Merit (Buddhism)

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Merit (Sanskrit puṇya, Pāli puñña) is a concept in Buddhism/Hinduism. It is that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout the life or the subsequent incarnations. Such merit contributes to a person's growth towards spiritual liberation. Merit can be gained in a number of ways, one of the sutras that reflect this teaching is the Sutra on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Actions which suggest ten ways in which merit-making can occur in the Buddhist context. In addition, according to the Mahayana Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, one can "transfer" one-seventh of the merit of an act they have performed to a deceased loved one, such as in the Shitro practice, in order to diminish the deceased's suffering in their new existence. Pariṇāmanā (Sanskrit) may be rendered as 'transfer of merit' or 'dedication' and involves the transfer of merit as a cause to bring about an effect.[clarification needed]

Three bases of merit

The Pali canon identifies three bases of merit (Pali: puññakiriyavatthu). In the Puññakiriyavatthusuttaṃ ("Meritorious actions discourse," AN 8.36 or A 8.4.6),[1] the Buddha identifies these three bases:

In the "Sangiti Sutta" ("Chanting together discourse," DN 33), verse 38, Ven. Sariputta identifies the same triad: dāna, sīla, bhāvanā.[2]

In the Khuddaka Nikaya's Itivuttaka (Iti. 1.22),[3] the three bases are defined as: giving (dānassa), self-mastery (damassa) and refraining (saññamassā).[4] Later in this same sutta, the triad is restated as: giving (dāna), a life of mental calm (sama-cariya)[5] and a mind of good-will (metta-citta).[3]


Buddhist monks earn merit through mindfulness, meditation, chanting and other rituals.

A post-canonical commentary, elaborating on the canonically identified meritorious triad of dana-sila-bhavana (see D.III,218), states that lay devotees can make merit by performing these seven more specific acts:

  1. Giving alms (Dāna)
  2. Observing virtue (Śīla)
  3. Developing concentration (Bhāvana)
  4. Honoring others (apacayana-maya)
  5. Offering service (veyyavacca-maya)
  6. Dedicating (or transferring) merit to others (pattidana-maya)
  7. Rejoicing in other's merit. (pattanumodana-maya)
  8. Listening to Teachings (dhammassavana-maya)
  9. Instructing others in the Teachings (dhammadesana-maya)
  10. Straightening one's own views in accord with the Teachings (ditthujukamma)[6][7]

Ten Wholesome Ways

In the Mahayana Sutra on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Actions,[8] the Buddha propose ten approaches for the Dragon King in which the Bodhisattva can cut off all sufferings of all evil destinies. In summary:

  1. In giving up the taking of life, one will accomplish ten ways of being free from vexations
  2. In giving up stealing, one will attain ten kinds of dharmas which can protect one's confidence
  3. In giving up wrongful (including sexual) conduct, one will attain four kinds of dharmas which are praised by the wise
  4. In giving up lying, one will attain the eight dharmas which are praised by the devas
  5. In giving up slandering, one will attain five kinds of incorruptible dharmas
  6. In giving up harsh language, one will attain the accomplishment of eight kinds of pure actions
  7. In giving up frivolous speech, one will attain the accomplishment of the three certainties
  8. In giving up lust, one will attain the accomplishment of the five kinds of freedom
  9. In giving up hatred, one will attain eight kinds of dharmas of joy of mind
  10. In giving up wrong views, one will attain the accomplishment of ten meritorious dharmas[9]

Transfer of merit and rejoicing in other's merit

Two common practices within Buddhism are:

  • Dedicating (or transferring) merit to others, and
  • Rejoicing in other's merit.

These practices are believed to help develop a generous state of mind in the practitioner. Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin explains:[10]

The practice of the transference of merit—the giving of one’s merit—is an ancient and extremely widespread and common Buddhist practice. What it indicates is that spiritual practice is to be entered into in a generous spirit, not for the sake of acquiring merit exclusively for oneself but for the benefit of others too. Indeed, only acts undertaken in this spirit are truly meritorious in the first place. The rejoicing in the merit of others also indicates that, in undertaking meritorious acts, it is one’s state of mind that is crucial: thus if one gives grudgingly, with an ungenerous heart, the auspiciousness of one’s acts is compromised; on the other hand, if one gives nothing at all but is deeply moved by another’s act of generosity, then that in itself is an auspicious occasion, an act of merit. Thus for many Buddhists it is customary at the end of Buddhist devotions and rituals to offer the merit generated during the ceremony for the benefit of other beings—either specific beings such as dead relatives, or all sentient beings—and in so doing to invite all present (whether they have directly participated in the ceremony or not, whether they have physical presence or are unseen ghosts or gods) also to rejoice in the merit of the ceremony.

Scholarly debate

Initially in the Western study of Buddhism, some scholars believed that the transfer of merit was at first a uniquely Mahāyāna practice and that it was developed only at a late period, perceiving that it was somewhat discordant with early Buddhist understandings of karma theory.[11] Scholar Heinz Bechert dates the Buddhist doctrine of transfer of merit (Sanskrit: puṇyapariṇāmanā) in its fully developed form to the period between the 5th and 7th centuries CE.[11] However, Sree Padma and Anthony Barber note that merit transfer was well established and a very integral part of Buddhist practice in the Andhra region of southern India.[12] In addition, inscriptions at numerous sites across South Asia provide definitive evidence that the transfer of merit was widely practiced in the first few centuries CE.[13]

As scholar D. Seyfort Ruegg notes,[14]

An idea that has posed a number of thorny questions and conceptual difficulties for Buddhist thought and the history of the Mahāyāna is that often referred to as 'transfer of merit' (puṇyapariṇāmanā). The process of pariṇāmanā (Tib. yons su bsno ba) in fact constitutes a most important feature in Mahāyāna, where it denotes what might perhaps best be termed the dedication of good (puṇya, śubha, kuśala[mula]; Tib. bsod nams, dge ba['i rtsa ba]) by an exercitant in view of the attainment by another karmically related person (such as a deceased parent or teacher) of a higher end. Yet such dedication appears, prima facie, to run counter to the karmic principle of the fruition or retribution of deeds (karmavipāka). Generally accepted in Buddhism, both Mahāyānist and non-Mahāyānist, this principle stipulates that a karmic fruit or result (karmaphala) is 'reaped', i.e. experienced, solely by the person - or more precisely by the conscious series (saṃtāna) - that has sown the seed of future karmic fruition when deliberately (cetayitva) accomplishing an action (karman).

The related idea of acquisition/possession (of 'merit', Pali patti, Skt. prāpti), of assenting to and rejoicing in it (pattānumodanā), and even of its gift (pattidāna) are known to sections of the Theravāda tradition; and this concept - absent in the oldest canonical texts in Pali, but found in later Pali tradition (Petavatthu, Buddhāpadāna) - has been explained by some writers as being due to Mahāyānist influence, and by reference to Nalinaksha Dutt's category of 'semi-Mahāyāna.'

Scholar Tommi Lehtonen notes that (fellow scholar) "Wolfgang Schumann says that "the Mahāyāna teaching of the transfer of merit `breaks the strict causality of the Hinayānic law of karman (P. kamma) according to which everybody wanting better rebirth can reach it solely by his own efforts’ . Yet, Schumann claims that on this point Mahāyāna and Hinayāna differ only in the texts, for the religious practice in South East Asia acknowledges the transference of karmic merit (P. pattidāna) in Theravāda as well."[15]


In China, it is believed that merits are quantified in some merit ledgers (功過格) and are able to offset bad karma, such as those in the Jade Record or the Liao-Fan's Four Lessons.[16][17][18][19]

See also


  1. Upalavanna (n.d.), sutta 6.
  2. Walshe (1995), p. 485.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Thanissaro (2001).
  4. The Itivuttaka triad of giving, self-mastery and refraining parallels the Anguttara and Digha Nikaya triads if "self-mastery" is taken as being synonymous with "mental development" (bhāvanā) and "refraining" as being synonymous with "virtue" (sīla).
  5. Thanissaro (2001) translates "sama-cariya" as "a life in tune." However, assuming that there is parallelism between "sama-cariya," "dama" and "bhāvanā," then translating "sama" as "mental calm" (as suggested by Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921–25, p. 681, entry for "sama1") – alluding to concentrative skill – seems preferable.
  6. D.A.III.999 cited in Payutto (1997), chapter 20, "The devotee."
  7. Dasa Kusala Kamma & Dasa Akusala kamma or Ten Wholesome Deeds and Ten Unwholesome Deeds
  8. "THE DISCOURSE ON THE TEN WHOLESOME WAYS OF ACTION". Undumbara Garden. 23 September 2009. Retrieved 13 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Bhikkhu, Saddhaloka. "The Discourse on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Action". Buddhistdoor. Retrieved 13 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Gethin 1998, pp. 109-110.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Bechert 1992, note 34, pp. 99-100.
  12. Padma & Barber 2009, p. 116.
  13. Fogelin, Lars. Archaeology of Early Buddhism. 2006. p. 43
  14. "Aspects of the Study of the (Earlier) Indian Mahāyāna by D. Seyfort Ruegg. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Volume 27 Number 1, 2004 pgs 52-53
  15. Buddhism. An Outline of its Teachings and Schools by Schumann, Hans Wolfgang , trans. by Georg Fenerstein, Rider: 1973), p. 92. Cited in "The Notion of Merit in Indian Religions," by Tommi Lehtonen, Asian Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000 pg 193
  16. 《太上感應篇》、《太微仙君功過格》等善惡功過說與民俗信仰 蕭登福
  17. 功過格彙集
  18. 功過格匯集1
  19. 地獄行〔之十五〕善惡功過格錄


Lay Theravada Practices: For a Fortunate Rebirth

FAITH (Saddhā) GIVING (Dāna) VIRTUE (Sīla) MIND (Bhāvanā) WISDOM (Paññā)

Buddha ·
Dhamma · Sangha

Charity ·

5 Precepts ·
8 Precepts

Mettā ·

4 Noble Truths ·
3 Characteristics

Based on: Dighajanu Sutta, Velama Sutta, Dhammika Sutta.