MERIT-MAKING IN THAI BUDDHISM
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.