Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making "merit" in Buddhism (Part 2)

Dharmachari Seven, Wisdom Quarterly edit and expansion of Wikipedia "Merit (Buddhism)"
Reclining Buddha entering parinirvana, Chaukhtatgyi Paya Temple, Rangoon, Burma (KateMcKenna/Flickr.com)

...Anyone might go to a "heaven" (worlds in space, the lowest of 26 planes of existence superior to the human world) for any small good deed. But what one would have in that world -- by way of longevity, beauty, radiance, influence, and pleasure -- would be meager if one had only that store of merit, that one deed that fortuitously ripened right as one was passing from one existence to another.

Exhausting the supportive energy of that deed, even though it bears a disproportionate result which is increased exponentially, one falls away from that world to bear the result of other actions willed, performed, and accumulated. It is a wonder and a blessing to have a large store of merit to rely on for whatever purpose, such as helping oneself, helping others, helping both by returning to this world on a quest for enlightenment.

One performs a profitable deed now but may not sense any profit coming as a result. It may be a long time before that happens. Sadly, one is very unlikely to know when it does. Or what deed it was. We can know in general because we are tremendously fortunate to live at a time when the Dharma still exists in the world.

The Buddha and enlightened followers make it known and keep the light in a normally dark world for as long as they can, usually a few thousand years. That is nothing compared to the aeons of time between buddhas.

But a little known fact is that human life is not always like this. In the past (and again in the future at some point) humans live much, much longer than they do now. They are bigger, healthier, and more beneficially conduct themselves.

We are coming to the end of an age (yuga, epoch) with a great aeon (maha kalpa). It is a degenerate time. But things are cyclical, and there are minor cycles within those grand cycles. The past was not always better, and it has not yet gotten as bad (unpleasant, unwelcome, unwanted, and difficult to bear) as it is going to get.

The future will worsen and eventually get better. But it is not a steady decline or incline. And all time is happening simultaneously. It is a big universe. The beings in countless heavens (akasha deva lokas) are very happy now. Beings in subhuman worlds are miserable even in the best of times. The "human" plane is not limited to this planet.

But it is for most of us as far as we know: There is no heaven(s), no hell(s), no future, no nothing but NOW. How are we living now? Demerit pains one now and brings about much suffering in the future (when the deed bears fruit).

The mental resultants (such as grief, worry, remorse, guilt, regret, shame, etc.) may come right away and lead to a worse result because they themselves are unskillful (mental) karma.

Guilt is bad. It may serve a useful function in preventing us from doing harm, but indulging in is is unskillful, unprofitable, unwholesome. It may take a "good" person to feel any guilt, remorse, or shame about a misdeed. But indulging in such mental acts is unskillful, unwholesome, unprofitable.

Theravada Buddhist monk, U Min Thonze Cave Temple, Burma (Jo_tok/Flickr.com)

This is controversial because it runs counter to our assumptions and our Western way of thinking -- having misunderstood Judeo-Christian messages about good and bad, reaping what one sows, God and gods. The truth is not limited to Buddhism.

But perhaps no other teacher so emphasized the importance of karma and therefore the value of merit. In his day, the Buddha was called a "karma-vadin," a teacher of action and their results. It was not common knowledge in India as we often assume.

Even for the brahmins who understood it in part, it was not widely broadcast. It was not taught to non-brahmins. The brahmins corrupted it further until the word "karma" came to have the meaning "ritual action," as if mantras and ceremonies, rites and rituals, incantations and vows had the power of bringing about good fortune.

Five Desirable Things
The Buddha frequently taught: "There are five desirable, pleasant, and agreeable things which are rare in the world. What are those five? They are:

  1. long life
  2. beauty
  3. happiness
  4. fame
  5. rebirth in heaven(s)
"But of these five things, I do not teach that they are to be obtained by prayers [petitioning unseen beings] or vows [vowing to behave some way in the future]. If one could obtain them by prayers or vows, who would not have them?

"For a noble disciple who wishes to have long life [beauty, happiness, fame, or rebirth in heaven(s)], it is not fitting that that person should pray for [them] or take delight in doing so.

"Rather, one should follow a path of life [karma, good character-building deeds, a wholesome and profitable course of conduct] that is conducive to longevity, beauty, happiness, fame, and rebirth in heaven(s)" (AN V.43).

Bitter Karmic Results
The same is true for deeds that lead to bitter results. "What did I do to deserve this?" is a common question in samsara. It is rare to get an answer. An answer is rarely received well. Far more useful, but far rarer, is direct knowing of one's karma. Insight meditation (vipassana) leads to knowing-and-seeing when enabled by "right concentration" (absorption).

Western tourist visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand and well cared for line of past Buddhas (Colleenmarples/Flickr.com)

With insight (clear seeing when the power of concentration is turned to insight-practices such as reviewing the links of Dependent Origination or considering the Four Foundations of Mindfulness), one sees how karma gives us all we have -- this body, our circumstances, health, wealth, longevity, beauty, the plane we are on, and the ease of gaining concentration.

Karma should never be understood as something in the past. We are not victims of fate, because all but four results are malleable. (Four heinous deeds lead to "fixed" results with definite consequences in the following existence).

Development of the eight absorptions is weighty merit, beautiful karma very likely to bear immediate results that carry on into the next existence with rebirth as a divinity (brahma). And the greatest merit is seeing nirvana. Even a glimpse means one has entered upon the way to certain release from all suffering within seven existences. CONTINUED

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