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"Transference of Merit" in Ceylonese Buddhism

G. P. Malalasekera

Philosophy East and West, Vol. 17, No. 1/4. (Jan. - Oct., 1967), pp. 85-90.

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Fri Jan 4 00:04:05 2008

"T~ansfemceof Merit" in
Ceylonese B~ddhism
I N THE PALITEXTS 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 nirviina. These deeds are classified into various cate-
gories, 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 per-
forms 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 anumodanri. The first word,
derived from the Sanskrit prripti, etymologically means "attainment" or
"acquisition." In an extended sense it also means "merit," "profit," "ad-
vantage," 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 drina (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 parivatta)
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 ac-
companied by an expression in words. This could be done with or without

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 "meri-
Where the beneficiary is aware of the transference, another very im-
portant element comes in. This is called in Pali anumodana, which means
"rejoicing in"; the "joy of rapport." Here, the recipient of the transfer be-
comes 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 in-
Anumodami 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 glad-
ness in his heart when he becomes aware of the good deed. H e could, if he
so desires, give verbal expression to his joy by saying "sddhu" once or
several times. The word corresponds to "amen" and almost means "well
done." I t thus becomes a sort of mental or verbal "applause." What is signifi-
cant 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 anumodami,
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 Bimbisara, king of Rfijagaha, 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 Bimbidra'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
B U D D H I S T " T R A N S F E R E N C E OF MERIT" 87

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 Tirokudda 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 maddha) so that the spirits of dead ancestors, called Fitrs
(cf. manes) might live in peace. I t has had a tremendous influence on the
social life of the people in countries like Ceylon. The dead are always re-
membered when any good deed is done and more specially so on occasions
connected with their lives, e.g., their birth or death anniversaries.
O n such occasions, there is a ritual which is generally followed. T h e trans-
feror 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.


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 Bud-
dhists 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 V i ~ q u ,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
Brahm2 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 exis-
tence 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 con-
cerned. The deity does not need these things at all, but he is happy to feel so
honored. H e does, however, need his store of merit to be constantly re-
plenished 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.
H e 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

example, lighting many hundreds of lamps round a stiipa, 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 aslted 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 Mah2y2na 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 Nsgasena and King Milinda, as recorded in
the Milindapafiha (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. I t 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 Milindapafiha 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. NZgasena cites several examples to prove the contrary. The argu-
ment 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. Niigasena 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

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 anattd ("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.