Posted by: Upāsaka | 04/10/2010

Puñña – Merit

Be quick in doing what’s admirable.
Restrain your mind from what’s evil.
When you’re slow in making merit,
evil delights the mind.
Dhp 116

The pursuit of merit gets short shrift in the Anglo-American Dhamma centers which I frequent but has seemed to me to be the single most important undertaking one can engage upon to lay a foundation for the higher stages of the path. I have been fascinated with the ideas of puñña and the paramis for quite some time now (apparently much more so than many of my convert co-religionists) perhaps because I have a pretty abysmal (but realistic) view of my own spiritual development. Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu has these wise words to contribute on the topic at hand:

Of all the concepts central to Buddhism, merit (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 practice, focused on getting and “selfing,” whereas higher Buddhist practice focuses on letting go, particularly of any sense of self. Because we in the West often feel pressed for time, we don’t want to waste our time on lowly practices, and instead want to go straight to the higher levels. Yet the Buddha repeatedly warns that the higher levels cannot be practiced in a stable manner unless they develop on a strong foundation. The pursuit of merit provides that foundation. To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist, one cannot wisely let go of one’s 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.

But how, precisely, does merit work to further us along the path? What has merit got to do with seeing into the truth of suffering? Obviously, merit alone cannot deliver one safely to the other shore but according to the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

[t]he equipment of merit facilitates progress in the course of samsaric wandering: it brings a favorable rebirth, the encounter with good friends to guide one’s footsteps along the path, the meeting with opportunities for spiritual growth, the flowering of the lofty qualities of character, and the maturation of the spiritual faculties required for the higher attainments.

So, just what constitutes merit? Since I don’t have the time or inclination to find an exhaustive description of the ways of making merit perhaps the best way to answer the question and end the post is with the following verses from the Dhammapada:

A blessing: friends when the need arises. A blessing: contentment with whatever there is. Merit at the ending of life is a blessing. A blessing: the abandoning of all suffering & stress. A blessing in the world: reverence to your mother. A blessing: reverence to your father as well. A blessing in the world: reverence to a contemplative. A blessing: reverence for a brahmin, too. A blessing into old age is virtue. A blessing: conviction established. A blessing: discernment attained. The non-doing of evil things is a blessing.

— Dhp 331-333


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