Merit and karmically wholesome actions
"Cut down the forest (of the passions) but not real trees. From the forest (of the passions) springs fear. Cutting down both forest and brushwood (of the passions) be forestless. O! Bhikkhus" - (Magga Vagga - The Dhammapada)
Ven. Kiribathoda Gnanananda Thera
MERIT: When we discuss virtuous living and behaviour according to the Buddha's teaching, two special Pali words are used - kusala and punna. Kusala has come to mean 'karmically wholesome', while punna is taken to mean 'merit'. Often Buddhists in Sri Lanka use the two words to describe one and the same kind of activity - "meritorious". however it would be good to look at these two words in the context of the Buddha's discourses.
There is a difference in the two words, and have to be taken in the context in which they are used. The Buddha has said, "Accumulate much wholesome actions." He has used the term 'wholesome' in the practice of the Noble eight-fold path, and development of tranquillity and insight.
Merit is the term often used to describe actions that bring about spiritual welfare and contentment. He has discoursed, "Bhikkhus, 'pleasant disposition' is another word for 'merit." That would mean one should engage in meritorious deeds to receive a life of comfort and contentment. He has also said that it is an auspicious event in life to be possessing previously accumulated merits.
The Buddha has shown three ways of accumulating merits: By engagement in selfless giving, practising virtue and by meditation. Seeing from that perspective, 'merit' and 'wholesome action' seem to be difficult to separate one from the other.
However, what is clear is merit is something that brings about rebirth in worlds of comfort and contentment, while wholesome conduct leads one through the Noble eight-fold path and imparts attributes that take one towards the end of the round of rebirths. When we fully understand wholesome actions and merit we can enhance our accumulation of merits as well as wholesome actions.
What is very clear is that The Buddha encourages us to do meritorious acts. There is no discourse that says anything to the contrary. He discoursed, "Virtuous Bhikkhus, do not be afraid to do meritorious acts.
During a certain time when the Enlightened One was a Bodhisattva, He practised the meditation of loving kindness over a period of seven years. The merit of that action kept Him out of rebirth in lower worlds. He gained rebirths in the worlds of the Brahmas and Devas for a very long period of time and sojourned in comfort and contentment.
Thus, the absorption we acquire through the practice of the meditation of loving kindness can be considered as a merit. The Buddha has discoursed that contemplating of loving kindness is a merit. He has complimented and respected those who accumulate merit. Thus wholesome actions and merit are spiritual wherewithal we must acquire.
There is a view among a few lay people as well as monks today that since merits prolong the process of existence and the round of rebirths, one needs to accumulate only wholesome actions and not merit. One gets into debate about merit and wholesome actions due to non understanding of the reasons for the continuance of the round of rebirths. Round of rebirths occur due to Dependent Origination.
If the continuance of the round of rebirths occurs due to Dependent Origination, the latter must cease for the round of rebirths to cease occurring. The way to make that happen is to follow the Noble Eight-fold Path. To fulfil that process, one needs to association of noble friends, hearing the Doctrine and keep company with righteous people. He would also need a rebirth conducive to fulfil the process of following the Noble Eightfold Path. Now, that is where merit plays its part.
A rebirth in worlds of the Brahmas and Devas becomes a very helpful asset to one who searches for the goal of Nibbana. Such rebirths are the results of merits. So we must understand the true worth of merit. Those who spend the time arguing "We do not need merit but only wholesome deeds" unfortunately may end up getting neither.
Undoubtedly, it would be a wholesome action to bet a thorough understanding of Merit and wholesome actions before one would discuss them. Trying to discredit merit can only result in accumulating unwholesome actions. The Buddha has this to say about merit: "If one has enthusiasm to do a meritorious deed, do so over and over again. Develop a desire to do merit. Merit is comfort."
The Buddha's consistently emphatic message is to annihilate desire. However, He exhorts desire for merit because merit is needed to make our lives comfortable and conducive to search the goal of Nibbana. Our birth in this world and all our good achievements are results of accumulated merits.
Thus, merit is not something to scoff at. One reason that makes one to disrespect merit may be a lack of understanding of the meaning of merit. Merit can be derived from small virtuous acts. It does not call for activities of large proportions. If one gives a morsel from his food to another in need, that is a merit. Meditating upon loving kindness for a few moments is a merit.
The Buddha said if one even discards dish water with a thought of loving kindness for the benefit of bird or beast, it is yet a merit. When once we understand the meaning of merit, we can accumulate merit as well as wholesome kamma that an make life safe and secure to search the goal of Nibbana.
An illustration about accumulating wholesome actions with the help of merit is a person getting merit and accumulating wholesome results by taking refuge in the Buddha, taking refuge in His Doctrine, and taking refuge in the community of disciples. One who is established in the three refuges would develop virtue and other superior qualities, he would be established in the meditations of tranquillity and insight, and he would tread the Noble Eight-fold Path. He would thus be accumulating wholesome results with the help of merit.
There is a new idea that beings in the worlds of Devas cannot accumulate merits. This view is contrary to the discourses of the Buddha. In the Doctrine, there is a meditation called the 'Contemplation of Devas'. In it the Buddha spoke about The World of the Four, The World of the Thirty Three, Yama, Tusita, Nimmanarati, and Paramimmita Vasavarti. These are all Deva Worlds.
A disciple who has developed the powers of a Noble learner such as faith, virtue, learning, liberality and wisdom, has the qualities to receive a rebirth in those Deva Worlds. Such a disciple with the powers of a Noble learner could contemplate: "Devas too have noble qualities that I possess. After my death in this world, I can receive rebirth among the Devas". Thus the disciple with the powers of a Noble learner does the meditation called 'Contemplation of the Devas.'
If one cannot lead a life of virtue and Dhamma in the worlds of Devas, The Buddha would not have taught His disciples how to meditate on the 'Contemplation of the Devas'. Another thing we know is that when the Buddha preached 'The Motion of the Wheel of Truth' (Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta) only one person in the world of human beings reached fruition of the path, while Devas in twenty two worlds of Devas reached fruition of the path.
In Samyukta Nikaya there are discourses called Devata Samyukta and Devaduta Samyukta. When these discourses were spoken by the Buddha, there were many beings from the world of Devas who reached the fruition of the Path. Sakkapanha Sutta in Digha Nikaya (collection of long discourses) shows that Sakra, the Lord of the Deva world of the Thirty Three had reached fruition of the Path.
King Bimbisara died after reaching the fruition of Stream Winner and he was reborn in the world of the Devas. He came from the Deva world to visit The Buddha and said "I am now making an effort to reach the stage of 'Once-Returner' (Sakadagami). It is clear from similar accounts that there is ample opportunity in the worlds of Devas to practice the Doctrine and reach fruition of the Paths.
There are those who may say that in today's world many things need money and therefore even doing merit can be expensive. However that may be, money and merit have no real proportion. Merit is something that does not measure and count with money. Merit is based on a non-aggressive and virtuous mentality.
Merit has its origin in right thinking. It is the right thinking that teaches us the benefit of selfless giving, benefit of merit, that good and bad actions have similar outcomes, there is benefit in taking care of one's parents. To say that one cannot do meritorious actions for want of money would not amount to right thinking.
Observing the five precepts, observing the eight precepts on Poya day, Contemplation of the Buddha, Contemplation of the Dhamma and Contemplation of the Sangha, and meditation on loving kindness do not cost money. In short, we can earn merit even from the dish water we throw away. Thus the talk that merit is costly may be misleading to those who don't have money as well as to those whose wealth is more than they can count.
(Translated by Jayati Weerakoon)