” (shinzai no kokoro) and “the mind that believes it is good” (shinbuku no kokoro). The thought of making merit tends to reinforce these.

  6. Gerald Ford says:

    Hi Kyoushin,

    I agree with neither the Zen Buddhists nor the Shin Buddhists on this point nevertheless. I can’t understand the relevance of effort being tainted. When one starts practice, it’s of course tainted, but through long-term efforts, one’s afflictions gradually fall away. There’s so much literature across different sects to support this. The Zen/Shin perspective is the exception, not the norm.

    In any case, I realize now that there is only one path not two. The delineation of Pure Land vs. Path of the Sages is something I do not share. Pure Land Buddhism is a part of the Path of the Sages, not something separate. Even the Larger Sutra and other texts emphasize a comprehensive practice, not just exclusively reciting the nembutsu. Whatever later sages might choose to interpret, the sutra says what it says. This is not to discount such sages, but I realize now that their words are only true for their time or place. 13th century medieval Japanese Buddhism is not the same as 21st century culture, so it has to be carefully scrutinized in that light. Hence lately I prefer reading contemporary Buddhist teachings, not those of long-dead men (with the exception of the Buddha of course…ha ha ha). With so many great people in this time and age like Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Brahm, Ven. Yin Shun, Thich Nhat Hanh and so on, why do I need to depend on the words of Shinran and Honen so much?

    Second, I realize that sectarian viewpoints don’t matter. I spent years trying to sort out which set to follow, which practices I should follow and so on, and realized the question was unanswerable. I just decided weeks ago to just drop it, and much of the self-induced stress was gone. All that mattered is putting the dharma into practice by any means necessary. If it is the true dharma, one can see it’s benefits in this life, as well as the long-term accumulation of merit, the progression toward bodhi and so on. One that note, since I started meditating again three weeks ago, I’ve stayed with the practice much longer than I did in the past because I stopped worrying if it accorded with this sect or that.

    So if one were to ask what kind of Buddhist I am, I don’t think I could answer the question now. I can’t identify with any one sect anymore. I practice what the Buddha taught, try to follow the Eightfold Path, improve mindfulness and concentration, and strive to follow the precepts. These are things intrinsic in all Buddhism, so I am just being a Buddhist, not a Zen Buddhist, not a Shin Buddhist, and so on.

  7. Gerald Ford says:

    As an aside I accept that ’self-consciousness’ may not have been the best term to use. What Shin rejects, as expressed in the Larger Sutra, are “the mind that believes it is bad” (shinzai no kokoro) and “the mind that believes it is good” (shinbuku no kokoro). The thought of making merit tends to reinforce these.

    That makes more sense, and you’re right in that one can get carried away by thoughts of good or bad, but that’s a mistake of the practitioner not the practice. With sufficient practice and wisdom and experience, that too can be overcome. Mindfulness, as I come to realize, is very, very help in this regard.

  8. Kyōshin says:

    Dear Doug,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m not going to go into the issues you raise in your first two paragraphs any further as they are no longer of interest to you. If that changes we can return to them.

    I have noticed the shift in your path towards a broad Mahayana practuce and encourage you in it. However I hope that you will continue to respect and support those who find more focused paths or limited practices suited to their unique karmic circumstances.

    Gassho, K

  9. Kyōshin says:

    “That makes more sense, and you’re right in that one can get carried away by thoughts of good or bad, but that’s a mistake of the practitioner not the practice.”

    But there needs to be the right medicine (practice) for the specific circumstances of the each individual as you have been finding in your own practice experiments. As such worngly chosen practices can reinforce the mistakes of the practitioner. According to our karma some will help and some hinder. The Pure Land teaching claims that it is the only one that is a panacea which can be safely followed by all types of people. I now know that you reject that view but I wasn’t aware of the fact when I wrote my initial comment.

  10. Gerald Ford says:

    Hi Kyoushin,

    Thanks for the encouragement. :)

    However I hope that you will continue to respect and support those who find more focused paths or limited practices suited to their unique karmic circumstances.

    Absolutely! Unlike last time, I have no reason to really reject anything, I am just enjoying the wider tradition that until I now I wasn’t aware of. I still consider myself more of a Pure Land Buddhist than anything else, but more of a general stripe I suppose.

    I now know that you reject that view but I wasn’t aware of the fact when I wrote my initial comment.

    No need to explain. I haven’t broadcasted my change in views really clearly (I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it to be honest at first), so there’s no fault here.

  11. Something I’ve heard several times in Korea is before doing something like bowing, to ‘donate’ any merit you will potentially receive to all beings, then give away the merit you just received by giving away your merit!

  12. Gerald Ford says:

    Yes, it’s a universal practice in Buddhism, the dedication of merit. I talked about it a while back in an old post.

  13. Tornadoes28 says:

    I kind of equate this building of merit to religion in general. I feel that if someone is generally a good person and strives to be good, then they will be “rewarded” for their good actions. You don’t need to think “I have to good stuff today so I can go to heaven”. You just have a mindset to be a good person everyday and things will work out in the end.

  14. Gerald Ford says:

    A good outlook indeed. :)

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