The Buddhist Concept of Merit
In Buddhism, we often speak about the importance of building up merit. The word “merit,” however, is rather misleading. It has one meaning in English; and the German translation, Verdienst, has a slightly different connotation; and the original Sanskrit term punya and its Tibetan equivalent, sonam, means something different from both of them. So, in fact, there is some confusion because when we hear about it, we actually associate with it what the word means in our own language.
This evening I don’t want to just lecture and give information, which can be quite tiresome for both you and me. Instead, I’d like to run this weekend more along the lines of asking questions for all of us to try to really think about the issues that are involved here. Let me state a few definitions first.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “merit” as a noun means “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” As a verb, “to merit” means “to deserve or be worthy of something, especially reward, punishment, or attention,” as in “your hard work on the project merits a bonus.” On a more trivial level, this word “merit” seems to imply that you score points for doing good things, and if you get enough points – let’s say 100 points – then you win a medal. This is a childish idea, something like the scouts’ “merit badge,” and is certainly not what we mean by punya in Buddhism. The German word Verdienst and its verb form verdienen add even more confusion, since they are used in connection with earnings and income that someone pays you.
I prefer to translate the concept from Sanskrit or Tibetan as “positive potentials” or “positive force,” because this is something that arises as a result of acting constructively and which then ripens into happiness. Of course, we will look into the meaning of this a little more deeply, because there are three terms here that are quite technical and specific.
- What do we mean by “acting constructively?”
- What do we mean by “happiness?”
- What is this process of “ripening?”
- What is the relationship between acting constructively and being happy? For example, I might try to do some nice things, but I might not be very happy as a result, so what is going on here?
First, I think we need to examine the ideas of “merit” and “Verdienst.” What do they mean in relation to happiness? Do they imply that we need to “earn” happiness or that we “deserve” happiness? “To earn” means that you work at a job and then you are paid, so you have earned something. Similarly, we work at being good and then we earn our happiness. Is that what this is about? Or does it mean that we deserve happiness? “I have a right to be happy. I paid my money and now I have the right to get a good product. If I don’t get that good product, I’ve been cheated.” These are the serious questions regarding these translation terms, since obviously “merit” can’t mean getting points and winning a contest. Let’s look at some basic questions that I would like you to think about and then we can discuss.
Do We Have a Right to Happiness?
Is everybody entitled to a fair deal in life? Is it like in the socialist ideal: everybody is entitled to have a job, a good home, food, and so on. Are we entitled to that just because of our Buddha-nature, or do we have to earn it? Do we have to do something to get it? What do you think? Are we entitled to have a good house and to have happiness? Are we entitled to be happy? On a psychological level, some people feel that they are not entitled to be happy, and they don’t allow themselves to be happy. Why?
[Pause to think]
You could say that we all have a right to be happy, to have a house, and so on, but when we put it that way we are again getting into the connotation of the German “verdienen”; it conveys the idea that somebody has given us that right. Did somebody give us the right to be happy, or do we have that right naturally? Why do we have a right to have a happy life and why do we have a right to have a good house? Is there a difference between these two rights?
[Pause to think]
That, then, raises the question: are we accountable for our actions? For instance, in the former communist societies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, everybody had the right to be paid, irrespective of whether they worked well or not, and, consequently, nobody worked well because nobody cared. Is that really what we mean here, that everybody has the right to get paid and have a good house, whether you work or not? If we have the right to be happy, then we do not have to do anything. It follows that a murderer has a right to be happy. Somebody who cheats or robs from the store has the right to do that because he wants to be happy. Does he really have the right to do that?
[Pause to think]
You may suggest that “the right to be happy” or “the right to have a good living” sound very much as though somebody had given that right to us, and this doesn’t seem correct. Maybe we can say that everybody has the possibility, the chance, the opportunity to be happy, but we would still have to do something in order to get that happiness. The English expression "to be entitled” to having things fits well here. It is not so much a right. I looked it up in the dictionary, but “Recht” in German implies that somebody gives it to you. In English, “entitled” doesn’t imply that somebody gives it to you. Because, for instance, the question can also be applied to the environment: the environment is also entitled to be respected, to be given a good deal. So is everyone entitled to a good deal in life? Is everyone entitled to be happy?
[Pause to think]
A quality that we have is that we are programmed by nature to be happy... Think for example of a baby in Kosovo. Is that baby in Kosovo entitled to have a peaceful home and to be able to grow up in a peaceful environment, simply by virtue of being a baby?
Why are we entitled to that? If we assume that an outside power gives us that right, let us say either God or the laws made by this society, then there are complications. Can that right be taken away from us? If we are entitled to this just by our very natures, then what does this imply? Is a war criminal still entitled to be happy? What about the environment?
[Pause to think]
You say that all forms of life are entitled to be happy and to be treated well, so my question is, what about inanimate things, like the air or the ocean? Is the ocean entitled to be kept clean? Is the air entitled to be kept clean? Where does that entitlement come from?
[Pause to think]
From the Buddhist Point of View, Happiness Results from Our Positive Potentials
What Buddhism says is that, as part of our Buddha-natures, we have some positive potential. The classical expression for it is that, as part of our Buddha-natures, we have a “collection of merit.” Again, I find that terminology strange. “Collection” is, I think, the wrong word for this. I prefer the word “network.” We have a network of positive potentials. Everybody has some sort of network of them.
It’s very complex. If you think about it, we have the potential to be able to learn, the potential to be able to raise a family and love others. We have all sorts of positive potentials; potentials to do positive things. One of you said earlier that we all have the possibility to be happy. This is what this is talking about: we have the possibility, the potentials for that. As there are mutually interconnected potentials for so many different things, they form a network. As a result of this network of positive potentials, we could be happy. I have the potential to be able to make a living, to be able to love other people and to raise a family, and so on, and therefore, I have the potential to be happy. Everybody has a basic network like this. On that basis, we could say that we are entitled, that we have earned our happiness. But the concept involved in the words we use doesn’t quite fit with the Buddhist idea, does it?
Let’s say you go away on vacation. Are your plants entitled to be watered, and is your cat entitled to be fed? Is there a difference between those two? Is our house entitled to be cleaned?
What about the cat’s wishes?
This is good. This is now getting closer to the Buddhist idea that happiness is something that requires your will. You need to want to be happy in order to become happy. The important thing in approaching Buddhism is to think about all these things.
Is Happiness Earned?
If we want to be happy, is it sufficient simply to want to be happy in order to become happy, or do we have to do something to earn this happiness? If we have to earn it by our actions, do we earn it by the results of our actions, or do we earn it by our motivation? Let’s say I invited my friends for a meal; I wanted to make them a wonderful meal and make them happy. I had a wonderful motivation, but I burned the food and it was a disaster, or my friend got sick, choked on a bone. Which is more important, the motivation or the result of what we do?
[Pause to think]
The motivation is not enough. We have to do something. But also the motivation may not always be there... Suppose we have no intention of making somebody happy or meeting somebody, we just happen to meet them and this makes them happy. I think it is a combination. The example that I always like to use is: a thief steals your car and you’re delighted because now you can collect the insurance. It was a terrible car and you didn’t like it.
Let us explore another idea. We have this notion of merit in Buddhism as something that one has to earn: we have to earn our happiness. Let’s say we worked hard all year, have we earned a vacation, have we earned a pay rise? Have we earned the right to have good working conditions in our office? I think from the word “earn,” you would have to say, “Yes, we’ve earned all of them.” However, we could go on our vacation and still not be happy. Did we earn the happiness? We didn’t earn the happiness. What are we earning?
[Pause to think]
What about parents? Are parents automatically entitled to be respected by their children, just be virtue of having given birth to them, or do they need to earn that respect by being a good parent? Is it appropriate for parents to even expect that their children are going to pay them respect? Is that a fair expectation? Is that how karma works? They were good parents and now they’ve earned the right to be paid back? And what about if parents feel they deserve their children’s respect, but don’t get it? Do parents have the right to demand that their children respect them? These are important questions to think about, not only if we are a parent ourselves, but also in terms of do we owe anything to our parents? Do they deserve our respect?
[Pause to think]
Let’s look at two other aspects of “entitled.” Let’s look at the people in Kosovo who have been harmed. What are they entitled to? Are they entitled to sympathy? Are they entitled to being received into our country and be fed? What did they do that entitled them to that? Are they entitled to be happy? Are they entitled to revenge? What about the Serbian soldiers who have killed so many of them? Are they entitled to our compassion and forgiveness? What have they done to entitle them to that? Are they entitled to be punished or killed? You can now see the problem with this word “entitled.”
[Pause to think]
The point that I am trying to make with this is that the whole idea of “merit” and “verdienen,” which is to earn something or to be entitled to something – and by extension, our Western concept of this, is very different from the Buddhist concept of karma, which is what this whole discussion is about: positive potential. It is very different.
Karma Is Not Justice or a System of Law
If we analyze our Western concept of having rights, earning things and deserving things, what lies behind it is a basic culturally defined notion that we have in the West. This notion is that the universe is just; that there is some sort of justice in the universe and that things should be fair. That is a strong concept: “It should be fair.” Why should it be fair? “Because the universe is just.” This is very much a Western idea.
We can look at it in different ways. From one point of view, it is fair and just that the people in Kosovo are taken into our country. From the other point of view, you could say, “Well, it’s fair for them to have revenge and it is fair for us to bomb Serbia. It is just.” From another point of view, it is fair for us to forgive the Serbian soldiers but, on the other hand, it may also be fair for us to put them in prison. So we have this idea of justice and that there is law. This is not limited to the West. It also exists in Chinese thinking, but it is not there in Tibetan thinking.
In our Western view, this law or justice, taken from a Biblical perspective, is because of God. God is just. God is fair. Even if it seems that it is unfair that God took away my baby, we have to believe that God in His wisdom was being fair. Therefore, a religious person just has to trust that God knew what He was doing in taking away their baby. For those Westerners who are not religious, the whole concept of law and justice takes on a very political aspect, actually originating from the Greeks, that at least society should be fair. Thus, we try through laws and so on to build a fair society. Society is made just or fair through policies and laws and so, basically, it is made fair not by God but by the people – the law-makers. It is made fair by us because we elect them. Interestingly, the Chinese translate the word “Dharma” as “law.” Although for the Chinese, their traditional thinking is that laws are just part of the natural order of the universe. They are neither made by God, nor made by people.
Whether we look at it in a personal way as in the West, or in an impersonal way as within Chinese society, still the issue is obedience. Obey the laws and things will go well, you will be happy. If you don’t obey the laws, you’re not going to be happy. When we look at the Indian and Tibetan traditions of Buddhism, we tend to bring in our Western concepts and this creates confusion because we have these words “merit” and “Verdienst” for “punya.” They both imply something you earned. The universe should be fair. If I act in a certain constructive way, the universe should be fair and I should be happy. There should be justice. Even though we say, “Yeah, but I know that this is not being given to me by God or anything,” look at the way that we talk about karma in the West! We call it “the laws of karma.” There is no word “laws” in the original expression. We add that. We look at karma as if it were a system of laws based on justice, and that is not at all the original idea. So what is karma actually talking about?
Karma Deals with the Results of Acting Constructively or Destructively
First of all, karma is talking about what is the result of acting constructively, and what is the result of acting destructively. It is talking about behavioral cause and effect. We do use expressions like “laws of physics.” These are physical things: there is no justice involved with objects following the laws of physics. Even among the Chinese, where laws are just part of the universe, the idea of justice is still there. Here in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, however, we are talking about a system that makes sense, but is not based on justice or fairness. It is just what is.
“Constructive” here means acting in a way that, from the point of view of motivation, is free of attachment: “I want to be happy, I am doing this in order to become happy,” free of anger, free of naivety and so on. In our minds, the motivation is, “I don’t want to hurt somebody else,” and so on. “I want to help others” could also be there, but it is not the most important defining characteristic. If you want to help somebody, that is a bonus, an addition. The fundamental motivation is that it is free of acting out of desire or anger or naivety. Consider the mother who feels, “I am going to treat my children nicely because I want them to respect me, love me, take care of me when I am old, serve me, and so on.” In such a case, she may be trying to be nice to her children, but her motivation is attachment. We are not going to get much happiness out of that attitude.
When we talk about “the result of acting constructively,” this is actually quite complicated. Motivation alone is not enough, we need a combination of a motivation, an action, and its immediate outcome. The motivation may be positive but, as when you make a nice meal and your guest chokes on a bone or breaks his tooth on it, it is a complex thing. However, the motivation is most important.
As a result of acting constructively, we “build up merit.” But what does “build up” mean, and what does “merit” mean? We have seen what merit means. Now we have to look at what “build up,” or “collect,” means.
Positive potential, so-called “merit” is the potential for happiness to arise. To “build up” is not as though we are collecting points. It is not as though we have earned it either, like building up evidence in a legal case so that, as a result, you are going to be released. It is not like that. A more helpful way to conceptualize it, I think, is that we strengthen the network of our positive potentials. Because we have a basic network that is part of our Buddha-nature, we are strengthening it so that it can function better. I see this more like an electronic system with lots of tubes and so on, and you strengthen it so that the electricity will flow through it much more strongly.
What Does Ripening into Happiness Mean?
The point here is, what does it mean for our constructive actions and the positive potential arising from them to ripen into happiness? It’s very important to understand this term “ripen.”
First of all, we are not talking about what others experience from our actions. We are talking about what we experience from them. We could make a wonderful meal for our friends because we love them so much and want them to be happy, and yet they hate the food. We didn’t bring them any happiness. So our constructive action is not necessarily going to bring happiness to somebody else. That is not what it means for that constructive action to ripen into happiness.
The happiness that we are talking about here is not what you experience necessarily during the constructive action either. Suppose you want to have a sexual affair with a married person, but you restrain yourself from doing that because it is adultery; you know that it is something inappropriate. It certainly doesn’t make you feel happy to restrain yourself. That is not what we are talking about. That happiness is not what you experience while performing the constructive action.
We are also not talking about what you feel immediately after the constructive action. I did something really nice for my friend who was going away. I arranged a going away party and I did so much to make her happy, and then my friend left to move to another city and I cried and was miserable for days. We are not talking about what you feel immediately after doing something constructive. That is not what “ripen” means.
We have a mental continuum. There is continuity to our experience. It is not as though there is something solid that is running along, but there is a continuity of our experience from moment to moment, a stream of moments of experience that follow one after the next throughout our life and continues from one life to another. In each moment, the whole network of all our potentials is present and can affect what is going to happen in the next moment. We also have to bear in mind that, as well as a network of positive potentials, we have a network of negative potentials. Because of our confusion about reality, we have many destructive ways. We also have negative potentials: negative potential to be sarcastic, to be cruel, to lie sometimes, and more strongly, negative potential to be unhappy. All of these are also like a network of potentials supporting each other in many different combinations.
Ripening Is a Nonlinear and Chaotic Process
When we talk about these potentials ripening, one of the ways that they ripen is into our preferences. “I like to be with this type of person, I don’t like to be with that type of person.” “I like to express my feelings very strongly.” All those things that we like and dislike, the combination of which we generally call our “personality.” On the basis of that, this is what ripens: our personality, our likes and dislikes and, depending on circumstances, various impulses will come up. I like to walk in dark streets. The impulse comes, I am going to walk in a dark street and, as a result of that, I get robbed. That is one level of what we talk about when we say, “Karma ripens.”
Another aspect of it is that it will ripen in “I am happy,” “I feel good,” or “I don’t feel good,” which could be in any circumstances actually. Some people are very rich and have many things and yet they are not happy at all. Others have nothing but they are happy. This comes from basic personality traits. I think we can understand this more easily from a Western point of view. “I like the simple life. That makes me happy.” “I like a busy stimulating life. That makes me happy.” This is all very much connected with our preferences, isn’t it? “I like being with this kind of person,” “I don’t like being with that kind of person.” All of these things are really how happiness comes about. However, we are not always happy with someone we like. What is very important to understand here is that this whole system of ripening into happy and unhappy, this whole system of positive and negative potentials, is a nonlinear system.
It is not that you act in a certain way and then immediately you are going to be happy, and you are always going to be happy, and everything follows in a straight line. It doesn’t work like that; it is not linear. Rather, it is much more what we call a chaotic pattern. It is chaos. Sometimes we are not happy with this person; sometimes we are happy with the same person. It’s not linear. It is chaotic in a sense, but this is understandable because of the complexity of what makes up the whole network of our positive potentials and what makes up the network of our negative potentials. It is very complex.
Somebody is hurt, for instance these Kosovo refugees. You can say that the unhappiness that they experience is a result of negative potential. Of course, this is a difficult thing. Why were they born there to start with? It is a very complex thing. The whole idea of positive potentials and negative potentials only makes sense in terms of beginningless mind and rebirth. Without that, it doesn’t make any sense. Otherwise, why was this baby killed in Kosovo? If you don’t give the potentials of one’s own mental continuum as a cause, then it has to be that God decided that. Or it was just bad luck, which isn’t a very helpful answer: “It is bad luck that you were born as a child in Kosovo. Sorry!” That’s not a very nice answer. Or you could say, “It’s all the Serbs’ fault.” But still, why me? We need some answer. It’s not an easy situation. “Why was my baby killed?”
In Buddhism, we say that there are negative and positive potentials with no beginning. That’s another way of solving the question of why certain things happen. What is quite interesting is, we are talking about whether this person is entitled to sympathy and receiving refugee status in Germany, or is this person entitled to join the underground army and take revenge? Karma gives a very interesting answer to the idea of positive and negative potentials.
Obviously, it was a result of negative potentials that these people lost their homes and their families were killed. But if they also have a lot of positive potentials, then they will automatically receive sympathy, or they will be granted asylum in Germany. They don’t even have to demand it; because they could demand it and not get it if they don’t have the positive potential. Even if they have a certain amount of potential to receive that refugee status here, there could be other negative potential that would make them unhappy in Germany.
They could also have a lot of further negative potentials. The negative potential that comes from having killed could result in your being in a situation in which you or your loved ones are killed. But if that negative potential is still there, then it will continue in the sense that you will have the preference to want to take revenge, and then the impulse comes up to go and take revenge, so that the negative potential that is there is perpetuated. Since all of this is not linear, one day it will be one thing that ripens, another day it will be another. We have a combination of all these sorts of things because, while someone is taking revenge, he can be really happy about taking revenge, but he could also feel terribly angry or depressed.
This is the general idea of positive potential in Buddhism.
Strengthening and Building Up Our Positive Potentials
What we try to do, as much as possible, is to strengthen our network of positive potentials without being naive about it, thinking that all I have to do is 100,000 prostrations, or this or that, and I am always going to be happy and nothing is ever going to go wrong. It’s complex and our potentials ripen in a chaotic way. Sometimes we’re happy; sometimes there are other things there that make us unhappy. In general, I may be happy, but I really like very greasy pizzas, and so I am going to go out after doing my 100,000 prostrations and eat a greasy pizza because of my liking them and because the impulse comes up. But after I eat it, my positive potential from the prostrations is not going to prevent me from becoming sick. It’s very important not to be naive about it.
The main idea is that we want to build up this positive potential so that we will get circumstances conducive for gaining insights into the Dharma. As a result of positive potential, we will have the inclination to get ourselves into the circumstances. As a result of positive potential, I like to meditate, I like to think about profound topics in the Dharma as a result of doing these types of practices. Because we like doing that, the impulse to meditate or to think about voidness (emptiness) will come up more and more frequently. Why do we remember voidness at all? It’s because an impulse comes and we remember it. As a result of these impulses coming up, of these positive circumstances of what we like, we are going to attain deeper and deeper insights that will remove the ignorance and lack of awareness, and when we remove that, we remove the cause of our suffering. Then we are really happy. But this is in a chaotic, nonlinear manner. It is not that we’ve got that insight and now, “Wow!” bliss follows, and you are happy forever. The process is also very long.
That’s the main reason why we want to build up positive potential, what it means to do that and how it works. I think it’s quite important to get away from the misleading connotations that our Western words have, such as we earn our happiness, and so on: “We’re entitled to something because we paid for it.”
Let’s end with a dedication. Dedication fits in very well with our theme. What are we doing with our dedication? What we are saying is, “I dedicate the positive potential for everybody to become enlightened quickly.” It sounds like a children’s prayer recited in school. To many of us it is just words. What does it actually mean?
What we are saying is: may whatever understanding we might have gained this evening grow deeper and deeper. May it integrate into my network of positive potentials, so that it strengthens the various aspects of my potentials to act with understanding, to act with compassion, to be patient when experiencing difficulties, to be patient when I see other people suffering, and so on. May it strengthen this network’s various aspects so that they ripen and give rise to more and more impulses for me to act with more understanding, more compassion, and so on. May they ripen in a way that when something happens, I can understand it and I can be happy. It is not going to make me depressed; this is because it ripens in happiness. In addition, it enables me to act with more understanding and compassion toward others. Instead of saying, “Well, you deserved that,” when somebody gets hurt, may the positive potential ripen into more understanding of how these things happen as a result of destructive and positive actions and potentials.
That is what it means when we say: “I am adding the merit that I gained from this evening to my collection of merit, so that all beings will be happy.” And may the understanding grows deeper so that it strengthens these positive networks that we have. May it bring happiness, and so on. It’s not going to happen in a linear way. It will happen in a nonlinear way. If we understand this, we’re not going to be disappointed or bitter that I didn’t act in a compassionate way yesterday when this or that happened to me. It’s not going to be consistent. However, gradually, over time, a more positive pattern emerges. That is how it works.
With the dedication, what we try to do is to feel the experience, the understanding that we have gained, sinking in and integrating into our whole system, and we develop a strong wish that we really can digest or integrate it into our lives. Please focus on that for a few minutes. Thank you.
In order to lead an ethical life in accord with the Buddhist teachings on karma, it’s important to understand correctly what is meant by the Sanskrit term “punya.” Otherwise, we may mix in inappropriate and misleading ideas that arise from the connotations of the usual translation terms for it – “merit” in English and “Verdienst” in German. Unlike these Western words, the original term does not imply that by being good we deserve and earn happiness as a reward. When we use instead the term “positive potential” for this term, we more easily see that what is meant is that constructive behavior builds up a positive potential for experiencing happiness. When we understand that, we avoid wanting to be nice to others and to please them in order to be happy. And we avoid complaining when we don’t become happy as a reward for our good behavior.