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’!”
* – 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.