What is merit . . . . . and how can I get some?
The wisdom of generosity
Merit, as defined across cultures, is the result of good actions or deeds. If you’re familiar with scouting, you’ll know that there are dozens and dozens of merit badges that scouts can earn by learning about things, applying that knowledge and doing something positive with it. So merit is something that’s accrued and can be used at any time, either on the path to becoming an eagle scout, for example, or to improve the likelihood of finding favor with a Higher Power.
In Buddhist philosophy, merit (punya in Sanskrit), while insubstantial, is a weighty concept. When Mahayana Buddhists speak of merit, it’s as an essential component of the path that leads away from confusion, conflicting emotions and incomplete knowledge, and towards well-being, discernment, a greater ability to be of benefit and freedom.
Let’s look at that. Most of us have good intentions, but there’s a tendency to get bogged down in bad habits such as reactivity, self-centeredness and escapism–especially when we’re uncomfortable, stressed or sad. Buddhists believe that an effective way to break through these habits is to counter them by developing good habits that will eventually predominate and send the bad ones packing. These good habits are often classified under the two main headings of merit and wisdom.
Wisdom is the quality of understanding that our actions have consequences (as we sow so shall we reap), that we can have agency over how we interact with our world, that everything is interconnected and that nothing lasts forever. This is the central Buddhist notion of karma and its result. It’s also about understanding how the mind works and defines our life experience, as well as how we can work with the mind. Wisdom is gained through study and meditation.
Merit, in this context, is based on the purification of habits that lead to unhappiness by making a point of replacing them with actions and habits like charitable giving, patience, forbearance and kindness. This is where the Buddhist practice of generosity comes in. Traditionally, there are three main categories of generosity practice:
• giving material things to those in need, such as food, warmth and shelter,
• protecting those in fear or whose lives are threatened, and
• making it possible for people to receive teachings that can truly improve their lives.
In general, merit isn’t about religion or belief; it’s based on taking solid do unto others ethics a step further by focusing less on recognizing our own wants or needs and more on considering what good we might possibly do unto others. And beyond deeds, even the intention or motivation to benefit others is considered meritorious. Why? Because putting the welfare of others first, while it may not come naturally to everyone, is a habit that leads to happiness, our own and that of those around us.
Clearly, our thoughts, speech and actions impact how we relate to our world and how the world relates to us. Thoughts come first; they catalyze speech and physical deeds whether we’re aware of them or not. Doing something positive starts with a thought; doing something negative starts with a thought. The idea that we might develop understanding and be better able to help others and our world is a thought. Some people who mindfully cultivate positive thoughts see them as a protection, a sort of force field that prevents slipping back into destructive patterns and fuels the desire to go further in developing positive qualities. As merit gains momentum, it almost seems to take on a life of its own and self-perpetuate.
We may not have agency over which thoughts and emotions arise in our minds, but we do have the power to choose which ones we pay attention to and act on. When we’re aware of the destructive impact of negative thoughts, impulses and actions, we’re inspired to change. To effectively work with our negative tendencies, we follow a process of recognition, regret, and determination which gives us the fortitude to refrain from repeating them. This is the process of purification. Meditation is an invaluable ally here, since meditation gives us direct insight into the fleeting nature of all thoughts and emotions. It teaches us that a thought only has the power we give it.
Purification is the prep work that makes it possible to enjoy the abundant benefits of merit; purification and merit go hand in hand. Effective purification is like taking an overgrown corner of the garden and thoroughly weeding and preparing the earth with nice rich compost. Merit is like the seeds of goodness and beneficial plants you cultivate in your fertile garden. Wonderful things are liable to grow there.