Merit: Buddhist Concepts

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The notion of merit (Skt., puya or kuśala; Pali, puñña or kusala ) is one of the central concepts of Buddhism, and the practice of merit-making is one of the fundamental activities of Buddhists everywhere.

The idea of merit is intimately bound up with the theory of karman, the Indian law of cause and effect. According to this theory, every situation in which an individual finds himself is the result of his own deeds in this or a previous lifetime, and every intentional act he now performs will eventually bear its own fruitgood or badin this or a future lifetime. Thus present felicity, wealth, physical beauty, or social prestige may be explained as the karmic reward of past deeds of merit, and present suffering, poverty, ugliness, or lack of prestige may be attributed to past acts of demerit. In the same manner, present meritorious deeds may be expected to bring about rebirth in a happier station as a human being or as a deity in one of the heavens, and present demeritorious deeds may result in more suffering and in rebirth as an animal, a hungry ghost (Skt., preta ), or a being in one of the Buddhist hells. A mixture of meritorious and demeritorious acts will bear mixed karmic results.

This basic understanding of the workings of merit and demerit can be traced back to the time of the Buddha, or the sixth to fifth centuries bce. It received its fullest elaboration later, however, in the vast collections of jātaka s (stories of the Buddha's previous lives), avadāna s (legends), and ānisasa s (tales of karmic reward), which were and continue to be very popular in both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Merit-Making Activities

There are, according to the Buddhists themselves, many ways of making merit. One of the most comprehensive listings of these is the noncanonical catalog of "ten meritorious deeds" (Pali, dasa-kusalakamma ), which has been widely influential in South Asia. It comprises the following practices:

  1. Giving (dāna )
  2. Observing the moral precepts (sīla )
  3. Meditation (bhāvanā )
  4. Showing respect to one's superiors (apacāyana )
  5. Attending to their needs (veyyāvacca )
  6. Transferring merit (pattidāna )
  7. Rejoicing at the merit of others (pattānumodana )
  8. Listening to the Dharma, that is, the Buddha's teachings (dhammasavana )
  9. Preaching the Dharma (dhammadesanā )
  10. Having right beliefs (dihijjukamma )

It is noteworthy that most of the deeds on this list (with the possible exception of the ninth, which is more traditionally a monastic function) can be and are practiced both by Buddhist laypersons and by monks. It is clear, then, that merit making in general is a preoccupation not only of the Buddhist laity (as is sometimes claimed) but also of members of the monastic community, the sagha. In this regard, it is interesting too that meditationa practice that is sometimes said to be an enterprise not concerned with attaining a better rebirth but aimed solely at enlightenmentis also seen as a merit-making activity and is engaged in as such by both monks and laypersons.

Another noteworthy item on this list is sīla, the observance of the moral precepts. For the laity, this consists of following the injunctions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxication. On certain occasions, however, sīla may also involve the voluntary acceptance of three additional precepts, sometimes counted as four, against eating after noon, attending worldly amusements, using ornaments or perfumes, and sleeping on a high bed. Monks, who by their very status are thought to be more filled with merit than the laity, are expected to observe all the above precepts at all times; in addition, there is a tenth injunction for monks against the handling of money.

The most meritorious practice on this list, however, is giving, or dāna. In many ways, this is the Buddhist act of merit par excellence. Monks engage in it by giving the Dharma to laypersons in the form of sermons or advice, or by the example of their own lives. Laypersons practice it by giving to the monks support of a more material kind, especially food, robes, and shelter. The ideology of merit thus cements a symbiotic relationship between the sagha and the laity that has long been one of the prominent features of Buddhism.

Not all lay acts of dāna make equal amounts of merit. The specific karmic efficacy of any gift may depend on what is given (quantity and quality can be significant), how it is given (i.e., whether the gift is offered with proper respect, faith, and intention), when it is given (food offerings, for example, should be made before noon), and, especially, to whom it is given. Although dāna may sometimes be thought to include gifts to the poor and the needy, offerings made to the sagha are seen as karmically much more effective. Thus, making regular food offerings to the monks, giving them new robes and supplies, funding special ceremonies and festivals, building a new monastery, or having a son join the sagha are all typical lay acts of dāna. These activities share a common focus on the monks and are consistently ranked as more highly meritorious than other types of social service; they are even more highly valued than observation of the moral precepts.

Metaphorically, acts of merit are seen as seeds that bear most fruit when they are planted in good fields of merit (Skt., puyaketra ), and the most fertile field of merit today is the sagha. This obviously has had tremendous sociological and economic implications. In Buddhist societies, the sagha often became the recipient of the excess (and sometimes not so excessive) wealth of the laity, and thus from its roots it quickly grew into a rather richly endowed institution.

Traditionally, however, the best "field of merit" was the Buddha himself. The model acts of dāna that are recounted in Buddhist popular literature often depict gifts that are made to him. Today, in addition to donations to the monks, offerings are made to images and other symbolic representations of the Buddha and are still thought of as highly meritorious. The roots of dāna, therefore, lie not only in a desire to do one's duty to the sagha but also to express one's devotion to the faith in the Buddha. This experiential cultic side of merit-making has often been overlooked, yet it is frequently emphasized in popular Buddhist literature.

Aims of the Merit Maker

In addition to expressing individual faith and devotion, the merit maker may be said to be interested in three things. First, an individual wants to obtain karmic rewards for himself in this or the next lifetime. Thus, for example, he might wish, by virtue of his acts of merit, to enjoy long life, good health, and enormous wealth, and never to fall into one of the lower realms of rebirth where suffering runs rampant, but to be reborn as a well-to-do person or a great god in heaven. Many such statements, in fact, may be found in the inscriptions left by pious Buddhists throughout the centuries to record their meritorious deeds, and in anthropologists' descriptions of present-day merit-making practices.

Second, the merit maker may also be interested in enlightenment. It is sometimes claimed that this is not the case, that beyond receiving karmic rewards the merit maker has no real ambition for nirvāa. To be sure, in the oldest strata of the Buddhist canon nirvāa is not thought to be attainable by merit-making alone, but Buddhist popular literature soon tended to take a different view. In the Avadānas, for example, even the most trivial acts of merit are accompanied by a vow (Skt., praidhāna ) made by the merit maker to obtain some form of enlightenment in the future. This enlightenment may be a long time in coming, but when it does it is portrayed as the fruit of the merit maker's vow and act of merit, and not as the result of any meditative endeavor.

In present-day Theravāda practice, these same vows take the form of ritual resolves to be reborn at the time of the future Buddha Maitreya and to attain enlightenment at that time. Far from rejecting the possibility of nirvāa, then, the merit maker, by means of a praidhāna, can link an act of merit to that very soteriological goal.

The Transfer of Merit

Third, the merit maker may also wish to share his or her merit with others, especially with members of the family. By clearly indicating whom the merit maker intends to benefit by a good deed, an individual can transfer the merit accrued to that other person. This does not mean that one thereby loses some of one's own merit; on the contrary, one makes even more, since the transfer of merit is in itself a meritorious act.

Such sharing of merit is sometimes thought to be in contradiction to one of the basic principles of karman, according to which merit-making is an entirely individual process whereby one reaps only what one has sown oneself. While this may be correct theoretically, and while it is true that the transfer of merit is not mentioned explicitly in the earliest canonical sources, the practice quickly became very common. It had always been the case, of course, that an individual could undertake an act of merit on behalf of a larger social group. Thus, the housewife who gives food to a monk on his begging round makes merit not only for herself but for her whole family. Buddhist inscriptions and popular literature, however, testify also to the wishes of donors to have their merit benefit somewhat more remote recipients, such as a deceased parent or teacher, the suffering spirits of the dead, or, more generally, all sentient beings.

Probably one of the motivations for such sharing of merit was the desire to continue, in a Buddhist context, the Brahmanical practice of ancestor worship. The transfer of merit by offerings to the sagha simply replaced the more direct sacrifice of food to the spirits of the dead.

The literalness with which this transfer was sometimes understood is well illustrated by the story of the ghosts of King Bimbisāra's dead relatives. They made horrible noises in his palace at night because they were hungry, for the king had neglected to dedicate to them the merit of a meal he had served to the sagha. Therefore he had to make a new offering of food to the monks and properly transfer the merit. Once fed, the ghosts no longer complained.

It is worth noting in this story the crucial role played by the field of meritin this case the sagha in successfully transmitting the benefits of meritorious deeds to beings in the other world: the monks act as effective intermediaries between two worlds. They continued to enjoy this role in China and Japan, where their efficacy in transferring merit to the ancestors was much emphasized.

Merit-Making and the Bodhisattva Ideal

Although the doctrine of the transfer of merit has its roots in the Hīnayāna, it was most fully developed in the Mahāyāna. There it became one of the basic practices of the bodhisattva (buddha-to-be), who was thought to be able freely to bestow upon others the merit accrued during a greatly extended spiritual career.

Actually, there are two stages to a bodhisattva 's meritorious career. In the first, while seeking enlightenment, he amasses merit by good deeds toward others. In this, his actions are not much different from those described in the Jātakas and attributed to the Buddha in his former lives. In the second stage, the bodhisattva (or, in Pure Land Buddhism, the Buddha Amitābha), infinitely meritorious, dispenses merit to all beings.

After initially awakening in himself the mind intent on enlightenment (Skt., bodhicitta ), the bodhisattva begins his career with the path of accumulation of merit (sabhāramārga ), during which he performs great acts of self-sacrifice over many lifetimes and begins the practice of the perfections of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. In all of this, his actions are governed by his vow for enlightenment (praidhāna ). Unlike the vows of the Hinayanists, however, those of a bodhisattva can be quite elaborate (especially in Pure Land Buddhism), and generally involve his willingness to postpone individual attainment of final nirvāa in order to be able to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment.

As a result of such altruism, certain great bodhisattva s, such as Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Kitigarbha, or Samantabhadra, came to be seen as having stored up virtually inexhaustible supplies of merit, which they can now dispense to sentient beings in order to allay their sufferings. The mechanism by which this is done is that of the transfer of merit, but this is now seen as a more total and compassionate act than in the Hīnayāna. Not only does the bodhisattva confer on others the benefit of specific deeds, but he also seeks to share with them his entire store of merit, or, to use a different simile, his own actual roots of merit (kuśalamūla ). In this, all desire for a better rebirth for himself has disappeared; the only sentiment remaining is his great compassion (mahākaruā ) for all sentient beings in their many states of suffering.

See Also

Bodhisattva Path; Karman, article on Buddhist Concepts.


Four kinds of sources are most useful in considering the practice of merit-making in Buddhism.

First, there are anthologies of popular Buddhist stories illustrating the workings of merit and demerit. These are too vast and numerous to be described here, but they include the Jātakas (tales of Buddha's former lives), the Avadānas (legends about the lives of individual Buddhists), and innumerable stories of karmic rewards either included in commentaries on canonical works or gathered in separate collections. For translations of examples of each of these three types, see The Jātaka, 6 vols. (18951905; London, 1973), edited by E. B. Cowell; Avadāna-çatak: Cent légendes bouddhiques, translated by Léon Feer (Paris, 1891); and Elucidation of the Intrinsic Meaning: The Commentary on the Peta Stories, translated by U Ba Kyaw, edited by Peter Masefield (London, 1980).

Second, there are the descriptions and discussions of merit-making practices in present-day Buddhist societies by anthropologists and other observers in the field. For a variety of these works, which also present significant interpretations of merit making, see, for Sri Lanka, Richard F. Gombrich's Precept and Practice (Oxford, 1971), chapters 47; for Thailand, Stanley J. Tambiah's "The Ideology of Merit and the Social Correlates of Buddhism in a Thai Village," in Dialectic in Practical Religion (Cambridge, 1968), edited by Edmund Leach; and, for Burma, Melford E. Spiro's Buddhism and Society (New York, 1970).

Third, there are the inscriptions left by merit makers in India and elsewhere to record their acts of merit. Various examples of these invaluable and fascinating documents may be found in Dines Chandra Sircar's Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, vol. 1, From the Sixth Century b.c. to the Sixth Century a.d., 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1965).

Finally, there are the more specialized scholarly studies of specific aspects of merit-making. Only a few of these can be mentioned here. For a fine discussion of the various connotations of the word for "merit," see Jean Filliozat's "Sur le domaine sémantique de puya," in Indianisme et bouddhisme: Mélanges offerts à Mgr. Étienne Lamotte (Louvain, 1980). For two very helpful studies of the transfer of merit in Hīnayāna Buddhism, see G. P. Malalasekera's "'Transference of Merit' in Ceylonese Buddhism," Philosophy East and West 17 (1967): 8590, and Jean-Michel Agasse's "Le transfert de mérite dans le bouddhisme pāli classique," Journal asiatique 226 (1978): 311332. The latter is an especially suggestive article and has an English summary. For a social scientist's view of the way in which merit-making combines with other forces in defining social roles and hierarchies, see L. M. Hank's "Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order," American Anthropologist 64 (1962): 12471261. Finally, for a clear discussion of the place of merit in the development of the bodhisattva ideal, see A. L. Basham's "The Evolution of the Concept of the Bodhisattva," in The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism (Waterloo, Ontario, 1981), edited by Leslie S. Kawamura.

New Sources

Bechert, Heinz. "Buddha-field and Transfer of Merit in a Theravada Source." Indo-Iranian Journal 35 (1992): 95108.

Boucher, Daniel. "Sutra on the Merit of Bathing the Buddha." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 5968. Princeton, 1995.

Cousins, Lance. "Good or Skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary." Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3 (1996): 13664. Available from

Herrmann-Pfandt, A. "Verdienstübertragung im Hīnayāna und Mahāyāna." In Suhrllekhā: Festgabe für Helmut Eimer, edited by Michael Hahn, Jens-Uwe Hartmann and Roland Steiner, pp. 7998. Swisttal-Odendorf, 1996.

Schopen, Gregory. "Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transfer of Merit." Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 10 (1985): 947.

John S. Strong (1987)

Revised Bibliography