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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Making merit

When I first started spending time in Asia I was drawn to the many beautiful temples in Thailand. At the same time I couldn't help noticing how many people in that country live in poverty. Eventually I came to realise that the reason the temples were so elaborate was that people would give money to the temple building fund in order to make merit. Money was often given for the building of new temples but nothing would be given to maintain old ones so they were often left in disrepair.

Everyday Buddhist practice in Asia depends on the interpretation placed on the teachings. The concept that we in the West usually refer to as karma may have a slightly different interpretation in Asian countries.

Most Asians who consider themselves at least nominally to be Buddhists place a lot of emphasis on the practice of making merit. The belief is based on the principle of what goes around comes around; what you give out, you get back. Most Buddhists are not seeking enlightenment in this life. They generally believe there are a few more lives on their way after this one and they see it as a gradual process. By making enough merit in this life they hope to be born into a better life next time around.

Practices that are adopted for the making of merit include donating to temple building funds and feeding the monks. But do these donations actually bring much benefit to anyone? I know monks in some temples barely have enough to eat but in others food is thrown away. I recently visited a temple in Malaysia which was a huge complex and the building was just going on and on and on—another pagoda, more Buddha images, a huge statue of Kwan Yin. And everywhere there were notices encouraging visitors to donate to the building fund. The same temple had many shops around the complex selling items of worship or perhaps more accurately, souvenirs. It seemed obvious to me that this was a huge money-making concern. Some of these buildings were being used at times for teaching dhamma but I suspect most served very little practical purpose.

When I was in China I found that many old temples had been beautifully restored and they charged admission to tourists. Chinese people were queueing to get into such temples. And yet when I wandered into another temple there was no entry fee. There were no tourists there but many people were busy actually doing things that might be considered as practicing dhamma. I felt a much warmer atmosphere in this temple than those being used as a tourist attraction.

In another temple in another Chinese city I noticed there were many monks and nuns entering a pagoda meeting hall. I struck up a conversation with a monk who could speak English. He told me there was a conference to discuss the problem of commercialisation of Buddhism. Apparently what was happening was that businessmen would invest money for the restoration of an old temple and later they would get a cut from the entry fees paid by tourists.

Another supposedly merit making process involves the release of captive wildlife. There will be a market outside a temple. A vendor will sell you a cage full of birds which you then liberate. You feel good because you've freed the birds. But unless there was a market created by this practice the birds would not be captive in the first place.

Many markets also sell tortoises for 'liberation'. The tortoises already had their freedom in the wild but someone caught them so they could then sell them in the market for releasing, hopefully back into the wild. This process gets even more crazy.
The large temple complex I mentioned above has a 'tortoise liberation pond'. People bring the tortoises to the temple and they think they will make merit by 'liberating' the tortoises into this extremely overcrowded pond from which they have no escape. If only someone would liberate the thousands of tortoises from the liberation pond.

It's not all like that though. In one temple I bought some home-made cookies. As the woman took my money she said that the money raised from the sale of cookies supported the orphanage. I'd much rather contribute to an orphanage than a building fund.

If you've been reading this blog for some time you'll know that in the past I've done volunteer work for Tzu Chi. This organisation encourages supporters to make merit by donating to their charity work that really does help people in need in what I'd like to believe is the true spirit of Buddhism.

I'd like to end today by paraphrasing Buddhadassa who said that the Buddha said that a glimmer of mindfulness makes more merit than to feed the entire sangha and the Buddha himself.

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