A popular practice in Thailand is to visit a temple and make merit (ทำบุญ / tum-boon in Thai). Thais take much comfort in the good results that they will receive from giving food, robes, and medicine to Buddhist monks, as seen in the current Khao Pansa (เข้าพรรษา) festivals, where temples are inundated with gifts. Of course, people don’t stop at giving just the four basic requisites to the monks, they will also offer candles, incense, toothbrushes, and just about anything else that they think the men in orange might need or want. It doesn’t always stop there, though. A monk at Wat Pah Nanachat here in Ubon Ratchathani told me that many laypeople even like to offer mobile phones to the monks – I didn’t know that enlightenment was available with a quick phone call nowadays!
All this isn’t to say that giving alms food and other stuff to monks is in any way ‘wrong’, it’s just that many (most?) Thai Buddhists seem to think that it’s all they need to do in their practice of the Buddha Dharma. And in this, they would be ‘wrong’! The Buddha taught that there are two kinds of gifts (dana) in this world. The first kind is what Buddhism calls amisadana, or material gifts, whilst the second kind is known as Dhammadana, or the gift of Truth. In the Pali Canon, he is quoted as saying:
“The gift of Dharma excels all other gifts.”
(Dhammapada, verse 354)
Ajahn Chah was also somewhat doubtful of the long term benefits of giving material gifts to the monks when not backing up such action with actually practicing the Buddhist Way. After all, this kind of behavior is akin to singing God’s praises in a church on a Sunday, then being an absolute heathen the rest of the week. The venerable forest master questioned the ultimate merit to be found in visiting temples to pay homage to the Sangha (the monks’ order), but then not bothering to learn how to improve themselves in any way. He compared it to trying to dye a dirty, unwashed cloth: it’ll still retain all the dirt.
Ajahn Chah was concerned that people use the Dharma as a stopover point, flitting from temple to temple like a crazed bee, picking up the pollen of desire and dumping at the next flower, only to collect more ‘pollen’ there. People want to perform good works, in the hope that this will deliver good results for them in the future; they’re not concerned with giving up unwholesome acts, such as those refrained from in the five precepts.
This desire to receive future benefit from making merit is often geared towards material goals, rather than spiritual ones. Merit makers are all too often caught up in the desire to accrue more social status or wealth, but remain unconcerned with increasing the amount of kindness, compassion, and wisdom in their lives. Ajahn Chah taught that we can accrue merit whilst sat in our homes, if we practice according to the Dharma, developing wholesome mind states such as harmlessness, generosity, equanimity and mindfulness. He told merit-making visitors to Wat Nong Pah Pong that the highest form of merit is giving up that which is unwholesome: giving to the poor and to monks are good deeds, which will sow the seeds for future happiness, but if wrongdoing is not relinquished also, that happiness will be short-lived.
As an interesting footnote, many merit-makers that visited the great ajahn would also request numbers from him, believing that as he was a highly-accomplished meditation master, Ajahn Chah could supply them with winning lottery numbers. He always refused to give his visitors any numbers, emphasizing that practicing the Buddha Dharma was the real way to achieve something good in this life. He never denied the existence of magic, but just felt that people’s focus should be on the true magic of Dharma. In a final twist of irony, after Ajahn Chah’s death, many local people in Ubon used the date of his demise as their lottery numbers – and they won!
Going to a temple and making merit is a worthy endeavor, and one which I would never say people shouldn’t do, but if practiced in isolation, without following the Buddhist precepts or developing mindfulness and kindness, the merit made will be much less potent, and unable to counter the future effects of unwholesome action. To truly give the gift of Dharma doesn’t just mean teaching Buddhist ideas to others, nor paying for the publication of Dharma books, but in actually living those teachings day to day. This is the heart of the Buddhist path to Awakening.