What is merit?

Outside of the West, the primary practice of Buddhists around the world is not meditation but the cultivation of merit (Skt., punya; Pali, punna), an intangible product of good actions that will deliver beneficial results in the future. Earning merit is of primary importance to many Buddhists, and its creation and transfer are central to the traditional relationship between the laity and monastics. Buddhist teachings hold that merit-earning activities improve both the individual and the wider world.

The Buddha recognized that not everyone hearing his teachings was prepared to completely dedicate their lives to the quest for enlightenment, which often means leaving home to join a monastic order. Through the accumulation of merit, however, it’s possible to break up the journey into multiple steps by being reborn in circumstances more conducive to reaching nirvana, liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The Buddha discussed three types of acts that generate merit:

  1. giving (dana)
  2. morality (sila)
  3. mental development (bhavana).

Giving can take the form of charity to those in need or generosity in general. The most important beneficiaries of giving, however, are Buddhist teachers. In the Buddha’s day, laypeople could earn merit by giving offerings to the Buddha and his monks and nuns in exchange for receiving the teachings. The majority of Buddhist communities still operate this way today, with the laity financially supporting the monastics, who reciprocate with education.

Morality, or virtue refers to upholding the precepts—guidelines for ethical living—as well as following the eightfold path, particularly right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

Bhavana, often translated as meditation, encompasses the whole field of Buddhist practice—reciting mantras, pilgrimage, meditation, and studying the texts. All of these wholesome practices earn merit.

Like currency, merit can be transferred, and ceremonies for the transfer of merit from oneself to other beings are common in Buddhist cultures; indeed, they can be said to constitute a sophisticated “merit economy.” Transferring merit is an act of generosity as well as a merit-earning activity in itself.

For those unfamiliar with merit, it may seem materialistic or transactional, but it is considered valuable for its own sake. The Buddha said, “If people knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing . . .  even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with.”


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