Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 3 Bases of Merit

Unbeknown to many western Buddhists, as well as teaching about the three trainings of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha taught the three bases of merit, or meritorious action (punna-kiriya-vatthu). The aforementioned three trainings are wisdom (panya), morality (sill), and concentration (samadhi), and are a subdivision of the Path; they are well-known amongst most Buddhists around the world. The Buddha taught these Trainings (exclusively?) to monks and nuns, whereas the bases, sometimes called the training in merit, were aimed specifically at laypeople. The latter teaching of the three bases (of merit) is less well-known, and is the subject of this reflection. The bases are:

  1. Dana: Generosity
  2. Sila: Morality
  3. Bhavana: (Mental) Development

Generosity, or giving, is a central element in Buddhist practice. In Buddhist monasteries the world over, you can find multitudes of laypeople donating food, medicines, robes, money, and all manner of things to the monks (bhikkhus). It is believed that by sustaining the bhikkhus with their basic requisites, the layperson will reap good fortune in the future, as well as enable the monks to focus their energies on developing wisdom and sharing it in turn with the laity. (Bhikkhunis, or ordained nuns are a different issue, and a somewhat controversial one. Officially, the order of Buddhist nuns died out in countries like Thailand, and there is resistance to its reestablishment, so whether the same merit comes from making offerings to these nuns is debatable. This author takes the view that it is up to each Buddhist to make up their own mind on this issue.)

Another way to make merit through giving is to give to the poor and needy. This too not only is seen to produce positive results in the future for the giver, but also help create a more cohesive and content society that’s conducive to practicing Buddhism. A third aspect of dana is the gift of Dharma itself. In sharing the Dharma (the Buddhist Teachings), a great deal of merit can be generated, as indicated in the words of the Buddha himself: “The gift of Dharma surpasses all other gifts.” (Dhammapada, verse 354) So, if one has developed some understanding of the way things are according to Buddhist practice, it is much to one’s merit to share it freely with anyone who shows an interest.

Sila is the living of a virtuous life, something often sneered at these days by those too cynical or uninspired to attempt to such an existence. This is a great pity, for even regarding the basic five precepts that every lay Buddhist is encouraged to undertake will produce an ocean of merit. One will become harmless, honest, faithful, truthful, and clear-headed if the five precepts are kept to. They are the precepts to refrain from killing any living creature, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Just imagine a society where the majority of people kept these precepts: Peaceful, safe, loving, compassionate and with no or very few drink-drivers! As to each individual, he or she can benefit in their own life through establishing a happy and guiltless character.

A blameless personality is a sound foundation for the cultivation of the third meritorious base of bhavana, or mental cultivation. Meditation for instance will be much smoother for someone who isn’t plagued with self-doubt and guilt. Mindfulness too can be sustained with a mind that’s not distracted with questioning thoughts and emotions. Alongside mindfulness and meditation, another important aspect of mental development is the so-called four divine abodes of kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. A mind that is calm through meditation, alert through mindfulness, and loving living in the divine abodes, is a mind much more capable of the heights of wisdom that the Buddha taught, as well as a mind creating a positive future life.

The emphasis of the training in merit (punna-sikkha) is less on wisdom and the absorptive states of concentration that bhikkhus usually have more time to devote themselves to. Whereas the focus of the bhikkhu’s life is supposed to be on the cultivation of meditative states that lead to enlightenment in this very life, the three bases of merit are geared towards creating a wiser, happier future for both the individual and lay society at large. This isn’t to say that lay Buddhists shouldn’t attempt the deeper meditative states (I myself am a keen meditator), but that this should be done in the context of leading a much more complicated social setting. This is why the training in merit is less stringent and detailed as the three trainings. Which ever one chooses to practice, the benefits are manifold. So, let us walk on!

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