Bangkok Post - - Holiday Time - JOE CUM­MINGS

Ev­ery morn­ing in Thai­land, hun­dreds of thou­sands of ochre-robed, shaven-headed Bud­dhist monks qui­etly cir­cu­late the streets of vil­lages, towns and cities all over the coun­try on foot. Along the way they halt mo­men­tar­ily be­fore laypeo­ple wait­ing re­spect­fully at the road­side, while the lat­ter place small pack­ets of rice, curry and other food­stuffs into large black-lac­quered bowls cra­dled in the hands of each monk.

When asked about this cus­tom­ary of­fer­ing of food to monks-an action known to the Thais as tahk baht (plac­ing food in a monk’s alms­bowl)the Thais ex­plain that they do this to gen­er­ate merit for their Bud­dhist prac­tice. The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of merit-bun in Thai, from the Pali term pun˜ n˜ a-is be­lieved to ex­ert a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on one’s fu­ture life and, in­deed, well into fu­ture re­births. Thus the act of pindabaht-the monk’s morn­ing alms round-is it­self a mon­u­men­tally char­i­ta­ble act that of­fers laypeo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to make merit.

Just how great a re­sult can the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of such merit yield? Ven­er­a­ble Ajahn Pasan­no­former ab­bot of Wat Pa Nanachart, an in­ter­na­tional for­est monastery in Ubon Prov­ince, north­east­ern Thai­land, and cur­rently the ab­bot of Ab­hayabiri Monastery in Cal­i­for­nia-says that if one is for­tu­nate enough to place a sin­gle por­tion of food into the alms­bowl of an ara­hant (en­light­ened monk), one will be re­warded with many fu­ture lives born in ma­te­rial com­fort.

The no­tion of merit in Bud­dhism is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to karma, a con­cept it­self of­ten mis­un­der­stood by non-Bud­dhists. To com­pre­hend karma in Thai Bud­dhism one must first recog­nise that most Thais sub­scribe to the Ther­avada or ’Coun­cil of El­ders’ school of Bud­dhism, which orig­i­nated in Sri Lanka around the beginning of the first Chris­tian mil­len­nium and is now the pre­dom­i­nant faith in Sri Lanka, Thai­land, Myan­mar, Cam­bo­dia and Laos.

In Ther­avada Bud­dhism, as pre­sented in the Tip­i­taka (the three­vol­ume canon which en­cap­su­lates ev­ery­thing Lord Bud­dha taught af­ter at­tain­ing en­light­en­ment in the 6th cen­tury BC), karma is action per­formed in the present mo­ment. This karma will ir­re­vo­ca­bly af­fect one’s fu­ture, if not in the cur­rent life into which one is born, then in one or more fu­ture re­births.

Merit is, in ef­fect, the resid­ual ’credit’ cre­ated by pos­i­tive karma. Re­peated action per­formed for the good of Bud­dhism, and thus for the good of mankind, am­pli­fies the field of merit sur­round­ing one’s own ex­is­tence. Those who per­form whole­some karma cre­ate a store of merit that will even­tu­ally be re­turned in the form of whole­some ex­is­tence(s) in the fu­ture.

Non-Bud­dhists may rea­son­ably in­quire, "Why do we com­monly see bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple, and vice versa?" The an­swer is that al­though the re­sult of karma (known as vipaka in the Tip­i­taka, or to most Thai Bud­dhists as phon bun, ’fruit of merit’) comes about ac­cord­ing to merit ac­crued the time lag be­tween karma and its re­sult may be long or short, de­pend­ing on the na­ture of the karma. In fact it is said that the more pow­er­ful the karma (whether pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive), the longer the time lag will be be­fore the re­sult is ex­pe­ri­enced.

All man­ner of ac­tions per­formed in our daily lives af­fect our field of merit, but none more so than the sup­port of Bud­dhism it­self. When one of­fers ma­te­rial sup­port to a Bud­dhist monk-be it alms­food, mon­e­tary do­na­tions or vol­un­teer work-one is help­ing to as­sure that the Bud­dhist teach­ings live on. This ac­cu­mu­lates merit not only for the giver, by help­ing sus­tain Bud­dhism it also pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity for fu­ture gen- er­a­tions to make and ac­cu­mu­late merit.

Merit ’en­cashed’ in the form of a more whole­some re­birth in­creases the chances that the merit-maker will move closer to his own ara­hant­hood. Ow­ing to his loyal sup­port of the Bud­dhist or­der, a rice farmer work­ing hard to care for a fam­ily in this life may, for ex­am­ple, be re­warded with a re­birth in a more comfortable life in which he can more con­ve­niently join the monas­tic or­der him­self.

Among Bud­dhism’s six realms of re­birth is a heav­enly realm where god-like be­ings en­joy bliss­ful-but still tem­po­rary-lives. Even in this realm one must lead a whole­some life in hopes of a re­birth as a hu­man, where one has the most op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice Bud­dhism, ac­cord­ing to Ther­avada be­lief. Not mak­ing merit in ei­ther of th­ese realms, one risks re­birth in one of the more griev­ous an­i­mal, ghost or hell worlds.

Un­like its Chris­tian equiv­a­lent, Bud­dhist hell is a tem­po­rary state from which a per­son will even­tu­ally be re­leased, once the un­whole­some karma that led to one’s re­birth in hell has run its course. Even in the lesser realms one has the op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice mer­i­to­ri­ous acts which will ac­cu­mu­late in ones field of merit, to be re­warded in fu­ture re­births.

Ther­avada Bud­dhists also be­lieve that earned merit can be con­sciously trans­ferred or ded­i­cated to loved ones or other in­di­vid­u­als we care about, in­clud­ing those who may have passed on. Such a shar­ing of merit, which re­flects the Thai spirit of gen­eros­ity and fam­ily loy­alty, can be of­fi­cially re­quested when do­nat­ing to monks and monas­ter­ies, or pri­vately de­clared when one per­forms merit-mak­ing acts.

One of those most pop­u­lar merit-shar­ing ac­tiv­i­ties oc­curs when a man takes tem­po­rary or­di­na­tion as a monk, which is thought to ac­cu­mu­late sig­nif­i­cant merit for his fa­ther and mother. Es­pe­cially in the case of de­ceased par­ents, merit earned by liv­ing rel­a­tives on their be­half is be­lieved to be im­por­tant since the de­parted spir­its may no longer be in a po­si­tion to make merit for them­selves.

Many Thais also make merit on be­half of their most beloved and hon­oured monar­chs. Such de­vo­tion can be seen in the mul­ti­tude of shrines around the coun­try ded­i­cated to rit­ual of­fer­ings to his­tor­i­cal Thai kings Ram Khamhaeng, Nare­suan, Mongkut and Chu­la­longkorn. At the royal hi­er­ar­chy’s apex, liv­ing monar­chs may over­see merit-mak­ing cer­e­monies ded­i­cated to their own dy­nas­tic her­itage. For his Di­a­mond Ju­bilee in June 2006, for ex­am­ple, His Majesty King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, Rama IX, paid homage to the founders of each Thai king­dom: Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Thon­buri and Bangkok. Ad­di­tion­ally, on Chakri Day (April 6) each year, His Majesty hon­ours the eight pre­ced­ing kings of the reign­ing House of Chakri.

In­ten­tion is a key com­po­nent of all karma, even action that may ap­pear mer­i­to­ri­ous. To the de­gree to which such action is per­formed for purely selfish rea­sons, the merit ac­cu­mu­lated will be cor­re­spond­ingly less. Ven­er­a­ble Bud­dhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-93), the most in­flu­en­tial Thai monk of re­cent times, ad­vised against the dis­trac­tions of cer­e­monies de­vised purely for to ac­crue merit. In his land­mark Hand­book for Hu­mankind, Bud­dhasa states, "If man could elim­i­nate suf­fer­ing by mak­ing of­fer­ings, pay­ing homage and pray­ing, there would be no suf­fer­ing left in the world be­cause any­one can pay homage and pray. But since peo­ple con­tinue to suf­fer de­spite the var­i­ous acts of obei­sance, homage and rites, it is clearly not the way to lib­er­a­tion."

The no­tion of merit in Bud­dhism is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to karma, a con­cept it­self of­ten mis­un­der­stood.

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