Merit: The Buddha’s Strategies for Happiness

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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.

The following readings show how this is done. They begin with a section on basic wisdom, which shows how the questions that lead ultimately to the wisdom of letting go first focus on things to hold onto: the skillful traits that, on the beginning level, provide a secure place to stand while letting go of character traits that are obviously harmful. Buddhist wisdom famously focuses on perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self, but the application of that wisdom grows out of the pursuit of what is relatively constant and pleasant, and requires a mature sense of self: able to plan for the future, to anticipate dangers, to sacrifice short-term happiness for long-term happiness, to consider the needs of others, to substitute harmless pleasures for harmful ones, and to develop a strong sense of self-reliance in the pursuit of a happiness that is wise, pure, and compassionate.

The section on merit then sets out in general terms the types of meritorious activities that conduce to that happiness, focusing primarily on three: giving, virtue, and meditation. The next three sections focus on the ways in which each of these activities can be pursued so as to produce the most happiness. For instance, the section on giving discusses how the happiness of generosity can be maximized by wisely choosing the proper motivation for giving a gift, a proper gift, and a proper recipient for one’s gift. The section of virtue shows how to learn from one’s past mistakes without succumbing to debilitating feelings of guilt. The section on meditation discusses not only how the development of good will—the meditative practice most often cited in conjunction with merit—can lead to happiness both now and in the present, but also how it can help minimize the bad results of one’s past unwise actions.

All three of these forms of merit conduce to the highest form of merit: the realization of stream-entry—entering the “stream” to nibbana—the first glimpse of the deathless. Thus the penultimate section of this study guide focuses on the happiness and well-being that derive from this attainment.

For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit. In fact, this book is planned as part of a two-part series covering the Buddhist approach to the pursuit of happiness, with the second part discussing the perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self as the next stage in approaching the deathless happiness attained with arahantship. Still, it would be a mistake to view the two stages as radically separate. In the course of developing a wise sense of self in the pursuit of merit, one is already learning how to let go of unwise ways of “selfing” as one learns to overcome stinginess, apathy, and hard-heartedness through the development of giving, virtue, and good will. The teachings on the three perceptions simply carry this same process of “de-selfing” for the sake of an even truer happiness to a higher pitch.

Basic Wisdom

“There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, ‘Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?’ I tell you, monks that stress results either in bewilderment or in search.”

— AN 6:63

“This is the way leading to discernment: when visiting a contemplative or brahman, to ask: ‘What is skillful, venerable sir? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, when I do it, will be for my long-term harm & suffering? Or what, when I do it, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’”

— MN 135

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.

“Whenever you want to perform a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to perform—would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with happy consequences, happy results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.

“While you are performing a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I am doing—is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of others, or both… you should give it up.

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