In many cultures, an essential part of Buddhist practice is “making merit” by doing good works, serving the ordained sangha (monks and nuns), and giving money to worthy (not exclusively Buddhist) organizations. Overwhelmingly, making merit is seen as putting currency into an imaginary karmic bank account, which can magically erase any bad karma we’ve generated. However common this approach may be, it is not what the Buddha taught or intended.
When we do good, generous things, merit is made in the form of lightening our hearts, of supporting a wholesome habit of giving up whatever we’re clinging to. It is a form of purification, which wears away the universal unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. This purification, in turn, gives us a better chance of deepening our wisdom and therefore breaking the causal chain of experience right where the grasping (taṇhā) happens. So these three ideas – merit, purification, and ending grasping – are inseparably connected.
In the words of Ajahn Jayasaro: ‘Making merit’ is the most popular religious practice of Thai lay Buddhists, and as such, has, over the centuries, been the most misconceived and most subject to distortion. To this day in Buddhist communities, the knowledge that puñña [merit] means ‘that which cleanses the mind’ (in most cases equivalent to ‘good kamma’) is far less widespread than might be expected.
The Buddha taught that cleansing of the mind takes place through three main activities: acts of generosity (cleansing the mind of attachment to material possessions), moral virtue (cleansing the mind of the intention to harm self and others) and mental cultivation (systematically cleansing the mind of defilements). This last was considered by far the most powerful source of purification. A single moment of deep inner peace was said to create more merit than an offering of alms to the Buddha himself.
So, whatever dedication we have to cultivating mindfulness, of training our minds towards clarity and away from a narrow or rigid concept of self, is a powerful support for the growth of wisdom.
In general, it’s true that the more time we spend thinking about ourselves, the less happy we’ll be; and the more time we spend considering the needs of others and acting in virtuous ways, the happier we’ll be. We cannot become free of suffering only by focusing on ourselves and our perceived needs.
The instructions about how to ‘make merit’ are clear: act generously, behave in an ethical way, and practice whatever form and level of mindfulness we’re capable of. Ideally, we practice all three forms continuously. We can eliminate the grossest obstacles by avoiding petty, selfish acts; monitoring our behavior for its ethical content; and doing at least five minutes a day of whatever mindfulness training we can. There is no entry fee; we can start right now, just as we are.
And what’s the benefit of these activities? Nothing less than entering the path of clarity, joy, and freedom.