Spectrum of Merits

Venue: SBS

A large majority of Buddhists in Malaysia tend to place their interest and faith mainly on giving dana and attending festivals. They do not have the same interest and faith in Dhamma talks, let alone meditation classes.

This spirit of generosity has frequently been taken advantage of by those not-so-virtuous such as bogus monks and sometimes even genuinely ordained monks from poorer countries. They capitalise on our inherent generosity. In our effort to counter this unhealthy state of affairs, the SBS monastics regularly go to the markets in and around Taiping for pindapata and during this time, we try to educate the devotees on the proper way to make offerings and donate allowable requisites to monks, especially when it pertains to money.

Today’s talk is to encourage devotees to go beyond dana and to instill a level of awareness that there is an entire spectrum of merits. Dana is actually at the lower end. This talk is based primarily on two suttas – Velama Sutta (AN 9:20) and Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta (MN 142 – Exposition of Offerings).

Velama Sutta

This sutta, about a Brahmin of the past called Velama, was expounded by the Buddha to Anathapindika in Jetavana monastery near Savatthi. Anathapindika was a great philanthropist who gave free food without discrimination. On one particular occasion, Anathapindika told the Buddha he did not feel satisfied because the dana consisted of inferior food.

The Buddha then told him that regardless of the quality of the food offered for dana, there are 5 ways of giving dana that will bring undesirable kammic returns, resulting in the giver being disinclined to appreciate quality food, clothes, vehicles or pleasures of the 5 senses. His family and servants will also not respect him. His mind will not be aroused to understand what he has been told.

This refers to dana that is given:

  1. not carefully
  2. disrespectfully
  3. not personally
  4. with rejected items
  5. with a view of not coming.
  6. Dana not given carefully

    Such dana is given without faith. The donor does not have the desire to give but does so out of obligation (common among businessmen who give because they do not wish to offend someone) or with an ulterior motive.

    2. Dana given disrespectfully

    This occurs when the dana is given without respect for the recipient. During our Sunday pindacara in the marketplaces around Taiping, we find that many know how to give in a respectful manner. Some even kneel and bow to us. However, a few will just dump the food into our bowls. The commentaries describe it as ‘not giving with a refined mind’. It lacks generosity and liberality.

    Here is a story to illustrate the consequences of giving with little faith and respect, and of regret after having given.

    According to Dutiya-aputtaka Sutta (SN 3:20), King Pasenadi of Kosala inherited the substantial fortune of a man who had died without an heir. This man had lived the life of a pauper, not inclined to make use of his wealth. The Buddha explained that in a remote past life, the man had given alms to a Pacceka Buddha but subsequently regretted it. As a result he was reborn in the heavenly world for the next seven lifetimes, but also had seven rebirths as a wealthy householder whose mind was not inclined to enjoy his fortune.

    3. Dana not given personally

    Some people have the faith but not the time. They therefore entrust others to do it on their behalf. When such kamma ripens, they will not be inclined to enjoy its fruits.

    Payasi Sutta (DN 23) tells us of Payasi, a sultan who ruled under King Pasenadi of Kosala who did not believe in the hereafter, spontaneous rebirth or kamma. One day, he met Ven Kumarakassapa, a well-known orator monk who was passing through the village. Using various similes, the monk managed to convince the good sultan that rebirth does occur according to one’s actions (kamma).

    The sultan decided to give a dana to the public and delegated the task to his servant, Uttara who proceeded to do so with joy, preparing it personally and offering it respectfully and with complete faith.

    Subsequently, the sultan was reborn in an empty celestial mansion within the realm of the Four Great Kings while Uttara was reborn one level higher in Tavatimsa Heaven because Uttara had offered the dana personally, carefully, respectfully and with complete faith whereas Payasi had only delegated the job.

    4. Dana given with rejected items

    This means giving or donating rejected/discarded items. During the tsunami disaster last year, many relief centres received unwanted, irrelevant items from ‘so-called’ donors. Such giving is still dana but the donor will not be inclined to enjoy the kammic returns.

    5. Dana is given with a view of not coming

    This is a literal translation of the Pali word anaagamana-di.t.thiko.

    Twenty-five years ago, when I was just a young monk who had recently returned from Burma and Thailand, I continued my practice of going for pindapata. At that time, it was uncommon to see monks doing that here. I discovered that if I were to go to the same place too often, the doors of households that had earlier been opened to me would be slammed shut in my face. Some people give to monks with the hope of getting rid of them.

    The commentaries however explain this word as ‘giving without believing in kamma and its result’.

    In Vacchagotta Sutta (AN 3:57), the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta approached the Buddha and said he had heard that the Blessed One had said this: “Gifts should be given to me only and not to others. They should be given only to my disciples and not to the disciples of others. Only what is given to me and my disciples bring great fruit, not what is given to others.” He then asked the Buddha, “Do those who say thus report the Master’s actual words and not misrepresent him?”

    The Buddha replied: “What I actually teach is this: when a person, after rinsing his bowl, throws away scraps in a pond wishing that the living beings there may feed on them – even that too is a source of merits, not to speak of giving a gift to human beings. However, I do declare that giving to a virtuous person who is free from greed, hatred and delusion will bring greater fruit than that giving to the immoral.” Thus, the Buddha was implying that there is a hierarchy of merits depending on the virtue of the recipient.

    Now, let us continue with Velama Sutta. The Buddha told Anathapindika the story of Brahmin Velama, who was a personality in one of his past lives. He gave a sumptuous dana but none of the recipients was worthy of it. The Buddha then expounded a hierarchy in the merits obtained depending on the virtue of the recipient— a spectrum of merits.

    Beginning with Velama’s mahadana at the lower end of the spectrum, the Buddha listed in ascending order, a hierarchy of merits, thus:

    It is more meritorious giving a meal to

  • sotapanna than the mahadana of Velama
  • sakadagami than a meal to 100 sotapannas .
  • an anagami than a meal to 100 sakadagamis.
  • an arahant than a meal to 100 anagamis
  • paccekabuddha than a meal to 100 arahants.
  • sammasambuddha than a meal to 100 paccekabuddhas
  • the bhikkhu-sangha headed by the sammasambuddha than a meal to one sammasambuddha.

Making a vihara for the sangha from the four directions is more meritorious than giving a meal to the bhikkhusangha headed by the sammasambuddha.

Compared to the above, it is even more meritorious to take refuge in the Triple Gem with understanding, conviction and commitment (not when it is just recited parrot-like).

One step higher than taking refuge in the Triple Gem is observing the Five Precepts. It is easy to chant the Panca Sila but real effort is required to observe them.

Developing metta even for just a few moments is the next lofty step.

Finally, the highest merits is when one is able to perceive the impermanence of phenomena, as during vipassana meditation, even if it is only for the period of time required to snap your fingers.

Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta

A further breakdown of the spectrum of merits can be found in Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta (MN 142). In this sutta, the Buddha said that if a person was to give dana to an animal, he would receive kammic returns of a hundred-fold. If it is given to a normal person who does not observe the five precepts, it is a thousand-fold. If it is given to a virtuous, ordinary person (one who observes the five precepts but is unattained), it is one hundred thousand-fold. When it is given to one who has attained the jhanas, it is ten billion-fold.

Any personal dana given to a disciple on the path to Stream-entry and onwards (until arahantship and beyond that to a paccekabuddha and to a sammasambuddha) is immeasurable following the hierarchy of merits mentioned earlier. However, if one offers dana to the Sangha, even though the recipients may be immoral or bogus monks, this offering bears greater fruit than any dana to an individual, however worthy.

All this talk of kammic returns appears to be calculative and not very good for the Chinese mentality. In fact, I have heard the Chinese Buddhists in Malaysia being dubbed ‘greedy merit-makers’! We just want to make merits but do not care about the immediate consequences. Let us take, as just one example, the issue of robes. We monks are swamped with them every Kathina even though we don’t need so many sets. One should use one’s wisdom and discretion when doing dana. The law of kamma works on the principle that you reap what you sow. If you give something that is not needed, in future you might receive a lot of things that you do not need or want. Who knows, maybe we monks gave a lot of robes indiscreetly in our past lives, so now we receive so many sets that we have to worry about finding a storeroom that is rat-proof and termite-proof in order to store them!

At SBS, devotees are encouraged to contribute instead to a common kathina fund that can be used to procure the quantity of robes that are required for the number of Sangha present. The rest of the money is used to maintain and run the monastery for the rest of the year.

Such preoccupation with the kammic returns of merits have led to a kind of reaction towards it. As Buddhism evolved after the Buddha’s demise, the concept of paramis was introduced. This word, in the sense of our present understanding of it, cannot be found in the early scriptures of the Pali Canon. It started to appear in the later scriptures now found in the Khuddaka Nikaya (Minor Collections). According to this concept, if you give dana with the hope of getting some form of worldly return, it is not parami, but just mundane merits. When something is done without thinking of the returns one can get but done just for the sake of doing good, that is parami. One good example is giving something useful to someone who needs it at the right time, without considering how much kammic returns the dana will bring. Or, when the motive is to gain liberation from greed, hatred and delusion, to become free of any notions of selfishness or conceit is also parami.

In conclusion, I hope everyone here will not merely be contented with just dana – which is a low-end type of merit – but will try to perform the full spectrum of merits. Do study the Dhamma and put it into practice especially in applying metta in your thoughts, speech and actions. In addition, every effort should be made to practise vipassana meditation – which is at the highest end of the spectrum of merits – so as to eventually be liberated from samsara.


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