Sunday, July 31, 2016

How to make "merit" (karma)

Ven. Thanissaro (aka Geoffrey DeGraff), American abbot of Wat Metta, Merit: A Study Guide; edited by Ashley Wells, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly
Big golden Buddha, Bagan, Burma (
What are the habits of happy people? ( Having made merit in the past.
Of all the concepts central to Buddhism, merit (Buddhist-merit or puñña) is one of the least known and least appreciated in the West.

This is perhaps because the pursuit of merit seems to be a lowly "selfish" practice, focused on getting and hoarding, whereas in higher Buddhist practice the focus is on letting go, particularly of any deluded sense of permanent or separate "self."
  • [All things, including our "selves," are dependently arisen. They are therefore not separate from their constituent elements, their building blocks. But liberating-insight requires that the undeluded mind realize that "self" is not those building blocks either. There is no breakthrough to the first stage of enlightenment, as the Heart Sutra explains, until not-self is directly realized.]
Because in the West we often feel pressed for time, we do not want to waste our time on lowly or preliminary practices. Instead, we want to get right to the point, unprepared, and go straight to the higher levels.

But the Buddha did not teach in such a way. The Dharma (path to liberation) and practice he gave was a "gradual teaching."

"Meditation" starts at absorption.
He repeatedly warns that the higher levels cannot be practiced in a stable manner unless they are developed on a strong foundation. Where is our foundation as we meditate for insight (vipassana)?
Nowhere to be found. We need virtue and serenity (sila and samadhi) first. These manifest as firm precepts and meditative absorptions (jhanas, concentration, stability, increasingly coherent states of mind).

The pursuit of merit provides that foundation. To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist:

One cannot wisely let go of one's [deluded] sense of self
until one has developed a wise sense of self.
The pursuit of merit is the Buddhist way
to develop a wise sense of self.
Buddhas in a factory and curio shop, Cambodia (Peter Denton/
The following translations/readings show how this is done. They begin with a section on basic wisdom, which shows how the questions that lead ultimately to the wisdom (liberating insight) of letting go first focus on the things to hold onto: skillful traits that, at the beginning or preliminary level, provide a secure place to stand while letting go of character traits that are obviously harmful.

Buddhist wisdom famously focuses in the characteristics of radical impermanence (not the obvious fact that something will end but the counterintuitive fact that everything is falling away right now), distress (disappointment, unhappiness, annoyance, boredom, lack of fulfillment, "suffering" of ALL kinds), and not-self (the impersonal nature of phenomena we consider as most closely belonging to us).

The application of that wisdom grows out of the pursuit of what is relatively constant and pleasant, and it requires a mature sense of self -- one that is able to plan for the future, to sacrifice short-term happiness (immediate gratification) for long-term happiness, to compassionately consider the needs of others, and to develop a strong sense of self-reliance in the pursuit of a happiness that is wise, pure, and compassionate.


The section on merit then sets out in general terms the types of meritorious activities that conduce to happiness, focusing primarily on three: giving (internally letting go), virtue (non-harming), and meditation (bringing into being).

Joy and Giving?
How can I make the most merit?
The next three sections focus on the ways in which each of these activities can be pursued so as to produce the most happiness.

For instance, the section on giving discusses how the happiness of generosity can be maximized by wisely choosing the superior motivation for giving gifts, superior gifts, and superior recipients for gifts.

The section on virtue shows how to learn from one's past mistakes without succumbing to debilitating feelings of guilt.

The section on meditation discusses not only how the development of good will -- the meditative practice most often cited in conjunction with merit -- can lead to happiness both here and now and anywhere in the future, but also how it can help minimize the bad karmic results of one's past unwise actions.
All three of these forms of merit conduce to the highest form of merit: the realization of stream-entry, the first glimpse of nirvana or deathlessness, the first stage of enlightenment (bodhi).

The penultimate section of this study guide focuses on the happiness and well being that derive from this supermundane attainment.

Merit (reservoir of good karma)
Peace Pagoda, Batersea Park (Andrea Grasso)
For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit.

In fact, this study guide is planned as part of a two-part guide covering the Buddhist approach to the pursuit of happiness, with the second part discussing the teachings on the three characteristics as the next stage in this approach as they lead to the deathless happiness attained with full enlightenment.

Still, it would be a mistake to view the two stages as radically separate: In the course of developing a wise sense of self in the pursuit of merit, one is already learning how to let go of unwise ways of "selfing" as one learns to overcome stinginess, apathy, and hard-heartedness through the development of giving, virtue, and good will.

The teachings on the three characteristics simply carry this same process of "un-selfing" for the sake of an even truer happiness to a higher vibration.
Basic Wisdom
The Buddha, wandering ascetic
"There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, heart/mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats breast, and becomes bewildered and perplexed.

"Or one overcome with pain, mind exhausted, comes to search outside, 'Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?' I tell you, meditators, that suffering (disappointment) results either in bewilderment or in search." — AN 6.63
"This is the way leading to wisdom: when visiting a temple priest/priestess or wandering ascetic, to ask:
  • 'What is skillful, venerable sir?
  • What is unskillful?
  • What is blameworthy?
  • What is blameless?
  • What should be cultivated?
  • What should not be cultivated?
'What, when I do it, will be for my long term harm or suffering? Or what, when I do it, will be for my long term welfare and happiness?'" — MN 135  More

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