Merit and Merit-Making

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Merit (puṇya; Chinese, gongde; Japanese, kudoku) is karmic virtue acquired through moral and ritual actions; it is widely regarded as the foundation of Buddhist ethics and salvation. Although Jōdo Shinshū, the Shin (true) Pure Land school of Japanese Buddhism, rejects the efficacy of meritorious acts, the vast majority of Buddhist communities affirm the soteriological effects of good actions. As indicated by the term merit-making, virtue is the deliberate result of human consideration and conduct.

Buddhist literature widely attests to the making and consequences of merit. The jĀtaka tales tell stories of how people benefit from their virtues and suffer from their vices. "Be quick in goodness," counsels the Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada), "from wrong hold back your thought." In Milinda's Questions (Milinda-paÑha), the Buddhist monk Nāgasena tells King Milinda that those who are pure in heart, refined and straight in action, and free from the obstacles of craving will see nirvĀṆa. In these Pāli texts, merit accrues from moral actions.

In MahĀyĀna literature, the importance of morality is affirmed, but the notion of merit is extended to the idea of benefits obtained largely through ritual actions. Since ritual involves magical power exceeding that of moral effort, the benefits are greater. The Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra; Japanese, Myōhō rengekyō), for example, describes the magnificent benefits that will fall on those who do no more than read, recite, copy, and uphold the sūtra. Their benefits will be without limit or measure, far exceeding the merits acquired through moral practices such as almsgiving, patience, and gentleness. An investment in ritual actions yields greater benefits than merits realized through moral effort.

The relationship between ritual benefits and moral merits varies according to different traditions and teachers, but in most cases both are affirmed and are indicated by the single Japanese term kudoku, which literally means "the virtue of effort." In order to specify the particular value of Buddhist effort, as opposed to all other human actions, the idea of the "field of merit" (puṇyakṣetra; Chinese, futian; Japanese, fukuden) identifies Buddhism as the field within which merit and benefits can be realized and even multiplied. The Chinese and Japanese terms extend even further beyond the idea of ritual benefits to suggest divine blessings. The field of blessings is identified variously with the Buddha, the saṄgha (monastic community), and the dharma—that is, the entirety of Buddhism itself—and is defined even more specifically as particular deities, texts, or objects such as relics, all of which have the power to grant blessings. Despite the emphasis on ritual benefits and divine blessings, the merit of moral action is seldom forgotten. In the category of the "three fields of blessings," for example, the first field involves reverence to the buddhas, the second calls for repaying obligations to parents and teachers, and the third requires acts of compassion to help the poor and the sick. The value of any act, therefore, depends not just on the person carrying out the act but on the recipient as well. More merit and benefit will accrue by giving to buddhas rather than humans, humans rather than animals, monks rather than laypersons, and the poor rather than the rich.

Benefits and blessings, the related virtues of merit, are enjoyed as rewards for one's efforts, but they can also be dedicated or transferred to others. Like economic transactions, merit can be transferred from one account to another. In Milinda's Questions, Nāgasena argues that only the merits of good deeds can be transferred to others; the results of evil deeds cannot. Many rituals close with a section on the transfer of merit (pariṇāmanā; Japanese, ekō) to all sentient beings and to ancestors. Far from being fixed, karmic merit is transactional: Bad karma (action) acquired in the past can be extinguished or offset by merit accrued in the present, and the karmic accounts of the dead can be augmented by a transfer of merit from the living. Rendering karmic aid to the dead is particularly important for those who might be reborn in the hells, where they will face the Ten Kings of Hell, who will surely indict them for lack of merit. Even for those whose lives were clearly meritorious, transferring merit assured their general well-being, and is a key element in the postmortem care of ancestors. The best reason for transferring merit to the deceased is to help them gain rebirth in the pure land, the heavenly paradise in Buddhist cosmology.

Since these transfers take place through formal rituals, monks and nuns, acting as agents brokering the transfer, receive donations for their services. This economic support has been an essential part of the institutional life of Buddhism; in addition to being the foundation of Buddhist morality and salvation, the belief in merit and the transfer of merit is a cornerstone for sustaining the clergy and their monasteries.

Merit can also be transferred between people without the ritual services of a cleric. Passing merit directly between people technically does not constitute a transfer of merit, which requires the ritual intervention of a monk or nun and is limited to the merit of good deeds. These direct karmic interchanges are better described as exchanges of merit taking place through personal relationships. In these situations, it is commonly believed that harm done to another will result in harsh retribution. Wrongdoing represents a loss of merit from the perpetrator to the victim, who thereby has the right to retaliate, often in the form of curses. Misfortunes are commonly interpreted to be retributions and even revenge inflicted by those who have been wronged. In Japan, aborted fetuses, for example, are said to be able to inflict harm on the parents who terminated their lives. Resolution of this problem takes the form of a ritual (mizuko kuyŌ) through which a transfer of merit (ekō) from the parents to the fetus provides proper recompense. An exchange of bad karma through personal relationships can be corrected through a transfer of merit.

As a moral commodity, merit is quantifiable. Chanting the name of the Buddha produces merit, and greater numbers of repetitions result in greater merit. In both China and Japan, people kept merit books in which they recorded the number of times they performed a ritual. Accumulated merit could be applied to oneself or transferred to a group, to ancestors, or to particular persons, such as the emperor. Quantification also permitted simplification, and practices such as reciting the Buddha's name became popular among lay believers who did not have the resources for more complex rituals. The conflation of merit, benefits, and blessings meant that the rewards of virtue could be enjoyed in this life as well as the next, and testimonies abound about how people gained worldly boons from their moral and ritual practices.

With the exception of Jōdo Shinshū, all schools of Buddhism affirm the acquisition of worldly benefits through merit-making. In Japan, the ritual essentials are extremely simple, consisting of short petitionary prayers and the purchase of good luck amulets and charms. In the teaching of karma, nothing can happen by luck or chance, everything is the result of human deliberation and action. The belief in the power of amulets to produce benefits and blessings is often criticized by intellectuals and scholars as a form of magic that contradicts the doctrine of karma. Defenders of the practice, however, point out that it is precisely the law of karma that is at work when believers create merit by purchasing and venerating amulets. Benefits—and they include health, wealth, business success, good grades, family harmony, traffic safety, safe childbirth, and a host of other good things in life—result from the virtue of acquiring amulets and believing in the divine power it represents. Since amulets are believed to be consecrated with the power of specific deities, the worldly benefits are received as divine blessings.

While there is clearly an element of magical thinking associated with amulets, few people believe that the mere possession of charms will produce the desired effects without any exertion of effort on their part. Japanese students, for example, purchase amulets for good grades, but do not believe that they are thereby relieved of having to study for an exam. Right action is still necessary in order to create merit, which can be complemented by divine blessings, but is not abrogated.

Set within the larger context of the teaching of karma, merit and merit-making comprise a cogent system in which moral action produces merit, ritual performance generates benefits, and the buddhas and bodhisattvas grant blessings to those who earn them through their efforts and can share the fruits of their virtues with the living and the dead in hopes of gaining a good rebirth and, ultimately, entry into nirvāṇa.

See also:Amulets and Talismans; Death; Ghosts and Spirits; Rebirth


Brokaw, Cynthia J. The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Kalupahana, David. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975.

Reader, Ian, and Tanabe, George J., Jr. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

George J. Tanabe, Jr.