The Essence of Merit

July 23, 1957

Merit is the intention that arises in the heart beginning with the first thought to do something good. For example, today you decided that you wanted to come to the monastery. That thought, in and of itself, was merit arising in the mind. Then you came to the monastery, received the precepts, and listened to a sermon in line with your original intention. In this way, your original intention succeeded in producing more merit in line with its aims. But if you think that you want to go to the monastery, to receive the precepts and listen to the Dhamma, but someone else happens to object or criticizes you in a way that spoils your mood, the merit in your mind—the original intention—disappears. Even if someone else then invites you to come to the monastery, you come here against your will and sit here like a stump, with no merit arising in your mind. This is because the essence of merit in your mind has already died.

The meritorious things that you do aren’t the essence of merit. For example, giving donations, observing the precepts, listening to sermons, or sitting in meditation aren’t the essence of merit. Still, we have to keep doing these things so that our old merit can grow fat and healthy instead of dying away. For this reason, when you make up your mind to do something good, hurry up and do it right away. When you want to give a donation, go ahead and give a donation. When you want to observe the precepts, observe the precepts. When you want to listen to the Dhamma, listen to the Dhamma. When you want to meditate, meditate. In this way, the results of your actions will grow full and complete in all three time periods. In other words, your mind will feel happy, joyful, and satisfied in your merit when you first think of doing it, while you’re doing it, and when you’re done.…

The intention to do good—the first stage in your goodness—is the essence of merit. It’s like planting a tree. When you give a donation, it’s like putting fertilizer around the tree. When you observe the precepts, it’s like picking away the worms and caterpillars that will eat the flowers or leaves. As for meditating, that’s like watering the tree with clean, clear, cool water. In this way, your tree is sure to keep growing until it produces leaves and fruit that you can eat for your enjoyment in line with your original aim. If it’s a flowering tree, the flowers will be bright and colorful, with large petals and a refreshing scent. If it’s a fruit tree, the fruits will be plentiful, large, and sweet. This is how generosity, virtue, and meditation are means of developing the merit of your original thought.

But if your heart is in a sour mood, then you won’t get much fruit from making merit or giving donations. It’s like giving fertilizer to a tree that’s already died. Even if all you want is a single custard apple from the tree, you won’t be able to get what you want, because the fertilizer you gave to the tree has all gone to nourish the grasses and herbs growing at the foot of the tree, and hasn’t done a thing for the custard apple you wanted. In the same way, if you just go through the motions of making merit, your original aim—to abandon greed, aversion, and delusion—won’t bear fruit. The act of generosity is simply the fertilizer of merit. When the essence of merit has died, there’s no way that you can eat the fertilizer, for it’s nothing but filth—cow dung and chicken droppings. How can you ask for filthy stuff like that to come and help you in any way? But still, you’re better off than people who haven’t fertilized anything at all—i.e., who haven’t developed virtue, concentration, or discernment—for at the very least you can gather the grasses and herbs that have fed on your fertilizer, to boil in a soup or fix as a salad.

So whenever you do anything, you have to check to see whether the essence of merit is in your heart. Some people make merit when their hearts are evil. They’re like a sticky-rice sweet roasted in bamboo, where the rice on the top is soft and well-cooked, but the rice at the bottom is raw or burnt to a crisp. When this is the case, there’s no way you can eat it, for it’s not good all the way through. People by and large act in ways that aren’t in line with their minds. Some people make donations but their hearts are still greedy, as when they give a gift because they want to become millionaires. Some people give one dollar expecting to get ten thousand or a hundred thousand in return. Some people observe the precepts but their hearts are still angry, jealous, or hateful toward this person or that. Some people meditate so that they can be beautiful and shapely in their next birth, or because they want to become devas up in heaven. Other people want to be this or that—always looking for something in exchange. This kind of merit is still wide of the mark.

The Buddha taught us to be generous for the sake of doing away with greed, to observe the precepts to do away with anger, and to meditate to do away with delusion, not for the sake of feeding these defilements. Some people come here to meditate and sit here absolutely still—their eyes are closed, their posture straight and unmoving, everything on the outside just the way it should be—but their minds are running around all over the place: to their orchards, their fields. Some people’s minds go zooming abroad in search of their children or friends, thinking about all kinds of things. Their minds aren’t sitting together with their bodies. This is called a mind and a body not in line with each other—like a sticky-rice sweet where the top is cooked but the bottom is still raw.

If you’re careful to keep the essence of merit with your heart, then go ahead and do whatever goodness you want. Don’t come to the monastery behind the corpse of your merit. In other words, if you originally want to come to the monastery but someone else yells at you so that you come here in a foul mood against your will, this kind of merit-making doesn‘t help you much at all.

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The reason we need to train our minds to be solid and strong in the Dhamma is because we’re sure to face the three dangers of the world: (1) suffering, illness, and poverty; (2) death; and (3) enemies and foolish friends. We have to prepare ourselves so that when any of these things come our way, our hearts will be strong enough to contend with them bravely and without fear. No matter what side they may attack from, we have a strategy to fight them off in every way. This is why the daily blessing says, “Icchitaṁ patthitaṁ tumhaṁ khippam’eva samijjhatu,” which means, “Whatever you want and desire, may it succeed quickly.” In other words, when the mind is strong and powerful, whatever you think of doing is bound to succeed.

If you let your original thoughts of merit die or disappear from the mind before you come to give a donation, observe the precepts, or meditate, the results of the original intention won’t develop, but at least you’re better off than people who don’t come at all. The original thought of merit is like a tree. If your tree doesn’t die, then the more you fertilize it, the bigger it’ll grow and the more it’ll branch out. In other words, your actions will be lovely and quiet. Whatever your hands do will be merit. Wherever your feet step will be merit. Whatever your mouth says will be merit. Whatever your mind thinks will be merit. Your whole body will be merit. When this is the case, you’ll meet with nothing but happiness.

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Virtue, in terms of its wording, consists of undertaking the five, eight, ten, or 227 precepts. In terms of its meaning, it consists of thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that harm no one. When you think, you do it with a mind of goodwill. When you speak, you do it with a mind of goodwill. When you act, you do it with a mind of goodwill. In terms of its flavor, virtue is coolness. For this reason, the act of undertaking the precepts isn’t the essence of virtue; it’s simply a way of fertilizing virtue—our original intention—so that it’ll grow fat and strong.

The Pali word for virtue—sīla—comes from selā, or rock, so when you develop virtue you have to make your heart large like an enormous rock. What’s a rock like? It’s solid, stable, and cool. Even though the sun may burn it all day or rain may lash at it all night, it doesn’t tremble or shake. In addition, it keeps its coolness inside. What kind of coolness is that? The coolness of bravery, quick reflexes, and circumspection. This kind of coolness is virtue—not the kind of coolness of a person who’s slow and lackadaisical. If you’re cool, you have to be cool from the virtue within you. Having virtue within you is like having a pool of water in your house. When your house has a pool of water, how can fire burn it down? When you have this kind of coolness looking after your heart, how can anger, hatred, or ill will overcome it?

In addition, this cool rock of virtue holds fire within it—but not the fire of defilement. It’s a cool fire that you can put to all kinds of good uses. When you strike one rock against another, the spark can light a fire that you can use to cook your food or light your house. These are some of the benefits of virtue.

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When you practice concentration but your mind isn’t firmly established in genuine merit, Māra will come after you with a big grin on his face. What this means is the Māras of the aggregates: There will be feelings of pain throughout your body, your perceptions will be a turmoil, your thought-fabrications will think of 108,000 different things, and your consciousness will be aware of things all over the place. When this happens, your heart will be crushed and your merit snuffed out. Like a sticky-rice sweet that’s not cooked all the way through: If you eat it, you’ll get indigestion.

When practicing concentration, you have to be careful not to force or squeeze the mind too much, but at the same time you can’t let it run too loose. Force it when you have to; let it go when you have to. The important point is to keep directed thought and evaluation in charge at all times. In this way, the mind gains quality: It won’t play truant or go straying off the path of goodness. The nature of goodness is that there are bound to be bad things sneaking in, in the same way that when there are rich people there are bound to be thieves lying in wait to rob them. When you make merit, Māra in his different forms is sure to get in the way. So when you meditate, be careful not to fall into wrong mindfulness or wrong concentration.

Wrong mindfulness is when your awareness leaves the four frames of reference—body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. Here, the body means the breath, feelings are sensations of comfort or discomfort, the mind is the awareness of the body, and the mental quality we want is the quality of the present.

Wrong concentration is when you’re forgetful or unaware, as when you’re unaware of how the body is sitting, where the mind is wandering off to, how it comes back. The mind lacks both mindfulness and alertness.

But when your concentration gets established, the mind will grow higher. And when the mind is up high, nothing can reach up to destroy its goodness. Like the stars, the moon, or the sun that shine in the sky: Even though clouds may pass in front of them from time to time, the clouds can’t sneak up or seep up to make the brightness of the stars, moon, or sun grow murky or dark.

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Merit is a noble treasure. It’s the source of all our inner wealth. When it arises in the mind, don’t let anyone else touch it. When you have a source of wealth like this, it’s like having a raw diamond, which is a hundred times better than having your wealth in property, cattle, or workers, for those things lie far away and are hard to look after. If you have a raw diamond, all you have to do is wrap it in cotton and it’ll keep on growing. Just make sure that you don’t cut or polish it. If you turn it into a cut diamond, then even if you keep it for 100 years it won’t grow any further.

In the same way, when concentration arises in the mind, you have to look after it. Don’t let any labels or concepts touch it at all. That way your concentration will develop step by step. Your mind will grow higher and higher. Happiness and coolness will come flowing your way. Everything you aspire to will succeed, and eventually you’ll attain the paths and fruitions leading to nibbāna.