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Thread: A Big Pot of Merit

  1. #1

    A Big Pot of Merit

    I was looking at the blog of Karma Yeshe Rabje today. He is a Western Monk in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism who aims at a more secular approach.

    This is what he has to say about merit.

    A Big Pot of Merit

    Merit is a concept commonly found in Hinduism and Buddhism. In a lot of Buddhist circles people believe if they do good in this life it will mean a good rebirth. This is how they see merit, it is something to accumulate. However, this implies that you score points by doing good deeds, and this goes into some imaginary pot and is miraculously taken into your next life. This seems to be quite a naive view point.

    I believe this is not how merit should be viewed. I think if we do a good deed it will leave a positive impression or imprint on our mind. The by-product of that is happiness – something we are all striving for. We feel good when we help others and it makes us a more kind, caring and compassionate person – not in the next life, but in this life.

    Gautama Buddha stated ten meritorious ways we can act:

    1) Giving Alms – this doesn’t mean just giving to monks or monasteries, but to all people less fortunate than ourselves.

    2) Observing Virtue – this in its basic form means trying to adhere to the five precepts, which are refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexually inappropriate acts and intoxicants.

    3) Developing Concentration – here we are talking about meditation and mindfulness. The only way we can really get to understand ourselves is through mindfulness, and obtain an understanding of Gautama Buddha’s teachings is through meditation. If we understand ourselves and the teachings we will guard our minds from negative thoughts, which in turn means our actions will be helpful and not harmful.

    4) Honouring Others – we can do this through polite, kind and modest conduct. If someone has been kind to you, such as a parent, teacher, friend, acquaintance or stranger, you should return that kindness.

    5) Offering Service – lots of people study, meditate and teach about compassion, but very few actually put it into practice. We have to get off of our meditation cushions and get out into the community to help others.

    6) Dedicating Your Merit to Others – this act stops us having too much pride and becoming too conceited. Maybe we are good people and help others, so instead of feeling that we are special people, we offer our meritorious imprints to others. It has to be remember that this is a mental act, and we are not actually taking our merit and putting it into someone else’s pot.

    7) Rejoicing in Other’s Merit – instead of us becoming jealous or having thoughts of ill-will when someone else has gained merit, we actually rejoice and give them encouragement.

    8) Understanding Gautama Buddha’s Teachings – we should listen, understand, ask questions to clear up any doubts, meditate and implement Gautama Buddha’s teachings. This way we will not be causing harm to ourselves or others.

    9) Instructing Others in the Teachings – if you have gained knowledge you should pass it on. However, this is only when you have been asked. Buddhism does not encourage followers to go around preaching or trying to convert others.

    10) Acting in Accord with the Teachings – this means we have to implement the teachings, and not just understand them intellectually. We should act in accord with the five precepts, four truths and the eightfold path and so forth.

    If you wish to collect good imprints in your mind, this is the way to act. These imprints become more powerful when our actions are committed without the three poisons, which are attachment, aversion and unawareness.

    The problem with only doing acts so as to get a better rebirth is that these acts are selfish, and so actually cannot really be called acts of merit. When we act in a selfish way we are not leaving positive imprints in our mind. In fact, it is the opposite.

    If we see our mind as the pot and merit as positive imprints, I believe, we are understanding what Gautama Buddha taught about merit.

  2. #2
    Do you believe its possible to store up "merit," or give it to others? - and if so, how is that possible? Where is it stored and how is it given?

  3. #3
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
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    I see merit as like influence.

    If you have a friend, who has a good reputation, and who vouches for your character or abilities, then others are likely to honor his word that you are worthy of their trust.

    So, in this respect merit would be stored in the character of the worthy person making the recommendation on your behalf.

  4. #4
    Forums Member Polar Bear's Avatar
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    I think it is unhelpful to say that it is the opposite of wholesome to give for the sake of a good rebirth. I think it would be better to say that it isn't unwholesome, it is wholesome, its just less wholesome than giving selflessly. Besides, I think following that logic we'd have to say that it is selfish to give for the sake of happiness in the present life, and I think that would also be unhelpful to suggest. It is also possible for their to be multiple motivations for giving, e.g. I could give to the poor out of compassion for their welfare, for the sake of my own happiness in this life, and perhaps even because I might store up a little treasure in heaven as a bonus.

    I think it is clear that it is possible to create a reservoir of good deeds so that one becomes happier and is able to recollect those good deeds and gain some peace from that. There are some studies that suggest that altruism is one of the few ways a human being can increase their happiness-set-point.

    According to one such study — which analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey, a collection of statistics representing the largest and longest-standing series of observations on happiness in the world — the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run.

    What’s more, according to another study, altruism doesn’t just correlate with an increase in happiness — it actually causes it, at least in the short term. When psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky had students perform five acts of kindness of their choosing per week over the course of six weeks, they reported a significant increase in their levels of happiness relative to a control group of students who didn’t. -
    And recollection of generosity is a buddhist practice:

    [5] "Furthermore, there is the case where you recollect your own generosity: 'It is a gain, a great gain for me, that — among people overcome with the stain of possessiveness — I live at home, my awareness cleansed of the stain of possessiveness, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in being magnanimous, responsive to requests, delighting in the distribution of alms.' At any time when a disciple of the noble ones is recollecting generosity, his mind is not overcome with passion, not overcome with aversion, not overcome with delusion. His mind heads straight, based on generosity. And when the mind is headed straight, the disciple of the noble ones gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the Dhamma, gains joy connected with the Dhamma. In one who is joyful, rapture arises. In one who is rapturous, the body grows calm. One whose body is calmed experiences ease. In one at ease, the mind becomes concentrated.

    "Of one who does this, Mahanama, it is said: 'Among those who are out of tune, the disciple of the noble ones dwells in tune; among those who are malicious, he dwells without malice; having attained the stream of Dhamma, he develops the recollection of generosity.'

    I believe the idea of sharing merit is a post-Buddha buddhist teaching that runs counter to the doctrine of kamma. See Saccaka’s Challenge –
    A Study of the Saṃyukta-āgama Parallel
    to the Cūḷasaccaka-sutta in Relation
    to the Notion of Merit Transfer

  5. #5
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    I have trouble with interpretations of merit which mean that it is rather like collecting Brownie points. The nearest analogy which works for me is that of breaking a rock by repeatedly hitting it with a hammer. Eventually it breaks, but no single blow was responsible. Progress is made in small steps, each too small to be noticed individually, but working eventually as a culmination of all that you have done on the path.

    The question of giving it away is interesting. I used to like the end of a Puja, where we used the, somewhat Bodhisattva, vow that any merit gained in 'acting thus' is given away to everyone else until 'all beings' are liberated. It had a certain anarchistic quality that worked as a counterbalance to any idea of following Buddhism to accrue merit rather than to work to change yourself.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by philg
    I have trouble with interpretations of merit which mean that it is rather like collecting Brownie points.
    Yes, me too!

  7. #7
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
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    Another way of looking at merit is that of removing bindings, much like a deep sea diver removes ballast weights for the purpose of allowing him/her self to rise to the surface of a body of water. For example if we give up harmful behaviors we become healthier, or less likely to cause harm to ourselves or others. The rewards of such meritorious actions are the consequences of acting more beneficially, or acting less harmfully. It is the same thing that we do when we give up smoking, or drinking alcoholic beverages. Not only do we benefit, but those around us benefit as well by such meritorious actions.

    So, in that respect, merit can be considered karmic consequence or Vipāka in Pali.:

    Kamma: advantageous or disadvantageous action; Sanskrit karma, Pāli: kamma: 'action', correctly speaking denotes the advantageous and disadvantageous intentions kusala and akusala-cetanā and their concomitant mental properties, causing rebirth and shaping the destiny of beings.
    Vipāka: 'kamma-result' or 'effect of action', is any kammically morally neutral mental phenomenon e.g. bodily pleasant or painful feeling, sense-consciousness, etc., which is the result of advantageous or disadvantageous intentional action kamma through body, speech or mind, done either in this or some previous life. Totally wrong is the belief that, according to Buddhism, everything is the result of previous action. Never, for example, is any kammically advantageous or disadvantageous intentional action the result of former action, being in reality itself kamma. On this subject see: titthāyatana kamma, Tab. I; Fund II. Cf. A. III, 101; Kath. 162 Guide, p. 80.
    Last edited by Olderon; 19 Mar 18 at 00:02.

  8. #8
    As 'merit' (punna) is not a word I ever use in everyday language, I prefer to use"benefit" or "beneficial" if I have to discuss positive actions.

    In his book "An Introduction to Buddhism" Peter Harvey expresses his reservations about the use of the word "merit" or "meritous," in the sub- section "Generating and sharing karmic fruitfulness or 'merit' " in the chapter "Early Buddhist Teachings: Rebirth and Karma".


  9. #9
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    I wrote this as part of an essay for my highly rational engineer father, now deceased, to de-mystify buddhist ideas. It does link with the ideas of merit as brownie points to be cashed in, (and to whom?)

    “Rejecting the notion of happiness (heaven) or grief (hell) as being a ‘God’ given reward or punishment for good or bad behaviour, i.e. that happiness is given as a blessing, and grief as a punishment, from outside of ones own being, (and by this idea separating the “Self” from direct association with the product of its actions), Buddhism sees happiness and grief as inherent qualities, created during our past actions in body, speech and mind, and now effective, within the reality of our personal mental-material present.

    Self does not experience the results of past deeds as separate from them, self IS the result of past deeds. Karma is the mechanism by which the personal qualities of the present are informed by the past.”

    Unfortunately my father passed away before I’d completed the essay, or perhaps fortunately in the case that I may have been about to send him up the wrong tree entirely!

    Please comment if you think I’m up the wrong tree also.

  10. #10
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
    London UK
    I hesitate to offer any speculation as to the way in which karma (or kamma) operates.

    I would say, in my personal opinion, that you are barking up the right tree in rejecting the notions of punishment and reward, and framing Buddhist notions in a form that could be assimilated by a rationalist.

    I'm very interested in thinking about 'self IS the result of past deeds'. There is a form of direct simplicity to it, which I like. But perhaps it doesn't go far enough. If a person does a deed which causes suffering to others, but the person is unaware and thinks that s/he has done something good, would that accumulate 'good' or 'bad' karma?

    And a person who has no way of relating to others, would they be incapable of being moulded by past deeds?

    I would be very interested to hear from anyone who could give a Buddhist perspective on these thoughts.

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