Merit (Buddhism)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Merit (Sanskrit puṇya, Pāli puñña) is a concept in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout one's life, but also carries over to subsequent incarnations or rebirths. Such merit is what determines the quality one's rebirth and contributes to a person's growth towards spiritual liberation. Merit can be gained in a number of ways and one of the sutras that reflect this teaching is the Sutra on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Actions which suggests ten ways in which merit-making can occur in a Buddhist context. In addition, according to the Mahayana text Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, one can "transfer" one-seventh of the merit of an act one has performed to a deceased loved one, such as in the Shitro practice, in order to diminish the deceased's suffering in their new existence. In Sanskrit this is designated as pariṇāmanā.

Definition and origins[edit]

Merit is defined by the Theravāda Commentator Dhammapāla as "santanaṃ punāti visodheti", meaning 'cleaning the continuation [of life]'. Its opposite is pāpa ('demerit') or apuñña, though the former has become more common in the Pāli tradition. Before the arising of Buddhism, merit was commonly used in the context of Brahmanical sacrifice, and it was believed that merit thus accrued would bring one to an eternal heaven. Later, in the Upanishads, a concept of rebirth was established and it was believed that life in heaven was determined by the merit one had accumulated in previous lives. In Buddhism, the idea of an eternal heaven was rejected, but it was believed that merit could help achieve a rebirth in a temporary heaven. It is stated in the Tipitaka (the Buddhist scriptures), therefore, that a human being cannot take anything with him when he dies, except for whatever merit and demerit he has done.[1]

Merit and demerit are close in meaning to the opposites kusala (wholesome), and akusala (unwholesome). Both are used for distinguishing between ethically right and wrong. However, even though demerit and akusala have almost the same meaning, there are some differences between the positives, merit and kusala. Kusala is used to describe a directer path to Nirvana than merit, and even used to describe those who have already attained Nirvana. Nevertheless, meritorious acts can also lead to Nirvana, since in the sutras mental development (bhāvanā) practices such as meditation are also included in the path of merit. Merit can be seen as a "habituating ground" (Katz) of kusala.[2]

Three bases of merit[edit]

The Pali canon identifies three bases of merit (Pali: pūññakiriyā-vatthu).[3] In the Pūññakiriyā-vatthu sūttaṃ ("Meritorious actions discourse," AN 8.36 or A 8.4.6):[4]

  • giving (dāna-mayaṃ pūññakiriyā-vatthu)
  • virtue (sīla-mayaṃ pūññakiriyā-vatthu)
  • mental development (bhāvanā-mayaṃ pūññakiriyā-vatthu)

When someone dies, what world he will be reborn into depends on how intense he practices these actions, although it is only bhāvanā that can take one to the highest heavenly worlds, or to Nirvana.[5]

In the "Sangīti Sūtta" ("Chanting together discourse," DN 33), verse 38, Ven. Sariputta identifies the same triad: dāna, sīla, bhāvanā.[6]

In the Khuddaka Nikāya's Itivuttaka (Iti. 1.22),[7] the three bases are defined as: giving (dānassa), self-mastery (damassa) and refraining (saññamassā).[8] Later in this same sutta, the triad is restated as: giving (dāna), a life of mental calm (sama-cariya)[9][original research?] and a mind of good-will (metta-citta).[7]


In Thai Buddhism, the word "merit" (Thai: บุญ) is often combined with "to do, to make" (Thai: ทำ). Since it is believed that merit can improve one's conditions in the cycle of rebirth, merit-making is an important concept in Thai Buddhist life.[10]

Buddhist monks or lay Buddhists earn merit through mindfulness, meditation, chanting and other rituals.

A post-canonical commentary, elaborating on the canonically identified meritorious triad of dāna-sīla-bhāvanā (see D.III,218), states that lay devotees can make merit by performing these seven more specific acts:

  1. Giving (Dāna)
  2. Virtue (Śīla)
  3. Mental development (Bhāvana)
  4. Honoring others (Apacāyana-maya)
  5. Offering service (Veyyāvace-maya)
  6. Dedicating (or transferring) merit to others (Pattidāna-maya)
  7. Rejoicing in other's merit (Pattāna-modanā-maya)
  8. Listening to Teachings (Dhammassavana-maya)
  9. Instructing others in the Teachings (Dhammadesanā-maya)
  10. Straightening one's own views in accordance with the Teachings (Diṭṭhujukamma)[11]

In a Buddhist society such as Thailand, such merit-making is common, especially those meritorious deeds which are connected to monks and temples.[10]

Ten Wholesome Ways[edit]

In the Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Actions,[12] the Buddha proposes ten approaches in which a Bodhisattva can cut off all suffering of all evil destinies. In summary:

  1. In giving up the taking of life, one will accomplish ten ways of being free from vexations
  2. In giving up stealing, one will attain ten kinds of dharmas which can protect one's confidence
  3. In giving up wrongful (including sexual) conduct, one will attain four kinds of dharmas which are praised by the wise
  4. In giving up lying, one will attain the eight dharmas which are praised by the devas
  5. In giving up slandering, one will attain five kinds of incorruptible dharmas
  6. In giving up harsh language, one will attain the accomplishment of eight kinds of pure actions
  7. In giving up frivolous speech, one will attain the accomplishment of the three certainties
  8. In giving up lust, one will attain the accomplishment of the five kinds of freedom
  9. In giving up hatred, one will attain eight kinds of dharmas of joy of mind
  10. In giving up wrong views, one will attain the accomplishment of ten meritorious dharmas[13]

These ten ways of action are also described in the Pāli texts as 'conduct following the Dhamma' (dhammacariyā) and 'conduct following righteousness' (samacariyā). It should be noted that each of these ways of action also can be formulated in terms of developing positive qualities, apart from giving up a negative quality. Giving up and cultivating should go together.[14]

Transfer of merit and rejoicing in other's merit[edit]

Main article: pariṇāmanā

Two practices mentioned in the list of meritorious acts have been studied quite extensively by scholars: dedicating (or transferring) merit to others, and rejoicing in other's merits. These practices are believed to help develop a generous state of mind in the practitioner. Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin explains:[15]

"The practice of the transference of merit—the giving of one’s merit—is an ancient and extremely widespread and common Buddhist practice. What it indicates is that spiritual practice is to be entered into in a generous spirit, not for the sake of acquiring merit exclusively for oneself but for the benefit of others too. Indeed, only acts undertaken in this spirit are truly meritorious in the first place. The rejoicing in the merit of others also indicates that, in undertaking meritorious acts, it is one’s state of mind that is crucial: thus if one gives grudgingly, with an ungenerous heart, the auspiciousness of one’s acts is compromised; on the other hand, if one gives nothing at all but is deeply moved by another’s act of generosity, then that in itself is an auspicious occasion, an act of merit. Thus for many Buddhists it is customary at the end of Buddhist devotions and rituals to offer the merit generated during the ceremony for the benefit of other beings—either specific beings such as dead relatives, or all sentient beings—and in so doing to invite all present (whether they have directly participated in the ceremony or not, whether they have physical presence or are unseen ghosts or gods) also to rejoice in the merit of the ceremony."

Transferring merit to another person, usually one's deceased relatives, is simply done by a mental wish. It is considered meritorious by itself, and despite of the word transfer, the merit of the giver is in no way decreased during such an act. When another living person is aware of a transference of merit to him, the term rejoicing in other's merits is used instead. The other person who rejoices in one's meritorious deeds, in that way also partakes in it, if he approves of the merit done. The traditional example of the transferring of merit in the Commentaries to the Pali Tipitaka is that of King Bimbisara, who the Buddha encourages to share his merits with his former relatives, who had been reborn as petas.[16]

In Buddhism, transferring merit to one's deceased loved ones is seen as a better alternative than mourning. Moreover, it is said that since in the next life there is no such thing as making one's living through some sort of occupation, merit is what sustains living beings in the afterlife.[17]

Scholarly debate[edit]

Initially in the Western study of Buddhism, some scholars believed that the transfer of merit was a uniquely Mahāyāna practice and that it was developed only at a late period after the historical Buddha, perceiving that it was somewhat discordant with early Buddhist understandings of karma.[18] Scholar Heinz Bechert dates the Buddhist doctrine of transfer of merit (Sanskrit: puṇyapariṇāmanā) in its fully developed form to the period between the 5th and 7th centuries CE.[18] However, Sree Padma and Anthony Barber note that merit transfer was well established and a very integral part of Buddhist practice in the Andhra region of southern India.[19] In addition, inscriptions at numerous sites across South Asia provide definitive evidence that the transfer of merit was widely practiced in the first few centuries CE.[20]

As scholar D. Seyfort Ruegg notes,[21]

An idea that has posed a number of thorny questions and conceptual difficulties for Buddhist thought and the history of the Mahāyāna is that often referred to as 'transfer of merit' (puṇyapariṇāmanā). The process of pariṇāmanā (Tib. yons su bsno ba) in fact constitutes a most important feature in Mahāyāna, where it denotes what might perhaps best be termed the dedication of good (puṇya, śubha, kuśala[mula]; Tib. bsod nams, dge ba['i rtsa ba]) by an exercitant in view of the attainment by another karmically related person (such as a deceased parent or teacher) of a higher end. Yet such dedication appears, prima facie, to run counter to the karmic principle of the fruition or retribution of deeds (karmavipāka). Generally accepted in Buddhism, both Mahāyānist and non-Mahāyānist, this principle stipulates that a karmic fruit or result (karmaphala) is 'reaped', i.e. experienced, solely by the person – or more precisely by the conscious series (saṃtāna) – that has sown the seed of future karmic fruition when deliberately (cetayitva) accomplishing an action (karman).

The related idea of acquisition/possession (of 'merit', Pali patti, Skt. prāpti), of assenting to and rejoicing in it (pattānumodanā), and even of its gift (pattidāna) are known to sections of the Theravāda tradition; and this concept – absent in the oldest canonical texts in Pali, but found in later Pali tradition (Petavatthu, Buddhāpadāna) – has been explained by some writers as being due to Mahāyānist influence, and by reference to Nalinaksha Dutt's category of 'semi-Mahāyāna.'

Scholar Tommi Lehtonen notes that (fellow scholar) "Wolfgang Schumann says that 'the Mahāyāna teaching of the transfer of merit breaks the strict causality of the Hinayānic law of karman (P. kamma) according to which everybody wanting better rebirth can reach it solely by his own efforts' . Yet, Schumann claims that on this point Mahāyāna and Hinayāna differ only in the texts, for the religious practice in South East Asia acknowledges the transference of karmic merit (P. pattidāna) in Theravāda as well."[22]

Field of merit[edit]

In pre-Buddhist Brahmanism, the Brahmin priest took the role of performing a yajña (sacrifice) and thereby generating merit for the donors who provided gifts for the sacrifice. In Buddhism, it was the Buddhist monk who took this role, being qualified to receive generosity from devotees and thereby generating merit for them. He became to be described as āhuneyyo ('worthy of offering'), in analogy of the Brahmanical term āhvanīya ('worthy of sacrifice'); and as dakkhiṇeyyo ('qualified to accept the offering'), in analogy of the Brahmanical dakśiṇā, the sacrificial offering. The difference was, according to Marasinghe, that Buddhism did recognize other ways of generating merit apart from offerings to the monk, whereas the Brahmanical yajña did not. That is not to say that such generosity was not important in early Buddhism: it was the first Buddhist activity which allowed for community participation, and preceded the first rituals in Buddhism.[23]

Merit and Nirvana[edit]

Since the merit of bhāvanā cannot only bring happiness and prosperity in the next lives to come, but also lead to Nirvana, it seems contradictory that in some passages in the Tipitaka, merit seems to be rejected. For example, in the Padhāna Sutta, the Bodhisatta (the Buddha Gotama to be) is tempted by Māra to give up his self-torture practices to do meritorious acts instead. The Bodhisatta replies that even a little bit of merit is no use to him ("anumattenāpi puññena attho mayhaṃ na vijjati"). Some scholars, such as Premasiri and Karunadasa, have interpreted this to mean that merit can only lead to happiness and progress within Saṃsāra (the cycle of rebirth), but does not lead to Nirvana. Marasinghe believes, however that the word merit here refers to merit in the pre-Buddhist Brahmanical sense, connected with rituals and sacrifice, and the lay life.[24]

A second issue with regard to merit and Nirvana is the state of enlightenment itself. In the Pali Canon an enlightened person is considered to be neutral in terms of karma, that is, the person no longer generates karma. Some scholars have interpreted to mean that the Buddha attained a state where distinctions between good and evil no longer exist. Other scholars have criticized this view as making little sense, considering the emphasis the Buddha would normally put on ethics in his teachings. The fact that an enlightened person is neutral in terms of karma, does not mean he is ethically neutral.[25]


In China, it is believed that merits are quantified in some merit ledgers (功過格) and are able to offset bad karma, such as those in the Jade Record or the Liao-Fan's Four Lessons.[26][27][28][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 457-458,460.
  2. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 463-465.
  3. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 460.
  4. ^ Upalavanna (n.d.), sutta 6.
  5. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 460,462.
  6. ^ Walshe (1995), p. 485.
  7. ^ a b Thanissaro (2001).
  8. ^ The Itivuttaka triad of giving, self-mastery and refraining parallels the Anguttara and Dīgha Nikāya triads if "self-mastery" is taken as being synonymous with "mental development" (bhāvanā) and "refraining" as being synonymous with "virtue" (sīla).
  9. ^ Thanissaro (2001) translates "sama-cariya" as "a life in tune." However, assuming that there is parallelism between "sama-cariya," "dama" and "bhāvanā," then translating "sama" as "mental calm" (as suggested by Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921–25, p. 681, entry for "sama1") – alluding to concentrative skill – seems preferable.
  10. ^ a b Seeger, Martin (2006). Die thailändische Wat Phra Thammakai-Bewegung. In: Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol 9: Erneuerungsbewegungen, Asien-Afrika Institut (Universität Hamburg), p.6
  11. ^ "A Constitution for Living". Mahidol University: Wisdom of the Land. Retrieved 24 September 2016. 
  12. ^ "THE DISCOURSE ON THE TEN WHOLESOME WAYS OF ACTION". Undumbara Garden. 23 September 2009. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  13. ^ Bhikkhu, Saddhaloka. "The Discourse on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Action". Buddhistdoor. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 459,464.
  15. ^ Gethin 1998, pp. 109-110.
  16. ^ Malalasekera 1967, p. 85–86.
  17. ^ Malalasekera 1967, p. 87.
  18. ^ a b Bechert 1992, note 34, pp. 99-100.
  19. ^ Padma & Barber 2009, p. 116.
  20. ^ Fogelin, Lars. Archaeology of Early Buddhism. 2006. p. 43
  21. ^ "Aspects of the Study of the (Earlier) Indian Mahāyāna by D. Seyfort Ruegg. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Volume 27 Number 1, 2004 pgs 52-53
  22. ^ Buddhism. An Outline of its Teachings and Schools by Schumann, Hans Wolfgang , trans. by Georg Fenerstein, Rider: 1973), p. 92. Cited in "The Notion of Merit in Indian Religions," by Tommi Lehtonen, Asian Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000 pg 193
  23. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 459.
  24. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 462-463.
  25. ^ Marasinghe 2003, p. 465-466.
  26. ^ 《太上感應篇》、《太微仙君功過格》等善惡功過說與民俗信仰 蕭登福
  27. ^ 功過格彙集
  28. ^ 功過格匯集1
  29. ^ 地獄行〔之十五〕善惡功過格錄


Lay Theravada Practices: For a Fortunate Rebirth

FAITH (Saddhā) GIVING (Dāna) VIRTUE (Sīla) MIND (Bhāvanā) DISCERNMENT (Paññā)

Buddha ·
Dhamma · Sangha

Charity ·

5 Precepts ·
8 Precepts

Mettā ·

4 Noble Truths ·
3 Characteristics

Based on: Dighajanu Sutta, Velama Sutta, Dhammika Sutta.