Making Merit

I’d like to begin this post by making a big disclaimer: I don’t understand Buddhism. I listened to an audiobook about Buddhism before I came to Thailand, but it was really confusing. It also turns out that the author of that book comes from a different tradition of Buddhism than what is commonly practiced in Thailand, so I’m thoroughly confused. Please keep in mind as you read this post that there is a good chance that I’m going to write something about Buddhist beliefs that isn’t quite true.

People in Thailand are always talking about “making merit”. Buddhists can make merit by giving, achieving self-mastery, and refraining from doing bad things. As I understand it, merit affects an individual’s karma. I’ve read that merit-making isn’t a tally system and that people are supposed to do these good works without expecting anything in return. However, when people talk about making merit, it seems like they are counting up all of their good deeds in preparation for future lives.

Usually when people talk about making merit they are referring to giving food to monks in the mornings. Buddhist monks collect food from people every morning at about 6. Most of my students say that they only make merit in this way once a year on their birthdays. However, you can make merit in many other ways as well. You can make merit through meditation and giving money to the poor or to temples. On my trip to Kanchunaburi, my friend Wallapha was constantly telling me about all the merit we were making. According to Wallapha, we made merit when I bought a souveneir from a local artist and when we fed the fish in the river. She also informed me that when someone gives food to a monk, other people should touch the person giving the food so that they will earn merit for giving food as well. At the temple there were many people holding on to the people scooping rice into the monks’ bowls. Buddhist parents earn a huge amount of merit if a son becomes a monk. Wallapha doesn’t have a son, so she gives money to pay for the ordination ceremonies of poor young men every year. This doesn’t earn her as much merit as it would if the young men were her sons.

Anyway, I decided to write this post because I received a merit certificate today. A student told me he was raising money for poor children and asked me to donate. I gave him some money, and he handed me a certificate. I asked a student what it was, and she told me that it guaranteed that I had earned some merit.

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