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Nourishing The Roots
Essays on Buddhist Ethics
by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Merit and Spiritual Growth
The performance of deeds of merit forms one of the most essential elements of Buddhist practice. Its various modes provide in their totality a compendium of applied Buddhism, showing Buddhism not as a system of ideas but as a complete way of life. Buddhist popular belief has often emphasized merit as a productive source of worldly blessings -- of health, wealth, long life, beauty and friends. As a result of this emphasis, meritorious activity has come to be conceived rather in terms of a financial investment, as a religious business venture yielding returns to the satisfaction of the agent's mundane desires. While such a conception no doubt contains an element of truth, its popularization has tended to eclipse the more important function merit plays in the context of Buddhist practice. Seen in correct perspective, merit is an essential ingredient in the harmony and completeness of the spiritual life, a means of self-cultivation, and an indispensable stepping-stone to spiritual progress.
The accumulation of a "stock of merit" is a primary requisite for acquiring all the fruits of the Buddhist religious life, from a pleasant abiding here and now to a favorable rebirth in the life to come, from the initial stages of meditative progress to the realization of the states of sanctity that come as the fruits of entering upon the noble path. The highest fruition of merit is identical with the culmination of the Buddhist holy life itself -- that is, emancipation from the shackles of samsaric existence and the realization of Nibbana, the unconditioned state beyond the insubstantial phenomena of the world. The mere piling up of merit, to be sure, is not in itself sufficient to guarantee the attainment of this goal. Merit is only one requisite, and it must be balanced by its counterpart to secure the breakthrough from bondage to final freedom. The counterpart of merit is knowledge (ñana), the direct confrontation with the basic truths of existence through the eye of intuitive wisdom.
Merit and knowledge together constitute the two sets of equipment the spiritual aspirant requires in the quest for deliverance, the equipment of merit (puññasambhara) and the equipment of knowledge (ñanasambhara), respectively. Each set of equipment has its own contribution to make to the fulfillment of the spiritual life. The equipment of merit facilitates progress in the course of samsaric wandering: it brings a favorable rebirth, the encounter with good friends to guide one's footsteps along the path, the meeting with opportunities for spiritual growth, the flowering of the lofty qualities of character, and the maturation of the spiritual faculties required for the higher attainments. The equipment of knowledge brings the factor directly necessary for cutting the bonds of samsaric existence: the penetration of truth, enlightenment, the undistorted comprehension of the nature of actuality.
Either set of equipment, functioning in isolation, is insufficient to the attainment of the goal; either pursued alone leads to a deviant, one-sided development that departs from the straight path to deliverance taught by the Buddha. Merit without knowledge produces pleasant fruit and a blissful rebirth, but cannot issue in the transcendence of the mundane order and entrance upon the supramundane path. And knowledge without the factors of merit deteriorates into dry intellectualism, mere erudition or scholasticism, impotent when confronted with the task of grasping a truth outside the pale of intellection. But when they function together in unison in the life of the aspirant, the two sets of equipment acquire a potency capable of propelling him to the heights of realization. When each set of equipment complements the other, polishes the other, and perfects the other, then they undergo a graduated course of mutual purification culminating at the crest in the twin endowments of the Emancipated One -- in that clear knowledge (vijja) and flawless conduct (carana) which make him, in the words of the Buddha, "supreme among gods and humans."
But while merit and knowledge thus occupy coordinate positions, it is merit that claims priority from the standpoint of spiritual dynamics. The reason is that works of merit come first in the process of inner growth. If knowledge be the flower that gives birth to the fruit of liberation, and faith (saddha) the seed out of which the flower unfolds, then merit is the soil, water and fertilizer all in one -- the indispensable nutriment for every stage of growth. Merit paves the way for knowledge, and finds in knowledge the sanction for its own claim to a place in the system of Buddhist training.
The reason for this particular sequential structure is closely linked to the Buddhist conception of noetic realization. From the Buddhist standpoint the comprehension of spiritual truth is not a matter of mere intellectual cogitation but of existential actualization. That is, it is a matter of grasping with our whole being the truth towards which we aspire, and of inwardly appropriating that truth in a manner so total and complete that our being becomes transformed into a very reflex and effusion of the truth upon which we stand. The understanding of truth in the context of the spiritual life, in other words, is no affair of accumulating bits and pieces of information publicly accessible and subjectively indifferent; it is, rather, a process of uncovering the deepest truths about ourselves and about the world, and of working the understanding that emerges into the entire complex of the inner life. Hence the use of the words "actualization" and "realization," which bring into the open the ontological backdrop underlying the noetic process.
In order to grasp truth in this totalistic manner at any particular stage of spiritual development, the tenor of our inner being must be raised to a pitch where it is fit for the reception of some new disclosure of the truth. Wisdom and character, though not identical, are at any rate parallel terms, which in most cases mature in a delicately balanced ratio. We can grasp only what we are fit to grasp, and our fitness is largely a function of our character. The existential comprehension of truth thus becomes a matter of inward worth, of deservingness, or of merit. The way to effect this inward worthiness is by the performance of works of merit, not merely outwardly, but backed by the proper attitudes and disposition of mind. For the capacity to comprehend truths pertaining to the spiritual order is always proportional to the store and quality of accumulated merit. The greater and finer the merit, the larger and deeper the capacity for understanding. This principle holds at each level of maturation in the ascent towards full realization, and applies with special force to the comprehension of ultimate truth.
Ultimate truth, in the Buddha's Teaching, is Nibbana, the unconditioned element (asankhata dhatu), and realization of ultimate truth the realization of Nibbana. Nibbana is the perfection of purity: the destruction of all passions, the eradication of clinging, the abolition of every impulse towards self-affirmation. The final thrust to the realization of Nibbana is the special province of wisdom, since wisdom alone is adequate to the task of comprehending all conditioned phenomena in their essential nature as impermanent, suffering and not-self, and of turning away from them to penetrate the unconditioned, where alone permanent freedom from suffering is to be found. But that this penetration may take place, our interior must be made commensurate in purity with the truth it would grasp, and this requires in the first instance that it be purged of all those elements obstructive to the florescence of a higher light and knowledge. The apprehension of Nibbana, this perfect purity secluded from the dust of passion, is only possible when a corresponding purity has been set up within ourselves. For only a pure mind can discern, through the dark mist of ignorance and defilement, the spotless purity of Nibbana, abiding in absolute solitude beyond the turmoil of the phenomenal procession.
The achievement of such a purification of our inward being is the work of merit. Merit scours the mind of the coarser defilements, attenuates the grip of the unwholesome roots, and fortifies the productive power of the wholesome, beneficial states. Through its cumulative force it provides the foundation for wisdom's final breakthrough to the unconditioned. It is the fuel, so to speak, for the ascent of wisdom from the mundane to the supramundane. Just as the initial stages of a lunar rocket work up the momentum that enables the uppermost stage to break the gravitational pull of the earth and reach the moon, so does merit give to the spiritual life that forward thrust that will propel the wisdom-faculty past the gravitational pull of the mundane order and permit it to penetrate the transcendental truth.
The classical Buddhist commentators underscore this preparatory purgative function of merit when they define merit (puñña) etymologically as "that which purges and purifies the mental continuum" (santanam punati visodheti). Merit performs its purgative function in the context of a complex process involving an agent and object of purification, and a mode of operation by which the purification takes place. The agent of purification is the mind itself, in its creative, formative role as the source and matrix of action. Deeds of merit are, as we have already seen, instances of wholesome kamma, and kamma ultimately reduces to volition. Therefore, at the fundamental level of analysis, a deed of merit consists in a volition, a determinative act of will belonging to the righteous order (puññabhisankhara). Since volition is a mode of mental activity, this means that merit turns out, under scrutiny, to be a mode of mental activity. It is, at the core of the behavior-pattern which serves as its vehicle, a particular application of thought by which the mind marshalls its components for the achievement of a chosen end.
This discovery cautions us against misconstruing the Buddhist stress on the practice of merit as a call for blind subjection to rules and rites. The primary instrument behind any act of merit, from the Buddhist point of view, is the mind. The deed itself in its physical or vocal dimension serves mainly as an expression of a corresponding state of consciousness, and without a keen awareness of the nature and significance of the meritorious deed, the bare outward act is devoid of purgative value. Even when rules of conduct are observed, or rituals and worship performed with a view to the acquisition of merit, the spiritual potency of these structures derives not from any intrinsic sanctity they might possess in themselves, but from their effectiveness in channelizing the current of mental activity in a spiritual beneficial direction. They function, in effect, as skillful means or expedient devices for inducing wholesome states of consciousness.
Mechanical conformity to moral rules, or the performance of religious duties through unquestioning obedience to established forms, far from serving as a means to salvation, in the Buddhist outlook actually constitute obstacles. They are instances of "clinging to rules and rituals" (silabbataparamasa), the third of the fetters (samyojana) binding beings to the wheel of becoming, which must be abandoned in order to enter upon the path to final deliverance. Even in such relatively external forms of merit-making as the undertaking of moral precepts and ceremonial worship, mindfulness and clear comprehension are essential; much more, then, are they necessary to the predominantly internal modes of meritorious activity, such as meditation or the study of the Dhamma.
The object of the purifying process of merit is again the mind, only here considered not from the standpoint of its immediacy, as a creative source of action, but from the standpoint of its duration, as a continuum (cittasantana). For, looked at from the temporal point of view, the mind is no stable entity enduring self-identical through its changing activities; it is, rather, a serial continuity composed of discrete acts of mentation bound to one another by exact laws of causal interconnection. Each thought-unit flashes into being, persists for an extremely brief moment, and then perishes, passing on to its immediate successor its storage of recorded impressions. Each individual member of the series inherits, preserves and transmits, along with its own novel modifications, the entire content of the series as a whole, which thus underlies every one of its components. Thence the series maintains, despite its discontinuous composition, an element of uniformity that gives to the flow of separate thought-moments the character of a continuum.
This sequential current of mentation has been going on, according to Buddhism, without discernible beginning. Driven forward from life to life by ignorance and craving, it appears now in one mode of manifestation, now in another. Embedded in the mental continuum throughout its beginningless journey is a host of particularly afflictive and disruptive mental forces known as kilesas, "defilements." Foremost among them are the three unwholesome roots -- greed, hatred and delusion; from this triad spring the remaining members of the set, such as pride, opinion, selfishness, envy, sloth and restlessness. During moments of passivity the defilements lie dormant at the base of the mental continuum, as anusaya or latent tendencies. But when, either through the impact of outer sensory stimuli or their own subliminal process of growth, they acquire sufficient force, they surge to the surface of consciousness in the form of obsessions (pariyutthana). The obsessions pollute the mind with their toxic flow and rebound upon the deeper levels of consciousness, reinforcing their roots at the base of the continuum. If they should gather still additional charge, the defilements may reach the even more dangerous stage of transgression (vitikkama), when they erupt as bodily or verbal actions that violate the fundamental laws of morality and lead to pain and suffering as their retributive consequence.
When merit is said to "purge and purify the mental continuum," it is so described in reference to its capacity to arrest the surging tide of the defilements which threatens to sweep the mind towards the perilous deep of transgressional action. Only wisdom -- the supramundane wisdom of the noble paths -- can eradicate the defilements at the level of latency, which is necessary if the bonds of existence are to be broken and deliverance attained. But the practice of merit can contribute much towards attenuating their obsessive force and establishing a foothold for wisdom to exercise its liberating function. Wisdom can operate only upon the base of a purified mind; the accumulation of merit purifies the mind; hence merit provides the supporting condition for wisdom.
When the mind is allowed to flow according to its own momentum, without restraint or control, like a turbulent river it casts up to the surface -- i.e., to the level of active consciousness -- the store of pollutants it harbors at its base: lust, hatred, delusion, and their derivative defilements. If the defilements are then given further scope to grow by indulging them, they will wither the potential for good, darken the beam of awareness, and strangle the faculty of wisdom until it is reduced to a mere vestige. The performance of meritorious deeds serves as a means of resisting the upsurge of defiling states, of replacing them with their wholesome opposites, and of thereby purifying the mental continuum to an extent sufficient to supply wisdom with the storage of strength it requires in the work of abolishing the defilements.
The effectiveness of merit in purifying the mental continuum stems from the concordance of a number of psychological laws. These laws, which can only be indicated briefly here, together function as the silent groundwork for the efficacy of the entire corpus of Buddhist spiritual practice.
The first is the law that only one state of consciousness can occur at a time; though seemingly trivial, this law leads to important consequences when taken in conjunction with the rest. The second holds that states of consciousness with mutually opposed ethical qualities cannot coexist. The third stipulates that all the factors of consciousness -- feeling, perception, volition and the remaining states included in the "aggregate of mental formations" -- must partake of the same ethical quality as the consciousness itself.
A kammically active state of consciousness is either entirely wholesome, or entirely unwholesome; it cannot (by the second law) be both. Therefore, if a wholesome state is occurring, no unwholesome state can simultaneously occur. A wholesome, spiritually beneficial state of consciousness necessarily shuts out every unwholesome, detrimental state, as well as (by the third law) all unwholesome concomitant factors of consciousness. So at the moment one is performing an act of merit, the consciousness and volition behind that meritorious deed will automatically preclude an unwholesome consciousness, volition, and the associated defilements. At that moment, at least, the consciousness will be pure. And the frequent performance of meritorious acts will, on every occasion, bar out the opportunity for the defilements to arise at the time of their performance.
Thus the performance of deeds of merit always induces a momentary purification, while the frequent performance of such deeds induces many occasions of momentary purification. But that some more durable result might be achieved an additional principle is necessary. This principle is supplied by the fourth law.
The fourth law holds that repetition confers strength. Just as the exercise of a particular muscle can transform that muscle from a frail, ineffectual strip of flesh into a dynamo of power and strength, so the repeated exercise of individual mental qualities can remodel them from sleeping soldiers into invincible warriors in the spiritual quest.
Repetition is the key to the entire process of self-transformation which constitutes the essence of the spiritual life. It is the very grounding that makes self-transformation possible. By force of repetition the fragile, tender shoots of the pure and wholesome qualities -- faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom -- can blossom into sovereign faculties (indriya) in the struggle for enlightenment, or into indomitable powers (bala) in the battle against the defilements. By repeated resistance to the upsurge of evil and repeated application to the cultivation of the good, the demon can become a god and the criminal a saint.
If repetition provides the key to self-transformation, then volition provides the instrument through which repetition works. Volition acts as a vector force upon the mental continuum out of which it emerges, reorienting the continuum according to its own moral tone. Each act of will recedes with its passing into the onward rushing current of mentation and drives the current in its own direction. Wholesome volitions direct the continuum towards the good -- towards purity, wisdom and ultimate liberation; unwholesome volitions drive it towards the evil -- towards defilement, ignorance and inevitable bondage.
Every occasion of volition modifies the mental life in some way and to some degree, however slight, so that the overall character of an individual at any one time stands as a reflex and revelation of the volitions accumulated in the continuum.
Since the will propels the entire current of mental life in its own direction, it is the will which must be strengthened by force of repetition. The restructuring of mental life can only take place through the reformation of the will by leading it unto wholesome channels. The effective channel for re-orientation of the will is the practice of merit.
When the will is directed towards the cultivation of merit, it will spontaneously hamper the stream of defilements and bolster the company of noble qualities in the storage of the continuum. Under its gentle tutelage the factors of purity will awaken from their dormant condition and take their place as regular propensities in the personality. A will devoted to the practice of charity will generate kindness and compassion; a will devoted to the observance of the precepts will generate harmlessness, honesty, restraint, truthfulness and sobriety; a will devoted to mental culture will generate calm and insight. Faith, reverence, humility, sympathy, courage and equanimity will come to growth. Consciousness will gain in tranquillity, buoyancy, pliancy, agility and proficiency. And a consciousness made pure by these factors will advance without hindrance through the higher attainments in meditation and wisdom to the realization of Nibbana, the consummation of spiritual endeavor.
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