Wishing and merit
Dr Upul Wijayawardhana February 3, 2017, The Island.lk
Wishing for more seems to be an ingrained human characteristic but at other times it may simply be an expression of dire need, like Charles Dickens’ character Oliver Twist asking for more; for a bit more of the thin gruel that kept hunger pangs away but slowly starved to death young boys in 19th century workhouses in Britain. Oliver was chosen to plead on behalf of all but ended up with a knock on the head with the ladle and was put up for sale!
Unfortunately, wishing is notorious for continuing incrementally. One who walks wishes to have a cycle, the one riding a bicycle wishes for the convenience of a motorcycle and the one with the motorcycle wishes for the luxury of a car. When you get a car you want more than one; basic one for driving to work, another more flashy for leisure and, perhaps, yet another extravagant one to demonstrate your wealth, accrued legally or otherwise. This invariably leads to greed which, in turn, leads to attachment. Some of us believe in doing good to accrue merit, so that what we wish for, will be ours, if not in this birth but in a subsequent one at least. This cannot be bad, some may argue, as it gives hope and is certainly better than for fear of eternal damnation.
Acquiring merit is purported by many to be a Buddhist concept. If merit is acquired wishing for better prospects, surely, it leads to attachment. The first Noble Truth, the Buddha preached, is ‘Dukka’, a lack of satisfaction due to clinging to impermanent states and things which makes acquiring merit rather paradoxical. In fact, the complete misunderstanding of the concept of ‘Karma’ has led many in the West to believe that Buddhism is a ‘Religion of Insurance’. To clear my doubts, I turned to my favourite booklet ‘Satyodaya’ (Dawn of Truth) by Venerable Walpola Rahula, one of the most erudite Buddhist scholars of our time whose words of wisdom, giving true interpretation to the teachings of the Buddha, have been disregarded for over three-quarters of a century.
In a chapter titled ‘Meritorious deeds and Wishing’ (C5, P37-51) he explains these concepts lucidly which makes interesting reading for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It is a great shame that an English translation of this little gem is not available. Doing anything with the hope of collecting merit is unwholesome and even ‘wishing’ to attain Nibbana is not compatible with the teachings of the Buddha, he contends. I will make an attempt to summarise his arguments, to the best of my limited ability.
To seek truth, one has to be unattached, discuss openly and analyse facts intelligently. To assume that what you read in books or what your teachers taught is the whole truth is a misconception which limits your own thinking, thus preventing the realisation of the truth. Free thinking is the most important thing and the Buddha is the first, perhaps the only, religious leader that encouraged freedom of thought.The Buddha went to the extent of insisting that His words be accepted only after due consideration and verification.
People do trade in goods & services and offer it to all irrespective of nationality, caste, creed or race, as long as there is a profit. This is not considered a meritorious deed as it is done for personal gain. Similarly, if one helps the poor with the intention of getting fame and praise in this life, then that too becomes a business as it is done for gain. Even if your are not interested in the present but do so with the hope of acquiring merit, which could be used as currency for a good next life, there is no significant difference as the good action gets tainted with a selfish motive. Whether you expect benefits now or in a future life amounts to postponement of profit. There is no difference between depositing money in a bank to get interest and doing meritorious deeds with the hope of reaping benefits in a future life.
‘Karma’ is a much misunderstood concept. It simply means that every action has an effect and the Buddha enunciated this long before Isaac Newton came up with his third ‘Law of motion’. Doing something wishing and hoping for a benefit is an attachment. It is a business venture. Though helping the poor is a good deed, if it is done with the intention of reaping benefits, it becomes unwholesome. It should not be made a path to heaven. It should be done with the sole intention of helping a less fortunate, even at the expense of your losing out; that then becomes a noble deed.
Even observing the five precepts should be like that. You should not kill an animal not because you are scared of the karmic backlash but because you have kindness and compassion for that animal. Avoiding doing nasty things because you are scared of ill effects is better than doing the nasty thing but the best is not to do it because you realise it is bad. The real noble action is doing it with no expectations. What matters is the proper understanding.
It is a fact that many ordinary people may not understand this in the correct perspective. In fact, the Buddha stated that his Dhamma is not for those lacking knowledge. Truth cannot be changed so that ordinary people may understand. Truth is truth and it cannot be simplified though some attempt to do so resulting in false-truths. What should be done is to educate people so that they reach a standard where they can understand the truth.
Though the ultimate liberation is Nirvana, craving to achieve that,itself, is an attachment. You can achieve Nirvana only by giving up all attachments. Priests often mislead by stating that Nirvana could be achieved only by attaining Buddhahood or by becoming a Pase-Budu or an Arahant or that you should wait for Maitriya Buddha’s time. Though there are numerous stories as to how various individuals attained enlightenment, they are simply stories told by story tellers and these should not defy the truth. Greatest of all the difficulties is putting into words the truths enunciated by the Buddha and quite a lot of misunderstandings arise as a result of this.
I was humbled and gratified to note,what Venerable Rahula states keeps in with what I have stated in the past; that though ‘Folk Buddhism’ served a purpose in the past and preserved Buddhism for us, in a world with an explosion of knowledge with easy accessibility, it is only the truths of Buddhism that will stand the test of science which, I am sure, it will do, considering the increasing world-wide interest in Buddha’s concepts like mindfulness.
thanks, good read