A person recently asked me exactly what merit means in a Buddhist context. I had to stop and think about how to answer. From an Asian perspective it is more or less obvious and doesn’t need much explanation.

So, it has been with not a little misgiving that we have embarked upon bringing internet, Wi-Fi, cameras, microphones, computers, and the accompanying wires into this sacred space of the hondo for streaming, and other virtual activities. What does bringing common implements of postmodern life into the hondo make a difference you might say?

Merit is a feature common to most forms of the Buddhist Path in Asia. Providing food to itinerant monks in Southeast Asia is a common practice. Laypeople throughout Asia, bring food, incense, flowers and other items to the temples, presenting them as offerings. These are all considered a means of accumulating merit. Giving a donation to a temple or other worthy institution, as well as giving money to a family in need is a traditional way of gathering merit. For people who grew up outside Asia this may seem strange. I don’t know, perhaps it seems to people rather like buying dispensations.

The notion of merit comes from a worldview in which karma and rebirth are an integral part of one’s life. It also comes from a perspective in which the ‘self ’ is not autonomous, but an incorporated component that thinks of family, village, and other social relations as a part of ‘self ’. This worldview is affirmed by the agricultural cycle. A cycle of observing the natural world, in which we till the land, sow the seeds, tend the plants, harvest the crop, benefit from our labors, and begin the cycle all over again next season. This is a bit like karma, and of course rebirth. If we don’t till the soil properly, sow the seeds at the right time or the right depth, etc. then the result of our efforts will be less than satisfactory. On the other hand, if we paid close attention to what we were doing we will have a great crop in the fall. It also demonstrates that the individual herself is not likely to be successful without the labor of others.

There is of course the more orthodox notion of karma and rebirth in which each intention and action in our lives results in negative or positive future effects in this and future lives. Merit is one of those actions. If we view merit from a cynical perspective, a perspective that thinks in terms of judgments from a jealous God, or the purchase of dispensations, its meaning is lost. Also, if we view practice as limited to meditation or chanting, etc. we disregard practices that are just as valid and meaningful, but do not fit our preconceived notions.

To many Asians, the accumulation of merit is not merely a way to try to gain a positive outcome in future lives, it is also a practice. First the act of giving in and of itself is a practice; it is the first Paramita, Dana or generosity. Then there are acts that go along with the giving. If we give incense or candles for instance, as we light the incense or candles, arrange the flowers we start by reflecting a few moments and say to ourselves, “May the fragrance, beauty, or light permeate the Three Worlds and provide ease  to all sentient beings.”

At the same time we should give with our heart, not out some ego

attachment. In the event we are giving a donation or giving of our time we can construct a similar phrase which accompanies the action. Don’t just place an envelope in the donation box, or send off a check to a relief organization, dedicate the act and allow yourself a few minutes of reflection. There are so many sacred moments that attend the seeming mundane actions.

Open your eyes with your heart/mind/spirit and experience the joy of moment to moment living. Merit is just one of those ways we can do this. Experience gratitude, practice smŗti and be joyful.

With Love and Gassho. . . Monshin