Merits – Can they be transferred?

Venue: Fong Oi Peng’s House

It is the Chinese belief that the spirit of a departed person will hang around for 49 days before moving on to another realm of proper rebirth. The Theravada scriptures, however, do not explicitly mention such an intermediate stage. Even so, many of us must have heard about or even experienced situations where the spirits of the departed return to contact the living. In one of his talks, Ajahn Brahm, who was initially sceptical about such occurrences, eventually came to entertain the possibility that there could be an intermediate life because he could not deny the many cases of real-life experiences that he had heard from his devotees where the deceased returned to contact the living.

Before beginning this talk, we chanted two suttas. The first is the Karaniya Metta Sutta – radiating metta to beings far and wide. In this sutta, the Buddha did not give instructions to the monks to radiate metta to oneself first followed by others, as is the norm during our usual metta meditation sessions. This sequence is actually found in the VisuddhiMagga which was written by Buddhaghosa during the 5th century AD, about 900 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana. The VisuddhiMagga was based on the tradition of the elders of the MahaVihara monastery, the centre of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka at that time.

In the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Buddha started by describing the qualities of the monk who wants to practice metta. The monk then wishes all beings peace and happiness first, followed by other specific beings, seen and unseen, near and far, beings in all the directions throughout the universe. The sutta concludes by saying that one who radiates metta in this way can eventually go beyond sensual pleasures to achieve liberation.
The second sutta is the Tirokudda Sutta – Behind the Wall Discourse from the 5th Nikaya. In the first verse of this sutta the word peta is mentioned. Most Buddhists equate this word to a “hungry ghost” i.e. a ghost in a miserable state of existence. In this sutta however, petarefers to “the departed one” – not necessarily a hungry ghost only. The earlier Nikayas and Vinaya Pitaka define peta in this same way. The first verse starts off by saying that the living, having prepared a sumptuous meal, do not invite the departed to enter the dwelling to partake of the food. This is due to the departed ones’ past unskillful kamma and therefore they have to gather outside at the road corners, compounds, doors and windows, etc.

The second verse mentions that people who have compassion for the deceased should actually prepare suitable food and dedicate them to their departed souls. What is given to them reaches the departed as sure as “rainwater flows from the hills down to the sea”. After dana, we frequently chant these lines from this verse “Idam vo ñatinam hotu sukhita hontu ñatayo”. We are actually saying “May this be for you all departed relatives, may (you) relatives be well and happy.”

[NB: Sometimes different words are used. Instead of “Idam vo ñatinam”, “Idam no/me ñatinam” are chanted. They can all be used, but they have slightly different meanings:

vo means “you all”

no means “our”

me means “my”.]

In their world the departed have no means of making a living because they can’t engage in the usual worldly occupations like farming, cattle rearing, trading, etc. They have to depend on these offerings. Out of gratitude, the departed in turn wish their living relatives good welfare and longevity.

Recently, someone sent me an article titled “The So-Called Transference of Merits”, written by a scholar. This scholar researched the whole concept of transference of merits in the scriptures. It says that in the early suttas, there is no mention of transference of merits. For example, in the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31) and Adiya Sutta (AN 5:41), it is the actual giving of material food and offerings to the departed that was praised by the Buddha. However, in the later texts of the Nikayas and commentaries, transference of merits was mentioned. A question arises: “How can merits be shared?”

According to the Theravada understanding of the Law of Kamma, we are the makers and heirs of our own kamma. Therefore, there is no question of “sharing/transferring” meritorious kamma to another. The concept of transference of merits contradicts this understanding.

For example, NidhiKanda Sutta (Khp 8) mentions that the kusala/wholesome things that we do are not common to other people, i.e. they cannot be shared. In Culasaccaka Sutta (MN 35), a person engaged in a debate wth the Buddha. When he lost, he was sporting enough to invite the Buddha and the Sangha for dana. He also invited his supporters to give him offerings so that he could offer them at the dana. After dana, he dedicated the merits attained to all those who have participated in the offering. The Buddha then told him that the merit gained by his supporters when they gave the food to an unpurified person like him would be for themselves whereas the different type of merit that he gained when he offered it to a purified person like the Buddha was accrued to himself only. Here, the Buddha appears to be saying that merits cannot be shared.

This is a different scenario from that seen in Nandamata Sutta (AN 7:53). One early morning, Nanda’s mother was happily chanting some verses from the Sutta Nipata when she suddenly heard a voice saying, “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!” She looked around in surprise. At that moment, Vesavana, King of the Yakkhas was actually passing by. When he heard the melodious chant, he stopped to listen and was so delighted that he cried, “Excellent!” When Nanda’s mother discovered that it was King Vesavana, she happily told him to let her chanting be a visitor’s gift to him. In return, King Vesavana informed her that the Venerables Sariputta and Moggallana will be arriving this way tomorrow with the whole community of monks and advised her to prepare breakfast for them. She should then dedicate the merits accrued to him.

The next day, after the dana, Venerable Sariputta asked Nanda’s mother how she knew that the monks were passing this way. She told him the story of King Vesavana, after which she dedicated the merit and its fruit for the happiness of the king. In this sutta it would seem that merit could apparently be ‘transferred’ for Venerable Sariputta did not object to Nandamata’s dedication, unlike the case of Culasaccaka.

There appears to be some sort of inconsistency here. In the end verse of the Kaladana Sutta (AN 5:36), the Buddha said that all those who either gave dana or offered their services as well as those who were not involved at all but witnessed the offering and then rejoiced in it, share the same amount of merits. It is clear now that while merit cannot actually be shared or transferred (for each of us is the heir of our own karma), it can be gained when a person rejoices in the good that is done. Merit is thus ‘shared’ in this way.

In conclusion, I don’t know whether the idea of the departed returning to say goodbye within the 49 days time lapse is something that happens generally for all cultures or it is only found in the Far East because we are conditioned by our cultural circumstances. We think we ought to be there for 49 days, therefore we are stuck there for 49 days. There doesn’t seem to be this kind of report coming from the West.

I am currently reading a book titled “The Journey of Souls” by Dr. Michael Newton, a psychotherapist who did several years of research compiling case studies of his clients on past-life regression. In many cases, he found that it is quite universal that when one dies, one does not get reborn immediately but goes on to an intermediate state where one’s disembodied spirit is very much attached to the old body and surroundings. Depending on the degree of attachment, the length in the intermediate stage varies. One who is very attached to his past life stays longer whereas a highly developed person – an ‘old soul’ (as opposed to a ‘young soul’) goes on to another state which is higher than this earthly plane but is not yet a rebirth.

As Buddhists, you might feel uncomfortable that the word “soul” is used here because the Buddha talked about anatta (no self/no soul) and we always link the word to the Christian/ Indian concept of a permanent unchanging entity. However, the use of the word “soul” here refers to the group of 5 aggregates that are in the process of evolution. A ‘young soul’ is not spiritually developed and has a lot of worldly attachments whereas an ‘old soul’ has gone through a lot of lessons in his previous lives and is spiritually more matured.

Such a disembodied spirit might be restricted in their movements by certain laws that we do not yet understand. So, when we invite them to partake of the food offered, perhaps they rejoice in the good that we do and in this way, they create merits for themselves. As I said in the last part of my book Honouring the Departed, giving dana is a low end type of merit-making. Apparently, the beneficiary of our dana must be aware that we are offering the dana and they must rejoice in order to be able to benefit from it. For the high-end type of merit-making such as chanting, metta/vipassana meditation, this awareness may not be required.

We hope that the late Madam Lee Tong Leng will benefit from today’s dana, dhamma talk and merit-making ceremony. We also hope that she will be able to let go of any attachment, positive or negative to this past life and fare on to a better existence.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!



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