Southern Ontario’s Cham Shan Temple is growing again. Physically, it is one of the largest Chinese Tiantai Buddhist networks in Canada, with ten sizable temples and Buddhist educational sites in the Toronto area, and a museum housed in an imposing pagoda in Niagara Falls. Its various temples boast a large number of full-time monastics, high attendance at their services, and wide influence in the booming Chinese-based stream of Canadian Buddhism. Now an ambitious plan is underway to build four pilgrimage sites on 1,350 acres of land, with temples, eating facilities, and replicas of the four holy Buddhist mountains of China.

Four thousand kilometers away, things are not going quite so well at Zenwest on Victoria Island in British Columbia. The community has created an impressive international network of practitioners, partly through their use of new online methods for delivering teachings and building community. But after thirteen years of sustained effort, Zenwest can no longer afford to pay their abbot’s salary. They have phased him out as a paid employee, a decision that has forced him to get a parttime job to support his family. Because of this, he is no longer as available to do many of the administrative and teaching tasks needed to support the monastery and attend to the needs of students and participants.

As these snapshots suggest, the financial landscape in North American Buddhism varies widely. The uneven distribution of wealth among monasteries and training centers affects their ability to carry out their various activities. Few Buddhists would say they have chosen to pursue the dharma for monetary gain, but the brutal truth is that if Buddhist communities fail to acquire ongoing funding, they will not be able to provide many of their programs or may even be forced to close down altogether.

Buddhist activities have always been costly, of course. Monks and nuns need to eat; communities must build meditation and worship halls; and they have to produce statues, scrolls, books, paintings, beads, and robes. The lineages that have survived are those that have successfully established sufficient funding for their needs. How, precisely, have they managed to do so?

Buddhist communities have used a wide range of means to ensure their financial well-being. Yet one model that developed in the early stages of Buddhism became the primary organizing principle for most of the community’s economic activity and then persisted in nearly all subsequent communities. This model is so fundamental and widespread that it can be seen as the classical formula of Buddhist economic relations. It is the exchange of spiritual labor and financial support between the monastic sangha and the community of lay practitioners. The driving force of this model is merit (Skt., punya; Pali, punna). We may refer therefore to this historic Buddhist system as the merit economy.

Briefly stated, the merit economy is a framework in which the laity provides monastics with the funds to sustain themselves and carry out the religious services the laity needs and wants. This support has many motivations on the part of the laity, including their respect and devotion for the monastics, their wish to see the Buddha’s teachings spread and benefit others, the social pressure they feel to conform to the expected models of generosity, and even legal obligations. But above all, their motivation is to share in the store of merit produced by monastic activities.

Merit—as the currency of this merit economy—is essentially an intangible product of behavior. When an actor performs an action that is considered “good” by Buddhist tradition, this action produces some degree of merit; “bad” actions produce demerit. The resulting amount of merit or demerit depends on a complex set of factors, including the actor’s intentions and purity, adherence to the correct ritual procedure when carrying out the activity, the identity of the recipient, and so on. Merit also influences the actor’s future experience: good deeds lead to good experiences such as a better rebirth, wealth, exposure to the Buddhist teachings, and the love and devotion of family. By the same logic, bad deeds and their demerit lead to various forms of suffering—rebirth in the hell realms, loss of status or wealth, sickness, and so forth. Whether immediately or in a distant lifetime, merit affects the actor in a way that is natural, logical, and inexorable—even if its workings are often hidden.

According to this Buddhist framework, monastics are better suited to produce merit easily and successfully because their codes of behavior help them to cultivate merit and prevent them from accumulating demerit. Furthermore, most Buddhist societies believe that ordination affects a monk or nun ontologically, so that a monastic is different from and holier than the layperson he or she was before. After ordination, monastics engage in various activities that serve as mighty engines of merit production: meditation, scriptural chanting, elaborate devotional services, teaching dharma to others, and more. Indeed, this is their primary role as monastics. It is not true, then, that monks and nuns do not work. Rather, they are a specialized class of workers within Buddhist society who create and disseminate a specific, highly valuable product: merit. The work to produce this merit—the chief commodity of the merit economy—can be called merit labor.

Laypeople are also able to produce merit, but their capacity to do so is limited because their situations force them into demeritorious actions, and because they lack the time, training, and circumstances to perform the most meritorious Buddhist practices. They therefore rely primarily on the monastic sangha to perform merit labor on their behalf. An important aspect of merit is that once it is produced, it can be redistributed. It thus acts as a type of currency that “buys” the laity rebirth in the heavenly realms, physical beauty and health, happiness, and even nirvana or buddhahood. Thus merit is the most valuable Buddhist currency—far more valuable than money, because unlike merit, money cannot buy us love or happiness, and we cannot take it with us when we die. There has never been a historic Buddhist culture or subculture operating without reference to merit, and in almost all cases none has operated without the merit economy at its center.

This economic exchange in which the laity acquires merit from the monastic community is known as dana (generosity). Monastics represent for the laity a field of merit: their purity and ritual expertise are the fertile ground in which the laity sow seeds of generosity to acquire a crop of merit. In turn, the laity represents for the monastics a field of dana in which to cultivate the ideas of merit, karma, and rebirth. This trade—money for merit or the monastics’ material support for the fulfillment of the laity’s wishes—is the foundational basis of the merit economy and, historically speaking, of Buddhism itself.

As Buddhists spread their ideas and practices through Asia, they did so in relation to the merit economy, whose establishment in new societies was the key factor in allowing Buddhism to take root and thrive. Buddhists have often said, “No Buddhism without the sangha,” and one might add, “No Buddhism without the merit economy, the essential lifeblood of the monastic sangha.”

One of the first challenges that Buddhists encountered when bringing the tradition into a new culture was the necessity to confront and transform the preexisting economy. Non-Buddhist cultures operated with their own economies, which were not merit-based; these other models can be called non-merit economies. But because Buddhists could only thrive in situations where they were able to sell merit, the transformation of non-merit economies into merit economies had to be one of their primary concerns.

It is not difficult to see how monks and nuns promoted merit and convinced lay practitioners of its effectiveness in the transmission of Buddhism in a number of cultures. Buddhism’s success in China, for example, was partly due to the introduction of scriptures that extolled the benefits of making merit. One of the first of these texts, the Sutra in Forty-two Sections, taught readers to make merit by offering food to monks. A later text, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra for Humane Kings Who Wish to Benefit Their States, dramatically upped the stakes by promising that rulers who materially supported Buddhism would be protected from disasters and revolts. When Buddhism was brought to Japan from Korea, it was with the promise that Buddha worship would bring benefits to the royal court. Similar dynamics played out across Asia.

Merit is thus one of the most successful Buddhist ideas in the long history of the religion. By comparison, some of the tradition’s core principles—like the concept of no-self—have been either largely ignored or poorly understood by significant swaths of the Buddhist population. Furthermore, merit accumulation has been the one practice that has united all Buddhists, monastic and lay. This is in contrast with activities like sutra recitation, meditation, doctrinal study, and precepts, which different lineages have engaged in varying degrees. There has never been a historic Buddhist culture or subculture operating without reference to merit, and in almost all cases none has operated without the merit economy at its center.

merit economy
Photo by Melvyn Longhurst / Getty Images

So how does Buddhism fare in contemporary Western society, where norms often deviate from those established by the merit economy?

While Canada’s Cham Shan Temple is hardly the only wealthy Buddhist organization with significant land and property in North America, its financial success is more the exception than the rule when it comes to Buddhist temples and meditation groups. In fact, in many cases, groups that draw relatively wealthy members are facing the greatest financial difficulties. A significant factor is their failure to promote merit and establish functioning merit economies.

Many groups, temples, and even whole Buddhist networks in North America are operating outside of the Buddhist merit economy. They do not exist within a society that has successfully adapted to the logic of Buddhist merit, and they do little or nothing to create the conditions for such an economy to emerge, not even within their own membership. More than changes in ritual practice, racial composition, gender roles, or social activism, the jettisoning of the central, pervasive, and economically crucial notion of merit is potentially the biggest and most significant transformation in certain Western Buddhist groups and networks. It is a cleavage so momentous in its implications that some day it may appear in retrospect to be a paradigm shift as major as the rise of the Mahayana school in India around the first century BCE (although it may never attain a similar market share of the overall Buddhist community). And yet this change is largely unnoted, even by the very groups that are enacting it.

The term “post-merit Buddhism” may be used in order to frame this new model of Buddhist practice and organization. But it’s important to note that the forms that have emerged from this new framework didn’t simply evolve from Buddhism’s early lineages; they have arisen in the places where Buddhists have failed (by choice or circumstance) to establish merit economies.

Since the introduction of Buddhism into 19th-century North America, significant numbers of teachers from various Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, and other lineages have offered Buddhist concepts and individual practices without stressing the role of merit. One reason for this has been the Western perception that belief in merit is superstitious or unscientific—both handicaps in an era characterized by faith in Christianity on the one hand and in scientific empiricism on the other. The first wave of Asian teachers to bring Buddhism to the West were eager to escape the colonial scripts that portrayed Asian Buddhists as backward; new Western practitioners wanted to pursue only those forms of spirituality that did not clash with their sensibilities. Indeed, some Asian teachers had ambivalent feelings about merit themselves, and those who didn’t sometimes de-emphasized merit-based teachings and practices when they felt these might be misunderstood or ignored. Western students, meanwhile, often edited the teachings they received, bracketing out those that did not resonate with them spiritually or intellectually. This process was as much unconscious as it was deliberate: students simply paid more attention to teachings they found meaningful and ignored the others until over time they were forgotten.

But beliefs, both affirmed and rejected, have real economic effects. When merit stops being a viable currency, sweeping changes occur in nearly all other aspects of Buddhism. For example, the traditional merit labor of monks and nuns ceases to have value, which threatens their ability to cultivate the laity as a field of dana. Instead, Buddhist monastics become experts—along the lines of doctors, lawyers, professors, and other secular professionals—rather than merit producers. They are valuable not because they are ontologically superior and produce karmic benefits for those who engage with them, but because they have expertise in a body of knowledge they may share with non-experts.

Connected to this shift is a devaluation of monasticism in general. If celibacy and other monastic practices are no longer necessary to ensure the production of merit, and what truly matters is the knowledge that monks and nuns possess, then lay professionals can displace the monastic sangha as the new, quicker-footed experts and instructors. These lay professionals may be nominally ordained but still have jobs and families (as is common in Zen lineages, for instance). Or they may be former monastics—even former Buddhists—who teach aspects of Buddhism from a therapeutic perspective (as often occurs within the mindfulness movement). Without merit, models that turn Buddhist practice sessions into fee-for-service events become ever more common, and—consciously or unconsciously—teachers begin to see practitioners as potential customers in a competitive marketplace.

Simultaneous with the loss of merit is the diminished importance of karma. Without karma, the central concepts of rebirth and past and future lives collapse, leaving Buddhists to focus on the present life alone, forced to dramatically reimagine most elements of Buddhism. Without karma, the reality of powerful buddhas, saints, and deities becomes suspect or irrelevant. The threat of rebirth in hell evaporates, depriving Buddhists of a longstanding marketing tool for their services. Related ideas about gender—that rebirth in a woman’s body is a karmic punishment or that women’s defilements cause them to be reborn in a boiling pool of blood—become even more dubious than before. This is good for equality but bad for business: premodern Asian monks and nuns were successful at fundraising by convincing women that donations to the sangha represented their only hope for a better (future) life. Or maybe not: hopefully the presence of such misogynistic beliefs would themselves present an economic liability in modern North America.

In addition, as the concept of merit continues to disappear from certain Buddhist communities, the value of Buddhist statues, images, scriptures, and pilgrimages decreases, and consequently practitioners treat them less reverently. Without the ability to endow amulets, charms, scrolls, statues, and other items with meritorious power, post-merit Buddhist communities will lose another vital source of funding. This is especially true as they compete with outlets like Home Depot and Amazon for the sale of cheap Buddha statues and mass-produced Buddhist texts, to say nothing of the resources available online at no cost.

In post-merit forms of Buddhism, practices like silent meditation—repurposed as a tool for self-improvement—replace other merit labor activities such as long periods of sutra chanting. Through this process, formerly rare Buddhist practices become mainstream, perhaps dominant, and practitioners reconceive their benefits as scientific, medical, and psychological in nature rather than based on systems of invisible merit and its effect on future lives.

The loss of merit also impacts end-of-life and memorial rituals, which in many Buddhist cultures are essential sources of income. Without the need to manipulate merit at those moments when rebirth is assumed to take place, these rituals lose their urgency and laypeople stop paying for them. The loss of merit substantially undermines the foundations of traditional Buddhist ethics as well, creating the need for major reconstruction. Without merit, we are no longer able to explain our current life circumstances in light of our past behavior, and our current actions do not predict our destiny. Fear and desire stop acting as motivators, and empathy and compassion achieve an even greater importance than before as key ethical values. Thus, appeals to Buddhist donors will play more on their feelings toward the community and highlight the good works of Buddhism in the world at large.

Finally, given post-merit forms of Buddhism’s commitment to particular, often reformist, visions of the tradition, they are likely to have a difficult time according equal value to merit forms of Buddhism, their communities, and their practices. They will also have trouble understanding the Buddhist past and will continually reinterpret Buddhist history, seeing their own new practices and visions in productively misinformed ways tinged with romanticism. Instead of regarding their innovations as new, untested ideas and patterns, they will believe them to be actual inheritances from tradition.

None of this should be taken as a suggestion that specific groups need to immediately switch to a merit-based approach to Buddhism. For many, that would be artificial, or even antithetical to their approach to the dharma in the first place. Historical Buddhist practices are not necessarily superior just because they were common—Buddhist monasteries often sustained themselves through the use of enslaved labor as well. The point is to become more aware of the economic implications of various choices and note their effects. Whenever one type of successful fundraising is abandoned, some other equally effective means must be developed, or financial difficulties are inevitable. And the shift to new models carries many unintended doctrinal and practical implications, for better or for worse.

Still, the merit model is alive and well in parts of North American Buddhism. Cham Shan—which makes ample use of the merit economy—shows that merit-driven Buddhism can continue to operate within non-merit economies like that of the larger Canadian society. At least one way they do so is by employing the rhetoric of merit and actively cultivating local merit economies. With luck and inventiveness, creative Buddhists should be able to tap opportunities that exist within merit and non-merit economies simultaneously. Indeed, something like this already exists within the Tibetan Buddhist world in America, where some lamas offer merit-based teachings and practices for their Tibetan-American followers but emphasize post-merit activities to their non-Tibetan audiences.

Ultimately, if Buddhist groups don’t successfully adapt North American society to Buddhist models or attitudes, Buddhism will have to be adapted to answer the needs felt by North Americans. The proliferation of the mindfulness movement for improving our work, parenting, eating habits, and sex lives is one clear example. Another possible example is presented by social engagement: by offering refuge amid political, economic, or cultural turmoil, by instilling social activists with sustainability and resilience, or by becoming socially engaged themselves, some Buddhist circles may attract sufficient funding by being relevant to our society’s current state of affairs.

How Buddhist centers in the West continue to evolve and find funding for their operation will be keenly watched not only by researchers and those pursuing courses in Buddhist studies but also by leaders of dharma centers and those teachers who are aware of the wider history—and ambiguous future—of their tradition.

Adapted from “Buddhism without Merit: Theorizing Buddhist Religio-Economic Activity in the Contemporary World,” which first appeared in the Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 20 (2019).

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