Transfer of merit
Transfer of merit
(Pinyin: huí xiàng)
|Japanese||回向 or 廻向
|Glossary of Buddhism|
Transfer of merit is a standard part of Buddhist spiritual discipline where the practitioner's merit (Sanskrit: puṇya, Pali: puñña), resulting from good deeds, is transferred to deceased relatives, or to all sentient beings. Such transfer is done mentally, and it is believed that the recipient can receive this merit, if they rejoice in the meritorious acts of the person transferring. In Buddhism, transfer of merit is seen as a better alternative than mourning. Although the exact origins of this practice are subject to scholarly debate, it is widely recognized that transfer of merit was the Buddhist response to pre-Buddhist Brahmanical customs of ancestor worship. In Buddhism such worship was given a more ethical meaning. Transfer of merit is widely practiced in all Buddhist countries, in ceremonies, festivals and daily practice. In the present day, transfer of merit has become an intrinsic part of Buddhism.
Description of the practice
The idea of transference of merit is quite uncommon in most religions. However, transferring merit is a widespread custom in all Buddhist countries, Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna and Theravāda, and is often practiced at ceremonies and festivals in honor of the dead. In the Pāli tradition, the word pattidāna is used, meaning 'giving of the acquired'. And in the Sanskrit tradition, the word pariṇāmanā is used for transferring merit, meaning 'bending round or towards, transfer, dedication'. Of these translations, 'transfer of merit' has become commonplace, though objected to by some scholars.
Transferring merit to another person, usually deceased relatives, is simply done by a mental wish. Despite the word transfer, the merit of the giver is in no way decreased during such an act, just like a candle used to light another candle does not diminish. The merit transferred cannot always be received, however. If dead relatives are reborn in a place that is too high or too low, as a deva, as a human, as an animal or in hell, they cannot receive the merit. They must also be able to sympathize with the meritorious act. If the relatives do not receive the merit, the act of transferring merit will still be beneficial for the giver himself though. The transfer of merit is thus connected with the idea of rejoicing. The other person who rejoices in one's meritorious deeds, in that way also receives merit, if he approves of the merit done. Thus, rejoicing in others' merits, apart from being one of the ten meritorious acts mentioned, is also a prerequisite for the transferring of merit to occur. Because it is believed that merit can actually be transferred, transferring merit to deceased loved ones is seen as a better alternative than mourning. Also, since in the next life there is no such thing as making a living through some occupation, merit is what sustains living beings in the afterlife. Material things cannot be transferred directly to beings in the next world, but the merit accrued by making a donation to the Sangha can be transferred. In this way, a certain object donated appears in the next world for the recipient there, although this is through the strength of the intention, not through the offering by itself.
The purposes for merit transfer differ. Some Mahāyāna traditions believe that it can help deceased relatives to attain the Pure Land. In many Buddhist countries, transferring merit is connected to the notion of an intermediate state between death and being reborn again, during which the wandering being's future destiny is still uncertain. The merit that is transferred to the deceased will help them to cross over safely to the next rebirth. Another way of transferring merit, apart from helping the deceased, is to dedicate it to the devas, since its is believed that they are not able to make merits themselves. In this way it is believed their favor can be obtained. Finally, many Buddhists transfer merits to resolve a bond of revenge that may exist between people, as it is believed that someone else's vengefulness may create harm in one's life. Because of this reason, in Japan a special memorial service (Mizuko kuyō) is often held after an abortion, to dedicate merit to the spirit of the deceased child.
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. For example, Heinz Bechert dated the Buddhist doctrine of transfer of merit in its fully developed form to the period between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. Scholars perceived that it was discordant with early Buddhist understandings of karma, and noticed in the Kathāvatthu that the idea is partly refuted by Theravādins.
As D. Seyfort Ruegg notes,
|“||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). (...) 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.'[note 1]||”|
Tommi Lehtonen quotes Wolfgang Schumann stating 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".
Other scholars have pointed out that the doctrine of the transfer of merit can be found early in the Theravāda tradition, and that the doctrine is in fact sanctioned by the early suttas. Then there also scholars who propose that, although the transfer of merit did not exist as such in early Buddhism, early doctrines did form a basis for it, the transfer of merit being an "inherent consequence" (Bechert) of these early doctrines.
The idea that a certain power could be transferred from one to another was known before the arising of Buddhism. In religious texts such as the Mahābhārata, it is described that devas can transfer certain powers (tejas). A similar belief existed with regard to the energy gained by performing austerities (tapas). However, in the teaching of the transfer of merit in early Buddhism, merit is not donated in literal parts; meritorious acts in relation to the Sangha are emphasized; devas do not take any part in it; and it is often a compassionate act towards living beings in the next world who may be in suffering. Apart from these transfers of power, a second origin is found in Brahamanical ancestor worship. The Petavatthu text was the Buddhist response to this. In this text, transferring merit to deceased relatives is described in detail. The word peta, literally, 'gone forth', is used by Theravāda to refer to one's dead relatives in the context of merit transfer. It is the Pali equivalent of Sanskrit preta (hungry ghost), but also Sanskrit pitṛ (father, ancestor). In the period preceding the arising of Buddhism, it was believed that after a person's death he had to be transformed from a wandering preta to reach the blissful world of the pitṛs. This was done through the complex Śrāddha ceremonies, which would secure the deceased's destiny as a pitṛ. In Buddhism, however, ancestor worship was discontinued, as it was believed that the dead would not reach heavenly bliss through rituals or worship, but only through the law of karma. Nevertheless, the practice of transfer of merit arose by using the ethical and psychological principles of karma and merit, and connect these with the sense of responsibility towards one's parents. This sense of responsibility was typical for pre-Buddhist practices of ancestor worship. The veneration of dead ancestors was replaced by a veneration of the Sangha instead.
Application in the spreading of Buddhism
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. 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. In Theravāda Buddhism, it has become customary for donors to share merits during an Anumodanā, that is, a teaching given by the recipient monks to the donors to rejoice in their merits done. There is also a custom to transfer merits at certain intervals after a relative has died, starting with the first period of usually seven days, another time after a fifty and hundred days, and after that, every year. In some Buddhist countries, certain days have been considered especially auspicious for transferring merit, for example on Wan Sart (Thai: วันสารท) in pre-modern Thailand. Moreover, a custom exists in Thailand and Laos to dedicate merit to parents by ordaining as monks or sāmaṇeras. Sometimes transferring merit is symbolized by pouring water into a vessel. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, it is believed that Bodhisattvas in the heavens are capable of transferring merits, and will do so to help relief the suffering of their devotees, who then can dedicate it to others. This concept has led to several Buddhist traditions focused on devotion, and according to Gombrich, is where the entire idea of the Bodhisattva is based on.
Merit transfer has developed to become a standard element in the basic liturgy of all main schools of Buddhism. Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhists transfer merits as part of the 'Seven-part-worship' (Sanskrit: saptāṇgapūjā or Sanskrit: Saptavidhā Anuttarapūjā),[note 2] and there is almost no ceremony without some form of merit transfer. In some Theravāda countries, for example Sri Lanka, merit transfer is done at the end of a preaching. Furthermore, it has been suggested that stupas were built partly because of merit transfer purposes. Transferring merits has made Buddhist rituals more socially oriented. Indeed, the transfer of merits has grown that important in Buddhism, to the extent that it has become a major way for Buddhism to sustain itself. In Japan, some temples are even called ekōdera, which means a temple for merit transfer.
- Semi-Mahāyāna is used by some scholars to refer to the transition period before the arising of Mahāyāna, in which certain concepts typical for Mahāyāna were being developed, although the term Mahāyāna was not used yet, nor Theravāda, for that matter.
- There are also other forms that are practiced, varying from four to eleven parts.
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