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What Is Merit?

One of the stickier concepts from Indo-Tibetan Buddhism that is difficult to translate, both into the English language and in Western culture, is “merit” (Tib. བསོད་ནམས་ bsod nams, Skt. punya). There is also another tricky layer to this notion: the idea that there is an “accumulation” of merit that needs to be “perfected” in order to be able to awaken completely. What does all of this mean?

For starters, and as has been acknowledged by many teachers, the words “merit” and “accumulation” themselves can often present challenges to making a beneficial connection with the principles that they point to. “Merit” can conjure an unhelpful sense of “trying to be a good Buddhist,” while “accumulation” feels like it has a bit too much overlap with a materialistic approach, with not enough acknowledgment of contentment.

Let’s start with the “merit” part. Normative English usage may point us to “being good or worthy,” but in Buddhism what we are talking about is a fundamental quality of positivity, benefit, goodness, and wholeness. If all conditioned things are interdependent, then merit is what happens when a process of interdependence is initiated by a positive intention and is supported by that intention throughout its course of development. Merit is positive interdependence.

As to the “accumulation” aspect, Buddhism isn’t talking about a form of cloud storage where all the beneficial actions we perform are recorded. Rather, whatever action we engage in, that action leaves some kind of a “mark” on our mind, some trace of habit that makes it a bit easier to re-engage that type of action the next time we revisit it. So if the actions we perform are supported by a clear intention to accomplish benefit for ourselves or others, then, regardless of whether that action “succeeds” in producing the benefit we had envisioned, it will leave some type of a “groove,” so to speak, in our stream of experience, and that groove will open us up gradually to the vast network of the possibilities that arise when we put some energy into going beyond our confused habits.

As we get more and more “used to” clarifying our intention and doing our best to act from beneficial intentions, beneficial avenues of thought and action become more available to us, spontaneously. So the “accumulation” aspect of working with the notion of merit simply refers to the natural strength that comes to us through familiarizing with our own mind, and releasing our hold on confused perspectives.

Although I am not versed whatsoever in fields such as neuroscience, I have my own layperson’s version of an analogy to illustrate the accumulation of merit. I sometimes think of accumulating merit as being similar to rerouting the synaptic pathways of the brain: for so long, we have been accustomed to seeing ourselves and the world in ways that turn out to be very limited. But in ways we may find surprising, our actions themselves can become a “lead” that in turn opens up an opportunity for our minds to take a fresher look at things. Every time we step out of our habitual box through acting with courage, we can then enjoy the new perspective that that action gives us. And eventually, the Buddhist teachings say, this style of relating to the world becomes a part of our (metaphoric) synaptic structure. We might not have had a chance to look into the eye of a person who asked us for money on the street if we hadn’t turned around and given them our attention and support. But if we take that small leap, there’s a moment of magic that happens there. At that point it is not clear who the beneficiary and benefactor are: there can be a moment of openness and an appreciation of another, as well as ourselves, that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. That too is merit.

It’s said that, at a certain point, once we are worked well enough into the groove of approaching ourselves and others from a standpoint of openness and trust, we can then, for the first time, get a breathtaking glimpse of the whole environment in which our actions take place. In traditional language, that glimpse is called “wisdom.” Both merit and wisdom lead back to the habits we cultivate, and the Buddha taught that, when we bring our path of merit, or the strengthening of our habit of connecting with our innate ability to benefit ourselves and others, to full maturity, then a full and deep insight into exactly who and what we are arises, even if we don’t want it to.


This article was originally posted at Parijata Press on February 25, 2013.


Tyler Dewar is a Mitra, or senior teacher, in the Nalandabodhi Buddhist community. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter, and at his blog, Parijata Press.

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