"Transference of Merit" in Ceylonese Buddhism
By G. P. Malalasekera

Philosophy East and West
V. 17 (1967)
pp. 85-90

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


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    IN THE PALI TEXTS used by the Buddhists of Ceylon, in common with those of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, mention is made of ten "acts of merit"; i.e., good deeds which bring happiness to the doer both in this world and in the hereafter and which will ultimately lead to the Buddhist goal of nirvana. These deeds are classified into various categories, as those of body (physical), speech (verbal), and mind (mental). Every good deed produces "merit" which accumulates to the "credit" of the doer. The popular belief is that a person's death, his "merits" and "demerits" (the results of his evil actions) are weighed against one another and his destiny determined accordingly, as to whether he is to be born in a sphere of happiness or a realm of woe. In later literature, a god named Yama performs the act of judgment. Yama is very much a counterpart of the Hindu deity of that name.

    Among the ten good deeds, two are of special interest for our present purpose. They are called, respectively, patti and anumodanaa. The first word, derived from the Sanskrit praapti, etymologically means "attainment" or "acquisition." In an extended sense it also means "merit," "profit," "advantage," and in its religious significance, a "gift given for the benefit of someone else." It then goes on to mean "accrediting" or "transference" and, more particularly, "transference of merit that has been acquired" -- hence "a gift of merit." In this sense it is sometimes joined to the word daana (giving), almost by way of elucidation, signifying the giving of merit as a permanent acquisition by the recipient.

    The method of such transference (the Pali term for which is pariva.t.ta) is quite simple. The doer of the good deed has merely to wish that the merit he had thereby gained should accrue to someone in particular, if he so wishes, or to "all beings." The wish may be purely mental or it may be accompanied by an expression in words. This could be done with or without

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the particular beneficiary being aware of it. Also, the fact of "transference" does not in the slightest degree mean that the "transferor" is deprived of the merit he had originally acquired by his good deed. On the contrary, the very act of "transference" is a good deed in itself and, therefore, enhances the merit already earned. The act of "sharing" one's good fortune is a deed of compassion and friendliness and, as such, very praiseworthy and "meritorious."

    Where the beneficiary is aware of the transference, another very important element comes in. This is called in Pali anumodanaa, which means "rejoicing in"; the "joy of rapport." Here, the recipient of the transfer becomes a participant of the original deed by associating himself with the deed done. Thus, this identification of himself with both the deed and the doer can sometimes result in the beneficiary getting even greater merit than the original doer, either because his elation is greater or because his appreciation of the value of the deed done is more intellectual and, therefore, more  "meritorious." The Pali Commentaries contain several stories of such instances.

    Anumodanaa can take place with or without the knowledge of the doer of the meritorious act. All that is necessary is for the "beneficiary" to feel gladness in his heart when he becomes aware of the good deed. He could, if he so desires, give verbal expression to his joy by saying "saadhu" once or several times. The word corresponds to "amen" and almost means "well done." It thus becomes a sort of mental or verbal "applause." What is significant is that in order to share in the good deed done by another, there must be actual approval of it and joy therein in the beneficiary's heart. The doer of the good deed cannot, even if he so desires, prevent another's anumodanaa, because he has no power over another's thoughts. Here too, as in all actions, it is the thought which, according to Buddhism, really matters.

    The classic example of this transference of merit, etc., is a story connected with Bimbisaara, king of Raajagaha, a contemporary of the Buddha and a great patron of Buddhism during his lifetime. It is said that the king once invited the Buddha and a retinue of monks to his palace for a meal. At the conclusion of the meal, there was heard a great din outside. The Buddha revealed that it was caused by some of Bimbisaara's kinsmen who, after their death, had been born as petas (evil spirits) and were suffering pangs of hunger and thirst. He told the king that it would be of no use to give them food or drink because, on account of their evil deeds, they could not partake of such things. But, said the Buddha, if the merit the king had gained by giving food to holy men were to be transferred to his departed kinsmen, by virtue of the merit so acquired, they would enjoy the fruits thereof and

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be able to satisfy their needs. This the king did and the result was immediate. The erstwhile petas now became happy beings and they made known their gratitude to the king in no uncertain terms.

    The Buddha went on to say that the greatest boon one could confer on one's dead ancestors was to perform "acts of merit" and transfer to them the merit so acquired. This is the theme of the well-known Tiroku.d.da Sutta which the Buddha preached on that occasion.

    Here the Buddha says, among other things:

    Those who are compassionate towards their deceased relatives give, on occasion, as alms (to holy men) pure, palatable and suitable solid and liquid food, saying, "May the merit thus acquired be for the comfort and happiness of our deceased relatives." And they (the relatives) who receive the merits of almsgiving wish thus: "May our relatives, from whom we have received this boon, live long." Those who give also receive the fruits of their deed....

    In the world of departed spirits there is no sowing or agriculture, nor any cattle-keeping. There is no trading, no buying or selling for money. They who are born there from this world live on what is given from this world....

    Alms should be given in their name by recalling to mind such things as, "(When he was alive) he gave me this wealth, he did this for me, he was my relative, my friend, my companion, etc." There is no use in weeping, feeling sorry, lamenting and bewailing. These things are of no use to departed spirits.

    This injunction of the Buddha is the counterpart of the Hindu custom, which has come down through the ages, of performing various ceremonies (generally called sraaddhaa) so that the spirits of dead ancestors, called pit.rs (cf. manes) might live in peace. It has had a tremendous influence on the social life of the people in countries like Ceylon. The dead are always remembered when any good deed is done and more specially so on occasions connected with their lives, e.g., their birth or death anniversaries.

    On such occasions, there is a ritual which is generally followed. The transferor pours water from a jug or other similar vessel into a receptacle, while repeating a Pali formula which has been translated as follows:

                As rivers, when full, must flow
                    And reach and fill the distant main;
                So indeed what is given here
                    Will reach and bless the spirits there.
                As water poured on mountain top
                    Must soon descend and fill the plain,
                So indeed what is given here
                    Will reach and bless the spirits there.

The pouring of water is symbolic.

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    As time went on, this transference of merit was extended in various ways. One of the most interesting of these developments is its introduction into the worship of devas or superhuman beings.

    No prayers were offered to the Buddha even during his lifetime, and the ceremony of worshipping the Buddha as practiced now is only an act of homage and gratitude. But, human nature being what it is, the need is always there to look up to someone more powerful than ourselves for help and protection, especially in times of adversity.

    The Buddha acknowledged that there were beings in various spheres of existence, some of them higher and more powerful than humans, and he is said to have declared that these benevolent beings could be of assistance to men, if their aid were sought. Accordingly, there grew up among the Buddhists the cult of deva-worship, more or less analogous to that in vogue among the Hindus, except that no sacrifices of any kind are ever offered. Some of the devas, here called gods for convenience, are identical with Hindu deities, especially Vi.s.nu, but most of them are of local origin and have probably been adopted and accepted by the Buddhists from their ancestral religions.

    What is important to note is that none of these deities, not even the mighty Brahma himself, is everlasting. They have their cycles of birth and death, like humans, except that their life-spans spread over vast stretches of time. They are born in their heavenly spheres only because of the good deeds they had done in their previous lives, as human beings, and their continued existence depends on the store of merit they have accumulated.

    It is believed that in their own worlds the opportunities for good deeds are few and far between, whereas on earth such opportunities are numerous. Human beings, therefore, can earn the goodwill and gratitude of these mighty devas by doing meritorious acts and transferring the merit so gained to them. Such transference is accompanied by various ceremonies in which flowers, incense, and lights are offered as marks of respect to the deity concerned. The deity does not need these things at all, but he is happy to feel so honored. He does, however, need his store of merit to be constantly replenished so that he might continue to exist where he is. The greater his store of merit, the longer he could live and the more powerful he could be. He could use this power to help his votaries gain their wishes.

    Of late, the practice of attempting to gain the favor of the gods in order to achieve various personal ambitions has grown tremendously. It is evident, for instance, in political elections where rival candidates are seen going to the same famous shrines to win the goodwill of the presiding deity. Vows are made, promising that various meritorious deeds will be done in the name of the deity so that he would enjoy the benefits thereof. Such vows include, for

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example, lighting many hundreds of lamps round a stuupa, in which holy relics of the Buddha are enshrined, or offering before it large quantities of flowers. These are the customary ceremonies, the performance of which in the name of the gods is believed to give them pleasure and happiness. When rival parties appeal to the same god, how the deity concerned makes his decision is not known. One is reminded of prayers being addressed to the same god in times of war by both parties to the conflict. One redeeming feature about the vows referred to above is that their fulfillment brings intrinsic merit to their performers, irrespective of whether or not they also confer benefit on the deities in whose name they are carried out. The effort, therefore, will certainly not have been wasted. All concerned stand to gain, hence, probably, the popularity of the custom.

    The question has been asked whether this doctrine of merit-transference or, as it has sometimes been designated, vicarious or reversible merit, is a teaching of "primitive" Buddhism and not a later development due to the influence of the Mahaayaana doctrine of Bodhisattvas who share the results of their good deeds with all beings. This question is among those found in the discussion between the arhant Naagasena and King Milinda, as recorded in the Milindapa~nha (generally attributed to the first century A.D.).

    It may be pointed out that in the formula in which the candidate for ordination seeks permission from the ordaining monk, the following words occur: "Reverend Sir, forgive me all my faults. May the merits gained by me be shared by your Reverence. It is fitting also to allow me to share the merits gained by your Reverence. It is good. It is good. I share in it." Now, there can be no doubt about the great antiquity of this formula and, therefore, of the teaching enunciated in it.

    In the Milindapa~nha itself the King expresses the view that if the recipient is not conscious of a gift of merit being offered, the giver gets no benefit thereby. Naagasena cites several examples to prove the contrary. The argument is that the act of transfer is an act of unselfishness and the reaction of the action on oneself has a purifying effect, as well as on the person to whom the act is directed. Naagasena tells King Milinda, "If a man transfer merit, that merit grows and grows more and more, as he keeps on transferring it, and the merit of that deed he is able to share with whomsoever he will." Where the act is absolutely unselfish, the force sent out describes, as it were, an open curve and adds something to the general store of goodness on which the world at large must draw for its support.

    Merit and demerit are the causes of existence and, since all beings are inextricably woven in the meshes of existence, there cannot, strictly speaking, be an arbitrary division of "your" merit and "mine." Such divisions are mere

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delusions. The utter selflessness which renounces the fruits of one's labors that others may profit thereby is a corollary of the unique Buddhist teaching of anattaa ("no-self").

    The doctrine of "imputed righteousness" is not confined to Buddhism, but the Buddhist theory is really quite different from the corresponding Western idea, even from the Catholic doctrine of the transference of the righteousness of saints.