Buddhist Motivations for Doing Good
Merit-Making or Merit-Accumulation
The concept of merit based on the law of karma, connected with better rebirth and worldly enjoyment hereafter as consequences, seems to be the best known of the Buddhist motivations for doing good. Though, practically, it is a dominating idea, a general reference of religious people, and a strong influence on the behavior of most Buddhists, its importance and prevalence are often overemphasized or sometimes even exaggerated.
These are some points of argument:
- Many Buddhists do not relate their merit-making to any concrete results but the present benefits to the recipients and they are merely happy in doing so. (The concrete results, if any in their mind, are something like a confidence of what will come out naturally by the law of causality, without any necessity for expectation.)
- Phenomenologically, it seems that it is the old people who relate their merit-making to better rebirth. Many others engage themselves in merit-making in order to dedicate merit to others. Today, more serious meritorious activities and ceremonies are usually for others rather than oneself, though “others” here usually means one’s beloved or respected.
- Though merit-making in the form of giving (especially to monks) is most prevailing, it should be remembered that there are many other forms or ways of making merit. (Scriptural traditions cite ten bases of meritorious action, namely,  giving,  moral behavior,  mental development,  humility,  rendering services,  giving out merit,  rejoicing in others’ merit,  listening to right teaching,  showing truth and  forming correct views. DA.III.999)
The Feeling of Common Good and Doing the Way of the Good
Following are some observations:
- It is not that when the monks are less concerned with merit motivations, all of their activities should be nibbana-motivated. It is true that every right behavior of the monks becomes automatically favorable to the practice toward nibbana, but that should be taken as helpful conditions rather than nibbana-motivated.
In observing monastic discipline binding on community life (as distinguished from individual life) and the teachings concerning the brotherhood and the religion, it is social responsibility and the feeling of common good that motivate, (e.g., D. II.77; D.III.245; A.V.70).
- Laymen are also expected to share with the monks the above motivations for practicing various virtues, especially those expected of them as duties, such as the four bases of sympathy (A.II.32) and the ten householders (S.IV.331). Even the laymen’s material support to the monks is fundamentally based on the responsibility for mutual good (It.ll).
- Both monks and laymen are expected to practice various virtues as they are the way of the good (sappurisa – such as A.III.46; A.IV.113).
In this are included compassion and the other two sublime states of mind (sympathetic joy and equanimity). This kind of motivation is characterized by the desire for the good of others, readiness to help or to act, and non-expectation of selfish results in any form. At least three forms of motivation can be distinguished in Buddhist behavior, namely:
- The spirit of being first to give help or to do good to others, without expecting anything in return (pubbakarita).
- The spirit of doing good for the benefits of those who come after (the posterity or succeeding generations) (pacchima-janatanukampa).
- The spirit of doing good for, or devote oneself to, the good of the many (bahujana-hitanukampa).
This term should be reserved only for the practices leading directly to, or on the way to, nibbana (such as the foundations of mindfulness and the enlightenment factors) when they are rightly practiced, and for the destruction of mental defilements that is coupled with the right practice of a virtue.
Strictly speaking, nibbanic motivation is kammatic. Right practice toward nibbana is possible only when it is coupled with knowledge, not any motivation toward nibbana.
Out of the desire to attain nibbana, one may acquire some knowledge of what nibbana is. If one acts from that knowledge, the action becomes nibbanic. But to act out of the desire for nibbana is really kammatic.
It should be noted that an act out of loving-kindness (Class 3) can be included in merit-making activities of Class 1, if it is not qualified by freedom of the mind. To make this clear, some further remarks should be made.
According to the text, there can be distinguished two types of merit ormeritorious action (puñña):
- One is qualified as opadhika (merit or meritorious action that is connected with, or conducive to, a better rebirth or further enjoyment). Any act of giving, keeping moral rules or showing loving-kindness that is opadhika is included in Class 1 (the first section above).
- The other is qualified as anupadhika (merit or meritorious action that is not connected with, or conducive to, any worldly ideas). This is meant by activities in Class 3 (the third section above). Strictly speaking, loving kindness here must be qualified by the freedom of the mind (metta-cetovimutti). This is far superior to the merit-making activities in Class 1. (See It.20; and ItA.117–123 in the Thai edition).
Source: Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto, Vision of the Dhamma: A Collection of Buddhist Writings in English (Nakhon Pathom, Thailand: Wat Nyanavesakavan, 2007), 110-112.
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For a study guide on the topic of merit entitled “Merit: A Study Guide” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, click http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/merit.html The contents include:
- Basic wisdom
- Dana (generosity)
- Sila (virtue)
- Bhavana (meditation)
- The merit of stream-entry
- Beyond merit