SansBlogue  
Sunday, September 09, 2007
  Earning "Merit"

Buddha image being covered with gold leaf

Of course I'd heard about the prevalence of the notion of earning "merit" in Buddhist countries like Thailand, but somehow I'd never realised how deep rooted such an idea would be. I'd imagined that, like the animist encrusting of much African religion, or the selling of indulgences in medieval Europe, it was the sort of overlay on a purer substrate that people would be half-believing, half-apologetic about.

Far from it, the attempt to earn, or more often even to buy, "merit" met us at every turn. Small sheets of gold leaf bought to cover the statues of the Lord Buddha were not primarily to enhance or beautify the image, or the prestige of the community, rather to "earn merit". Sometimes earning merit simply required ritual actions, like ringing the 108 bells at one Wat (teaching temple) often though money was needed, one coin for each of the 108 bronze collecting buckets at another. (Even using the smallest coin available 1 bhat or about 1/2 and NZ cent this would be more that a days wage for an unskilled labourer.)

Kings and princes could earn merit in richer and more magnificent ways, by building Wats or having gigantic Buddhas cast in bronze, or better still gold. Yet despite such a system of earnable merit, life is still uncertain, so every temple has its fortune teller, who for a fee will predict your future.

Put a coin in every bowl to earn "merit"

Of course, there is much that is good and to be admired in Thai Buddhism being in a place where even most of the people seek to follow the Eight Fold Path
  1. Right understanding
  2. Right aspirations
  3. Right speech
  4. Right behaviour
  5. Right living
  6. Right effort
  7. Right attentiveness
  8. Right concentration
has to be better in many ways that being in a Western City where most people follow advice like: "Look out for number one" or "god helps those who help themselves".

Yet watching people who really believe that merit can be bought, with cash or through ritual observance, makes me once again so glad to have been introduced to the God whose amazing grace is poured out precisely on people like me who don't deserve it, and cannot earn it!

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