Making Merit - Growing Understanding vs Growing Demerit

I’ve heard people say that those who give because they want to make merit, are giving for the wrong reasons and that these people are actually making demerit.

I would like to refer to Iti 60 before I start here. Actually, it’s such a short sutta that I’d like to quote it in full:

This was said by the Lord…

“Bhikkhus, there are these three grounds for making merit. What three? The ground for making merit consisting in giving, the ground for making merit consisting in virtue, and the ground for making merit consisting in mind-development. These are the three.”

One should train in deeds of merit
That yield long-lasting happiness:
Generosity, a balanced life,
Developing a loving mind.
By cultivating these three things,
Deeds yielding happiness,
The wise person is reborn in bliss
In an untroubled happy world.

I’ve always understood merit, punna, to literally mean happiness, or if not “literally”, then at least to be the cause of it; a type of action that has the power to facilate happiness. Either way, happiness is what I’ve associated it with.

So 'am I growing the opposite of happiness when I deliberately “make merit”? Are those Buddhists who go and offer dana to the Sangha every single week, because they have a strong confidence in the efficacy of merit making as a means to ensure happiness, simply creating unhappiness because the reason they are giving is because they know or believe that their giving will make them happy?! If they, or I, can’t help giving out of this particular motivation, should they/I stop? Because we’re actually not making merit because it’s coming from a “bad” place.

You might think I’m playing “Mara’s advocate” here.

Well, I am.

I’ve been disturbed to hear people say that if you give just to make merit (to create happiness), you’re making demerit (unhappiness). Surely, those who are making happiness, deliberately knowing what they are doing, with full intention, are actually showing a growth in understanding. They’re actually showing some kind of growth in wisdom about how their minds and hearts work. They’re demonstrating an understanding that making merit, causes their minds and hearts to be happier, their smiles to be broader.

Certainly that’s what I’ve observed. Not just in those who use, to quote the above sutta, the “ground for making merit consisting in giving”, but in those who use the grounds for “making merit consisting in virtue” and “in mind-development”; these people understand about happiness, they look happier, lighter and are generally more open hearted. The fact that they use this understanding to make themselves and the world a happier place does not show their inferiority, it shows that they have a deeper understanding about happiness and suffering than most in this world; and if not an “understanding” as such, at least they’ve adopted a more elegant and effective framework for living their lives.

According to DN 33, the motivations for making merit, giving in this case, are various:

Eight bases of giving gifts:—One gives (1) because [an object of hospitality] has approached; (2) from fear; (3) because ‘he gave to me’; (4) because ‘he will give to me’; (5) because one thinks ‘giving is blessed’; (6) because one thinks ‘I cook; these do not cook; it is not fit that I who cook should give nothing to those who do not cook’; (7) because one thinks: ‘from the giving of this gift by me an excellent report will spread abroad’; (8) because one wishes to adorn and equip one’s heart.

But who are we to observe another’s act of merit making and make prouncements about their motivations?

Playing “mara’s advocate” further: it shouldn’t matter when people judge these merit makers, that the merit makers are traditional Buddhists (whatever that means), but it does seem to make a difference on some occasions at least. It’s almost, from what I’ve observed in some cases, a sort of “soft racism”; or at least, there seems to be an unacknowledged, subconscious subtext to do with ethnicity that seems to be in operation.

If someone wants to make merit, they should never be discouraged. Let them find out for themselves how it makes them feel. The Teachings on what is wiser, more happiness and wisdom inducing, i.e. wholesome, are there to help us encourage each other, not bring each other down.

We all have the capacity to judge and as long as we perceive and live and discriminate, we can’t help it. We have to keep on forgiving ourselves and also others, for not being perfectly spiritual all of the time. It’s a gradual training. The more happiness we all make, the better it is for all of us. Let’s go easy on ourselves and others, if we can; and if we can’t always, we can always promise ourselves to just keep trying and to applaud the successes that we do have; because I’ve noticed that what I focus on, grows bigger.

So in that same way, we can focus on the positive aspects of making merit. I suggest that they far outweigh any perceived negatives.


Friend Kay.

People understand and practice “merit” in different ways; and if I understand you correctly, for you it is whatever form of giving that results in making you feel happy. So a conditioned form of happiness: “I do this act, I get that happiness.” So nothing is particularly unique about this happiness: it is mundane, this is where it is classed. Similar to: “I take a shower, I feel refreshed!”, “I lock the door, I feel safe”, “I get money, I feel free”, “I get a Ph.D., I feel accomplished”, “I become a manager, I feel in control”, etc. The act or the event conditions the feeling; or even it is done for the sake of feeling, or even without the consequent feeling the act becomes totally pointless. This is normal, we all do it all the time, probably every aspect of our mundane and conditioned life is characterised by this seeking of the namarupa which we call “self”.

In my understanding the Buddha proposes to us to try something else, to try to grow dispassionately observant of this process rather than to embrace it, “rationalising” it, or identify with it. To see how it is anatta, that is, happens so automatically and independently from our will (or even awareness); and to recognise how attachment to it render us horrified of losing the conditional thing (for you merit-making here) without which happiness becomes replaced by affliction and sorrow. It is in that sense that attachment to merit-making, seeking the conditioned happiness of merit-making, without realising all this, can lead to precisely unhappiness, and to the perpetuation and reinforcement of the grasping “self”, the very thing we are practising to rid of.

So it is simple: completely stop doing the merit-making that you are so fond of, for three years, and closely observe the dukkha that will inwardly follow! Let alone three years, three months; let alone three months, three weeks; and see for yourself how what we customarily call happiness, can so easily turn into suffering!

And there follows the experiential rationale for the great alienation, great renunciation, and great seclusion. There follows the great saņvega.


But there’s a funny thing about seeing deeply into Suffering; to do so, one must stand firmly in it’s opposite.

People forget that there isn’t just the First Noble Truth, there are 3 others and the 3rd one is the goal and the 4th one is the way to that goal…both these last two Truths are about happiness and their cultivation. One does not stop growing happiness because one realises one needs to understand suffering! That is the way to mental illness and depression. That is not the 8 Fold Path. The compassion in the Path comes from realising that we need to empower our minds by happiness and peace in order to get any where meaningful.


What else is Right Effort about than this very understanding moving into practical action.

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With respect, I disagree.

From AN 11.1:
“Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of concentration? What is its reward?”

“Concentration has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its purpose, knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its reward.”

AN 10.2 is also clearly outlining a sequence that that begins from “merit making”, has “merit-making” infusing the middle and ends in release from suffering i.e. happiness. According to this sutta dispassion etc. arises at the end of the sequence. We’re not asked to stop making merit. To do so would mean to stop keeping precepts, to stop meditating, to stop contemplating and developing the mind.

Merit making, as I understand it, is hand in glove with mental development. It produces happinesses of the mind - as opposed to happiness of the 5 sense world. It is a thing utterly necessary for spiritual life.

It is often not grasped skillfully by us. I acknowledge this. But my point, is that it should never be discouraged because it is part and parcel of the 8 Fold Path and is one of the things that leads to a full understanding of the 4 Noble Truths. It is infused into the Sila aspect of the 8 Fold Path, the Samadhi aspect too and certainly into the Wisdom aspect; all these things bring happiness.

It has been my observation and my experience, that when I grow wholesome states in my life and mind, I get happier. When I keep my precepts, I get happier; I’ve let go of something coarse and I notice the relief and gladness in my mind. The relief and gladness I’ve noticed, lead to a mind less encumbered by hindrances, a mind easier to still…meditation, even at my humble level, becomes delightful…full of letting go, peace and happiness. As I let go in these little ways, I can’t help learning about letting go itself…the dispassion, the fading away, the stilling of things that move. I know it’s not high level stuff; but I still can’t help noticing it within this framework that I’ve learned about. As I notice these things, I can’t help noticing the difference between what brings true peace and happiness and what does not…thus I’m ever so slowly growing my journey to understanding suffering.

No, never. I’ll always cultivate the happinesses of the mind that the Buddha said we should cultivate. I’ll never stop as long as I remember…and when I forget, I hope I always come back to it.

Of course it’s conditioned. But learning about how it’s conditioned is part of growth of insight. One does not drop one’s conditioned nature because one wants to. One gets smart about how one works and uses that against the kilesas!

In my experience, it’s the deep happiness of letting go of aspects of my mental world that has given me the most insight into what this may mean. I’ve a long way to go…but I know that way is paved with ever increasing mental happiness. The most insightful people I know are also the happiest, even in deeply challenging circumstances…I guess I’m lucky to know even a handful of such types. :slight_smile:

It is not. The happiness of generosity, precept keeping, restraint, development of stillness and growth of wisdom are the very opposite of mundane. They are ever increasing, gorgeous and extraordinary and breath takingly freeing.


I’m not quite sure I understand how you define and practise merit-making. You seem to equate it with maggabhavana sometimes. In all cases, those who offer a criticism to merit-making probably are referring to something other than what you follow. You can glean -if you wish- what is it that they criticise, from what I’m talking about above. Consequently you maybe “disturbed” by criticisms that do not correspond to what critics intend to criticise!! Another usual event, perhaps, of miscommunication!

Regarding the various other matters that you mention, I have not much to say apart from that my understanding and attitude regarding vedanakhanda, or feeling, is at odds with yours. To me the problem is not what we feel, the whole problem is in thinking that one kind of feeling is inherently superior to another! Just that, is what delusion is! IMHO. It is the kind of thought that causes people to seek rebirth in some pleasant heaven rather than the end of all rebirth. The kind of attitude toward feeling that makes people become horrified of dukkha, precisely the one thing, the experience of which is necessary in order for any nibbana to be at all possible!

And there are sutta quotes which will also show that the most significant purpose of samadhi is not gladness, but rather nibbida and viraga, disenchantment and dispassion. Another thing I don’t think we agree about, is that the mind that is being made glad, in my understanding, is possibly sensuous, and certainly samsaric. The nibbanic happiness, is completely dispassionate, unconditioned, and spontaneous.

Indeed the web is so deep, the trick so intricate, and the memorable words of Buddha come to mind now:

"All that arises is only dukkha arising,
“All that ceases is only dukkha ceasing.”
“All that you call happiness, I call suffering!”

Adoration to Buddha!



I can appreciate this on an intellectual level. But in terms of the gradual training, I need to use mental happiness as a vehicle to take me to this rather deep realisation. I remember Ajahn Brahm once using the analogy of a ladder. To climb to the top, one needs to grasp on to, attach, to the rungs. As one rises higher, one lets go of the lower rungs.

According to the Buddha in the EBTs, Vedana is only discarded when one enters one of the Jhanas. I believe, after such an experience, having been removed from Vedana, one can then truly appreciate and understand it by noticing what if feels like not to have had it around for a while.

Yes, of course, but the Path to that realisation involves feeling happiness. To quote Ajahn Brahm quoting the Buddha, sorry I can’t remember the reference, though I have come across it, “this is a Path without groaning”.

I’m sure we’d both agree that bringing this perspective into the matter gives fresh meaning to the idea of a gradual training. I am not in control of my next birth. I can hope for conditions conducive to Practice and I can create good habits of Practice in this life and Practice letting go as much as possible so that I’ve a jolly good chance of actually letting go when I die. That’s it. That’s the level of my control. In recognising this, on a purely intellectual level I’m living some aspect of Right View, because Anatta means I’m not in control. SN 22.59

I think the word ‘gladness’ is a bit problematic for me in this context, I mean in the way you’ve used it here. I’ve heard gladness being described as a signpost telling one that one is on one’s way to a deep meditation experience.

I believe, the viraga (I’ve heard Ajahn Brahm refer to viraga as “fading away”) happens on the way to samadhi and conditions one’s mind in that vein afterwards too. I imagine, the nibbida, disenchantment and dispassion would begin to take hold after such experiences because one begins to realise the suffering of the body and of the world it lives in; one would see this because of the direct contrast offered by deep meditation experiences. I am normally so inclined to consider my experiences; I mean, I eat chocolate and can’t help pondering on the experience for a little while afterwards! So I imagine that reflecting on less worldly experiences with more depth, would just be part of the habit of the mind to focus on it’s most recent experiences; and I imagine such post deep meditation reflections would teach one alot about things like viraga.

Much of the suffering in my life as a Practising Buddhist is because of the current (and past!) immaturity of my Practice and wanting to be some where that I have not yet earned. It’s nice to know that we’re not alone in this though; I think there are a few/several verses in the Therigatha and Theragatha that point to such types of suffering!

Learning patience and learning how to be happy in the present moment seems to be quite important. I believe, we must be able to be present if this Path is to work. MN 131, MN 132, MN 133, MN 134. And I think the only way to make our minds present is if we can make the present pleasant! I mean, I’m so restless that if the present isn’t enticing enough, I’ll just shoot off on some train of thought or other! I think we have to learn to use vedana as a secret weapon which will eventually turn on itself! And the only way we can be pleasantly present is if we are basing ourselves in virtue and kindness; and then I think it gets easier if we get some good meditation or understand how to meditate and get a bit of wisdom going. I think that’s what AN 11.1 and AN 10.2 are all about.

I completely agree that it is samsaric; but again…the Path doesn’t just go from the beginning straight to the end, it has a middle too. I can’t remember the reference, but it’s a famous quote by the Buddha that “This Path is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end”. Also, I believe there is an EBT quote(s) where the Buddha tells the Sangha that they must not be afraid of the wholesome happinesses of the mind. A close friend of mine once told me about a very deep meditation experience. She said, she nearly let go very deeply, but right at the crucial moment, when she was feeling such powerful pleasure, she pulled back out of fear of the power of the experience and because she realised she’d be letting go of so much control; to this day she remembers this and regrets that she couldn’t let go fully. However, I know this experience fuelled and motivated her Practice for years to come.

As a Bodhisatta, so the story goes, the Buddha practised a path full of pain for 6 years, then realising that this was the wrong path discarded it. The Middle Way allows for happiness based on virtue and samadhi; indeed I feel that such happiness is the fuel, a prerequisite for, and the very vehicle for the realisation of

So I’ve heard. But it comes at the end of the 10 Fold Path. Not in the middle. For most of us, not right now. There are different types of happiness in Buddhism. This one comes right at the end. But there are others to be had at the beginning and the middle and we have to go through the beginning and the middle to get to the end.

@anon61506839 thanks so much for this discussion and for disagreeing so skillfully and beautifully. It’s made me reflect on some beautiful aspects of the Dhamma and caused me to look up some rather lovely suttas. I also just want to say that your commitment and love for your Practice are so very obvious and so very inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing. :pray:t6:


Oh, just want to say, for the purposes of being quite open and not giving the wrong idea (!!) that I did edit my 3rd post in this thread to make it quite clear that I aint claiming anything special or deep!! I’m just an ordinary gal enjoying her humble little practice from time to time and trying to enjoy it more often. :slight_smile:


The word is Pīti, a factor of Enlightenment, an important element of practice that keeps one going, as you say. Otherwise it’s just too depressing and too hard, crushing rather than liberating. There is such joy that, the experience of which the Buddha declares to be in accordance with Dhamma, not contrary to Dhamma. But I don’t believe one could induce it through the exercise of will or the manipulation of the mind; that will only bring dukkha. Practising alone will naturally bring it about and cause it to increase and stay longer. But there is no fooling kamma!! You couldn’t escape, there is not a single way out of it, that heartless kamma, it will haunt you where ever you run away. And then the Buddha teaches us to face this terrible thing, empowered by sati, samadhi, pañña, viriya, and saddha; Buddha wants us to stare at that dukkha without fear or self-contempt, as much as we can. And it is going to feel bad only because one insists on feeling good, we insist on feeling good almost all the time! But seeing “feeling” as non-self, a natural process, an impersonal event, will gradually and at once loosen one’s attachment to good feelings and reduce one’s horror of bad ones. Equanimity, samadhi, sati, viraga, nirodha, nibbana.

Seek your good feelings, the right kind, by the right measure, at the right time. But without obsession, without fear of bad feelings, without desire to, escape, from dukkha. There is no escape, and the margin of our ‘control’ over vedana is quite limited; we can never ‘choose’ how to feel; that’s precisely why feeling is not self! And that’s precisely why all feelings are welcome, and are met with equanimity and a sense of estrangement, regardless of whether they are good or bad! Indulging in good feelings is as bad as running away from bad ones. And a gladdened mind is as much unreliable as an afflicted one; two extremes across the spectrum, equally distanced away from the centre: a dispassionate, observing, still and present mind, one that “has no dog in the race!”; only such mind is capable of seeing and knowing, of transcending beyond desire and fear. The more we seek to seize and manipulate our feelings, the more stress accumulates in the heart, and in the stomach too! Though seeking happiness, what we actually end up experiencing is stress, fear, and uncertainty! And there ain’t much time to waste!

Dhamma ain’t about feeling good; Dhamma about understanding and transcending feeling altogether, both good and bad. Little by little, gradually, by degrees, we learn to turn our backs to samsaric good feelings, and face deeper and deeper layers of bad feelings from which there is no escape. The result is not good feeling, the result is, really, the gradual dismantling of this rotten, obsessed, horrified, “feeling self”. The result is release, freedom, beyond all conditioned feeling.

Hey, it’s been wonderful to discuss with you too :fireworks:


:slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile:

I agree with what you’ve said too. :slight_smile: Mostly…:wink:

But I think I might have an inkling of where you’re coming from now…it’s so hard when one is not in another person’s actual presence and doesn’t really know the person well…we’re just words on a screen really…

I agree

I agree and I hope so :slight_smile:

Right now it is. I’m convinced that the further along - and in my case it’s a mighty long way off - we go on this Path, the more mastery we will begin to have over this matter.

I very much disagree.

If we are truly to have this approach:

…then I think running away from good feelings is the wrong path.

I disagree that we can’t use our will a bit. Only because we can’t help it. I mean, we’re using it all the time. We’re swimming in a mental world that is full of “will using”. I think we should use this to our advantage when possible.

But I agree this brings dukkha also.

That’s the tragedy of existence. That’s something we acknowledge and seek to understand. But this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use the appropriate good feelings when I can. The funny thing is, it ocurrs to me that even though I think I’m using my “will”…it’s only because I’ve been conditioned (by teachers like Ajahn Brahm for example!) to use it in this way…I suppose it’s not really “me” choosing to use it!

And yes, sometimes, it probably does feel like it’s coming up spontaneously…those good feelings…But other times, I have to remind myself not to put my mental eyes on the ugly, to put them on the beautiful. I mean I can encourage myself to watch the rasping, noise and unpleasant aspects of my breath, or the soft, pleasant aspects of it. It’s the latter that’s going to help me stay with it.

I do think that “encourage” is the key word here. I can’t really make my mind do anything. It rebels if I try and force it to feel or do anything. It’s very recalcitrant. I think part of this encouragement is changing our view about good feelings, wholesome happinesses…I think this change in View…more than any act of ‘will’, is what will condition the more ‘spontaneous’ arising of piti, etc… and will ‘encourage’ ourselves to practice correctly.

It’s not focusing on happiness that makes me feel sad later; focusing on happiness is not the cause of my misery. Ignorance is the cause. And not understanding this process is part of this Ignorance. I still don’t understand it! I’m just beginning to get a tiny handle on it is all. :slight_smile:

I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Ajahn Brahm much, but he’s always trying to find ways to encourage us to focus on the positives. I never really got this. I always thought, in my arrogance, that it was lower level teaching for the masses!!! Yes, this is how conceited and stupid I am! I am not presuming to really understand him, but I think I may be beginning to have an inkling of why he does encourage positivity so much.

It’s taken me years of questioning to begin to challenge my own fixed views and assumptions about the place of positivity and negativity in this Path. The Positive stuff is the lubricant that turns the wheels of the 8 Fold Path. The metta, the joy, the peace, etc. etc. all the positive emotional states. Without these, this Path will not work. And these states are full of pleasant vedana. We can’t escape that.

And of course you feel unpleasant when they cease. That’s just how it is. That doesn’t mean they’re the cause.

It just means you refer yourself to what the Buddha said about Right Effort SN 45.8:

“And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort.

…and you get back to the Practice of arousing and maintaining wholesome states.

AN 2.19 is a bit of a gem. There doesn’t seem to be an English translation on Sutta Central, but here it is from Access To Insight:

Abandon the unskillful, develop the skillful

"Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

“Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’”

— AN 2.19

I think as Buddhists, we can get really hung up on the 1st and 2nd Noble Truths; to the point that we can’t see the 3rd and 4th. But what is Right Effort (part of the 4th Truth) all about? To me, more and more it’s about growing wholesome states. And I associate wholesome states with happy ones. In this aspect of this 4th Noble Truth, we’re encouraged by the Buddha, to grow happiness. It’s mental development - bhavana - there’s an active component to this Path.

It’s not just all staring at our suffering. I’ve done that enough, I mean I’m really good at it…I’d get a gold medal in being miserable and being with misery…but it’s the wrong path. It gets me nowhere. My negativity muscles are really strong. I’m trying to build up the positivity muscles because it’s dawning on me that without them, I am stuffed.

With much metta and thanks again :pray:t6::grin::cherry_blossom:


Yes, a major challenge, must never trust what the imagination is telling us about the other person! And it will not stop telling us totally baseless stuff about the person behind the screen: “Oh what a nice and benevolent woman Dhammarakkhita seems to be!” Turns out in reality to be a man, and a villain! Or “this guy called Kay, is he ridiculous or what?!” Turns out to be the nicest woman you could meet. etc.



Lol :grinning: :blush: :upside_down_face:

Here are some nice flowers for you: