One of the themes in Buddhist practice that I get questioned on by Westerners is that of ‘making merit.’ What they see is people coming to the monastery with bags of food and other requisites, making a formal offering to the Sangha (sometimes with Pali chanting) who then responds with some chanting in Pali. Some of these people will ask that the merit (puñña) of their act of generosity (dāna) be shared with their departed relatives, some say it’s for their birthday or just for no special reason. For people who understand Buddha-Dhamma to be mostly about sitting still and quietly in meditation, this merit-making is a mysterious and even superstitious practice. Merit-makers, although generally happy and friendly, aren’t necessarily that quiet or introspective. So what is this about?
Well, in brief, kamma is what it’s about. The experience of good kamma is that when you act on an ethically wholesome intention it makes you feel bright. And the opposite is also true. Furthermore, if you consistently act on a good intention, you establish a pattern in terms of mental behaviour, you set your moral compass. That guides your values and actions; and the consequences of that are you tend to associate with people of good intent, people you can rely upon, and who can help you when you’re down. It’s a simple logic: as we’re bound to create kamma for good or bad that will shape our lives, better do the good and arrive at a better state. In this case, the good can be defined by a series of questions that the Buddha-to-be asked himself as he was practising for liberation: ‘Is this action, or mind-state for my welfare, the welfare of others and does it lead to Nibbāna?’[M19] (That is towards the elimination of greed, hatred and delusion.) If the answer’s ‘Yes’ for all these, then this has to be the good. Acting in these terms is the path of merit.
Merit begins (and sometimes ends) with generosity – but there are further developments. The good feeling of substituting self-interest in terms of possessions for self-interest in terms of bright mind-states is the learning curve; it progresses from generosity on to ethical and compassionate intentions – so people often use a visit to a monastery as an occasion to take moral precepts. From there the development goes on to renunciation (people will on occasion enter monastic life for a period to make merit); and finally on to the insightful examination of the four noble truths. ‘Does this mind-state support craving, regret and suffering, or lessen it?’ To know that is the highest kind of merit, that of stream-entry (which is the initial realization of Nibbāna).
There are external results too. One of the results of making merit is the support of Buddhist monasteries. Monasteries and hence the Sangha, and the Dhamma, would not have survived through these millennia if people didn’t have a sense of setting their own minds upright through acts of generosity. However in there, with the addition of delusion, lies the problematic aspect of merit-making. It can feed the supposition that you can ‘buy a place in Heaven’ with a hefty donation – and that message can be encouraged by the monastery for obvious reasons. However from the point of view of kamma, if you act with a manipulative mind, the result is that you foster the devious aspect of the mind and your future will be among manipulative people. Also it’s the case that generosity is not as meritorious as morality, which is not as beneficial as insight. And it’s only through insight, through letting go of self-view, that you can clear the traces of bad kamma: you can’t buy your way out of Hell. (Which has a corner reserved for manipulative monastics.)
In Buddhist theory, kamma is one of the five ‘niyāma,’ organizing principles that govern the manifest cosmos of inanimate and animate systems. Apart from kamma-niyāma, there are: utu-niyāma would includes the laws of gravity and thermodynamics; bhija-niyāma deals with growth and heredity in living systems; citta-niyāma is the principle whereby the mind forms and organizes thoughts and memories to represent the ‘external’ world; and dhamma-niyāma is the principle of change and dependent arising that determines all manifestation. What they organize is a coherent pattern of behaviour that we call a ‘field.’ That is, everything within that field operates in accordance with the niyāma that governs it, wherever and whenever – it extends in space and time. You don’t find one star doing something that others don’t; they can’t ignore gravity and other laws of matter. Fields are found throughout the world of nature: we can observe stars in galaxies held by gravitational energy; and we know that the earth has a magnetic field that migrating birds tune into to guide their long flights of passage. Those birds will fly in flocks as a field, functioning as a single unit without the need for communication between its members. So fields are holistic: in a field every individual part is affected by what the others are doing by being in touch with the field to which they both belong. Similarly our bodies arise in their electro-magnetic field in which every part is connected. If you take two heart cells place them apart and stimulate one, the electro-magnetic field of the other will register the change; the two will entrain.
The intelligence of a fields in living organisms is organized around the bhija (‘seed’) principle: ‘Grow and multiply!’ That’s its fixed law. So whether it’s a cabbage or a squirrel, that’s what its life-force inclines to do above all else. And being intelligent, it ‘learns’ – it develops the best way of doing that in response to its environment. With mammals there comes the principle of looking after their young, while some will operate as part of a pack or herd, and some learn to use tools. In us humans, this field has fine-tuned its messages to instances like ‘make some friends,’ ‘get power,’ or ‘wear fashionable clothes.’ The learning field of humans, the mind, has the nature to receive input and organize it into stored meanings; it has attention as its organizing principle. It also responds, which makes it an agent in the field of kamma. So the mind is covered by two principles: citta and kamma. It surveys; it forms mental objects – that’s the mental law of ‘attention’ – and it can choose and determine – that’s the kammic law of ‘intention.’ However, problems can occur around attention, in that the mind can only hold a very small fraction of data in attention at any given time, and that it is also inattentive or highly selective as to what it notices. The other problem is that desire and aversion add biases to intention. Therefore the untrained mind comes up with the wrong message as to how to get greater well-being.
For example, when a thief sees a sage, he notices the sage’s pockets and doesn’t pick up on their wisdom or compassion. And in this case, it’s clear that intention and attention determine the mental ‘snapshot,’ or contact impression that we make. And on that we act, with skilful or ‘meritorious’ intentions or the reverse. That’s kamma. Intention and attention determine contact; and that contact (the sight of pockets) triggers intention. In this way, the field of kamma intensifies: as your mind acts, so a mind-set or attitudinal bias is generated that perceives reality in a particular way. If you incline towards stealing, pretty soon all you see are pockets, bags, locks and half-open windows. As in the above example of erroneous merit-making, intention and attention shape your mental field and create your future. That’s the fixed law of kamma.
For someone cultivating the mind, the point is that whatever you let your attention get taken by will shape your mind-field and reality accordingly: ‘whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders, that will become the inclination of his mind’ [M19] If you’re a worrier, you’ll see a world of things to worry about, and that pattern will intensify. If you’re a depressive, those signs and energies will dominate. Now if you incline towards meditation, it’s often because you want to find a still centre within – but if you don’t develop beyond that inclination, it becomes difficult to be with external processes. Of course an initial and important aspect of meditation is centring; however, if one sustains the (justifiable) view: ‘It’s bad out there, don’t touch it’ – your mind gets shaped by that view. But then where are you going to live, and who’s going to help you when you’re down? Another tendency of meditators is to try to order the environment to make it a tidy field that supports the inner centre. This too makes sense – but it has an effect, which is to centre the mind around ‘me in control mode.’ Furthermore, both of these attitudes are based on the assumption that what’s around our centre is a world of otherness. Actually, if you observe what you notice and what your mind sticks on, in comparison to what other people notice and stick on, you see that beneath the outer appearances you’re in the field of your mental kamma, of the results of how your intention and attention have formed the reality that then bothers or blesses you.
The principle is: don’t let your intentions get captured by what pops up in attention, internally or externally. Instead, establish an intention to counteract negative forces such as bitterness, aversion, fear, doubt and craving. Without this approach, we just obsess with what’s in our minds – and doing that will increase the power of the obsession in the mind’s field. If you can’t disengage from obsessive thoughts in meditation, the practice is counter-productive, even harmful. But, whether meditating or not, if you can shift out of the reflex patterns of the mind, you’re going to establish a field of benefit, for yourself and others.
Once you get this point, you try to sustain that field in daily life. And it’s not through trying to make the world fit your mind. The way it works is like this: one of our local Thai supporters has a food shop which reputedly sells the best noodles on the South coast. One day, and not for the first time, some folk smashed the window of his shop with thieving intent. Our supporter was mightily peeved. However he went with colleagues on a shopping expedition to a local Cash and Carry to buy a stock of produce. Here the checkout girl, probably more through incompetence than design, overcharged them to the tune of £60, thus triggering much debate and an earnest review around the checkout. However, this was concluded by our supporter saying ‘Never mind, I’ll cover the costs!’ Later, as when friends asked him why he undertook to shell out £60 rather than go through all the bills and find out who owed what and where the mistake was, he explained that he was feeling so fed up because of being ripped off that he needed to make some merit to set his heart straight. His friends, being Thai, immediately understood. Let down by the forces of the world, he’d felt the best thing to do was to regain his own centre by means of an act of relinquishment and largesse.
To take another example. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2008, I was taken to a monastery in Rambodogalle, in the district of Kurunegala. Behind the buildings, work was in progress on carving a Buddha-image in the cliff-face. Incomplete at the time, it stood at over 67 feet tall. The senior monk, Ven Egodamulla Amaramoli, explained that the project began in 2003, shortly after the Taliban demolished the giant Buddha-statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The local village children, saddened by the news, came to see him with the wish to create a new Buddha as a replacement. He thought it was out of the question, but they’d gathered a handful of rupees and wanted to donate them to such a project. And so it began. Hearing of the children’s faith and largesse, other people got inspired; donations came in. An Indian architect also got interested and he offered his services. This brought people from the Tamil community into the project…and so on. When there is a common sense of value, there is a field, and in that any small act of goodness snowballs into an avalanche. It’s the same principle that gives rise to the yearly Kathina and other alms-giving occasions: hundreds of people come together, share, meet, feel good, listen to Dhamma and get to sense their ordinary up and down lives within a supportive context.
Of course these events can seem tumultuous and disturbing, but the way the Buddha taught meditation was to release the mind from its tendency to get thrown by circumstances – not to ignore or annihilate the field that forms around us. (How can we?) His encouragement was to keep inclining the mind towards more skilful intentions, until eventually the clinging that generates a sense of self is eased out of occupying the organizing centre. That is, as we find our axis, say through the steady and calming energy of breathing in and out, we gradually widen the awareness to include the whole body, and sense the breath energy through that entire field. This ‘bodily formation’ then holds itself, and the sense of holding it, of me being the centre, can relax. There still is a sense of centre, but it’s the quality of composure, of single aim and intent called ‘one-pointedness’ (ekaggatā). Through contemplating and clearing that of tension, defence, ambition, conceit and all the rest, this centre lets go of location and self-centred purpose. It holds a pure field, a field of benefit. By staying connected to that pure and strong intention, the sense of unruffled ease covers whatever it contacts. And that definitely changes the ‘feel’ of the world around and within you: you’re not getting organized by confusion, reactivity and deluded views, the heart is untroubled and you can respond with wisdom to what comes up.
In this way mind-cultivation then moves beyond the initial centring techniques of meditation to take on a larger significance and application. It entails shifting intention, attention and contact out of the me-mine habitual mind-field; the one that has the magnetic pull in it and organizes itself around a personal centre. To keep working on that shift is Dhamma-practice: the consequence is that instead of connecting to our field of demerit, the one that shapes me and the world I’m stuck in, there’s an opening to the noble field.
Because of this blessing field, people like to be around those beings in whom it has developed. And that’s evident. In Thailand, one of the main duties of the Ajahn is to ‘receive guests.’ People gather round to share time and sense the quality (‘palang’ from the Pali ‘balam’ – ‘strength/ power’) of his field. And the visitor’s part in that is to extend their field of benefit by making offerings. The sharing is a happy and unforced one; the disciple’s mind is open and receptive and simple teachings go deep. Values such as ethics, kindness and restraint are re-affirmed; faith in the Dhamma is strengthened; a current problem gets resolved; stillness and calm are lifted up; and there is the happy sense of being able to offer support to something worthy.
Kamma is a fixed law. And on top of intention, the factors of attention and contact play their part. So if you associate with the wise with good intention, you get good results. This is what the Buddha meant by Sangha (not necessarily monks and nuns, but realized beings); and called it an ‘incomparable field of merit.’ The point is that we have to be in a field: that’s the law; so what field do you belong to? Who’s going to be there for you when times are bad? And what in yourself is going to stay at peace when that happens? In a time when so many social structures – family, career, home, neighbourhood – are getting threadbare, it’s advisable to work on the field of merit.