"Merit, there are four
kinds of action proclaimed by me after realizing them for myself with
direct knowledge. What are the four ? There is dark action with dark
result ; there is bright action with bright result ; there is
dark-and-bright action with dark-and-bright result ; and there is action
that is neither dark nor bright with neither-dark-nor-bright result,
action that leads to the destruction of action." - Madhyamâgama (Majjhima-nikâya), 57.7.
"There are, O Monks, three ways of making merit. What three ? There are
ways of making merit by giving, by moral discipline, and by the
development of meditation." -
(Anguttara-nikâya), IV 241.
"The merit gained in a single day
By those who possess higher perception
Cannot be gained even in a hundred lifetimes
By one without such higher perception."
Atiśa : Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, 36.
Characteristics of Karma
The Ten Non-Virtuous Actions
Repetition of Meritorious Action
Tangkha of Lama Chöpa
in Guru Yoga, the Guru is the object of Merit
"Punya" or "merit"
is a particular type of "karma" leading to the destruction of
and the escape from "samsâra".
"Karma" is conditioned action arising from a motive and seeking a
result, i.e. always requiring further action. Confusion between good
"karma" and merit is common.
The former leads to a better rebirth (a higher one with
better circumstances), whereas the intent of the latter is to
cause liberation from "samsâra" by virtue of the power of the object of merit, the Three Jewels
: Buddha, Dharma & Sangha. Hence, good "karma" &
merit differ in terms of motivation & goal. As one of the two causes
of enlightenment (the other being wisdom), it takes us beyond cyclic
existence. Moreover, excellent merit is motivated by the mind of
enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings (cf.
By way of the
Path, we harvest, besides good
fortune in this and the next life, the extraordinary inner crops of
Dharma realizations such as love, compassion, joy, equanimity (the
"Four Immeasurables"), "Bodhicitta",
physical & mental suppleness,
irreversible escape from cyclic existence, and final
enlightenment. Ordinary good "karma" can
never realize this ! It does lead to the climax of the world of the
gods, yet gets exhausted and so cannot cease suffering for good.
While liberation allows the Arhat
or "Worthy One" to enter a personal, "lesser"
type of "nirvâna",
final enlightenment involves a total, complete
escape from all emotional defilements and mental obscurations of
"samsâra". Only then is the actuality of benefitting all
sentient beings at hand ; awake one returns "To Town with Helping
Hands" (cf. ultimate stage in Zen).
The General Characteristics
"Karma" or "action" is
understood as a mental, verbal (energetical) or physical deed, and
"vipâka" its fruit, result or reaction, accompanying every action
a shadow following its object. The seed is "karma", the fruit arising
from it is "vipâka". In general, "karma" refers to action,
its effect and the potentialities left in the mind from the
moment of the completion of the action to the moment these
subconscious seeds ripen and
their results are experienced.
In a wider sense, every contaminated event (a phenomenon tainted by
reification) is determined by "karma",
the natural power of action and its consequences. Karmaless action
has done away with reification (cf. the Z-operator in
network of concordant conditions giving rise to physical,
psychological & social determinations is the result of past momenta.
Much of what "karma" was about in the past, is today the object of
science (the DNA-code as an example of "karma" ?). In a narrow
sense, "karma" points to the mental, energetical (verbal,
mantric) & physical consequences of actions. It
cannot be divorced from an implicit
hylic pluralism, explaining how the
invisible mechanisms of "karma" operates.
Any kind of physical, verbal & mental intentional action is "karma"
and so generally, all good & bad actions constitute "karma".
Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, although deeds,
do not constitute "karma", for conscious volition is absent. This differs from
those non-Buddhists (like the Jains) who think unintentional
actions also constitute "karma". Note the crucial
difference in ethics & law : the Jain is responsible for all actions
(intentional or not), the Buddhist only for intended actions (of
body, speech & mind).
In the workings of "karma", mind is crucial. All physical
actions, verbal & mental deeds are coloured by consciousness
when mind is guarded, bodily action is guarded and speech is
The simple mechanism of action is given by the first two
kinds of actions mentioned by the Buddha : good begets good, evil begets evil,
like. A same message is heard in Ancient Egypt, in the
Judeo-Christian West and in the Muslim world. This universal message
is not typically Buddhist. By contrast, the notion of salvic action
destroying karma points to the
Truth of Cessation and the
possibility of "nirvâna".
This destruction cannot be complete without the end of ignorance
("avidyâ"), the fundamental root-cause of our wandering about as blind,
unsatisfied, closed-up & suffering actors.
The law of karma has five major characteristics :
results : when a farmer sows a barley seed, it is definite
enough barley will grow
and not corn. Likewise, when we perform positive (negative) actions, it is
very likely happy (unhappy) results will be the outcome. The latter depend on
two causes : (a) the primary cause : the nature of the seed & (b) the secundary
causes : concordant conditions allowing the primary cause to unfold (for
example, if the ground is frozen, the seed cannot sprout).
Soteriologically, these secundary causes are important to consider, for if
they can be eliminated, the primary cause cannot manifest ;
increasing results :
because the power of actions increases day by day, a very small cause may
large results (cf. chaos-theory). Small unvirtue unopposed produces great suffering and,
over time, small
virtue bears large happiness ;
action, no fruit
if the cause has not been created, the fruit cannot ripe. This is good
news, for although we are the cause of our own suffering, we can also be
the agent of our own happiness ;
no action is wasted :
although it may take a long time before actions ripen, they are never
without result. As long as the effect does not manifest (is still
potential), it can be opposed and neutralized. Here the inevitability of
the consequence shows how, in the natural, samsaric course of events, all unvirtue will produce suffering for the
all action can be opposed
all negative potentialities can be eliminated by opposing them with the
Four Opponent Powers : (a) the power of reliance ; (b) the power of regret ; (c) the
power of promise & (d) the power of anti-dote. Hence, if we
oppose the negative potentialities by purifying them, no negative effects
can manifest. This is very important good news ; there is no negative
accumulation whatsoever which cannot be eliminated. Hence, a permanent
hell is non-existent.
Actions in Buddhism.
The concomitant advantages
or good consequences of good "karma" are prosperity, health and
longevity ("ânisamsa"), whereas bad "karma" yields poverty,
ugliness, disease and a short or shortened life-span. However, in Buddhism
happiness and suffering are not assigned to an immortal soul by a supernatural Deity, but is a natural law which cannot be suspended,
not even by a Buddha. There is no
fatality or destiny, for one has the power to divert the course of "karma" by
increasing virtue, opposing negative potentialities and eliminating
the root of all "karma", ignorance. Before all things, one
cultivates the mind avoiding the secondary causes of karmic ripening
Neither is there predestination,
for -to stop suffering- no mysterious Deity needs to be invoked to
whom we must helplessly submit ourselves and nobody "saves" us by
taking upon himself the "sins of the world" ... To know
how one has lived one only needs to observe how one is presently
living. To know how one will live, one only needs to observe how one
is living right now.
Because, according to the
Sûtras, there is no unchanging, independent entity, doer or actor
apart from the action, volition ("cetanâ") is itself the doer and
feeling ("vadanâ") is itself the reaper of the action. Apart from
these two mental states, there is no sower and no reaper (just like
thought itself is the thinker). But in the
distinguishes between the gross, subtle & very subtle levels of mind
& body. Physical death eliminates the gross mind/body-complex,
allowing the subtle complex to dissolve into the very subtle,
"resident, indestructible drop" situated in the Heart
Wheel. This deepest
consciousness is the foundation of our consciousness-continuum or
mindstream, and has been there since beginningless time. It will
continue to be there all the way up to Buddhahood and thereafter. In its defiled
condition, it acts as a "store-house" or "receptacle" consciousness
("âlaya-vijñâna"), in which the collectivity of seeds ("bîja") sown
by previous moments of consciousness abide, perfuming future
moments. This explains how "karma" operates and manifests
(ripens). This impure "clinging
consciousness" needs, by walking the path to awakening, to be purified by the
emptiness, purifying the
coarser levels of consciousness.
In the traditional six schools of Indian philosophy, three type of "karma" are distinguished :
: immediate karma : these effects arise as a result of one's
present actions and desire (our current works of virtue). This karma depends on present actions and so
allows one to influence the future. Producing good causes in the present
moment will have good
effects in the future. This is karma totally under our present control ;
karma begun before
("prârabhda-karma") : these are the effects of deeds begun in a
former life. The resulting events, or ripened "karma" cannot be prevented, just as one
cannot call back an arrow leaving the bow. So these effects must be
accepted until the effect is exhausted. While it is possible to prevent
these effects to rise (by purifying them before they arise or by making
sure their secundary causes remain absent), one cannot eliminate them when
present. If they are present, Superior Beings may, by way of their miracle-powers,
attenuate or partly deflect them, but never destroy them ;
yet ripened ("sanchita-karma")
: the accumulated "samskâras" created by an
individual in previous lives awaiting effect in a future life. This
impressions or tendences are possibilities present in consciousness arisen
through all previous actions. Under the power of secundary causes these
potentialities actualize. They can be purified by the application of the
opponent powers. Then they never ripen.
By applying effort,
the consequences of the most vile evil can, in principle, be
The Ten Non-Virtuous Actions.
These non-virtuous actions (the opposite of "the way of ten virtues"
- "dasha-kushala-patha") are paths leading to the lower realms of
(hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals), i.e. to more confusion and
suffering. In principle, there are countless non-virtuous actions,
but they are classified insofar as the cause is physical, verbal or
1) Negative physical actions :
2) Negative verbal actions :
Slandering (divisive speech).
Abusing (hurtful speech).
Gossiping (idle chatter).
3) Negative mental actions :
The full negative result or fruit is experienced if and only if the
non-virtuous action is complete. The latter is the case if and only
if four factors are simultaneously present :
The Four Factors of Completion :
object of the action : the object of the action depends on
what kind of non-virtue is at hand :
* killing : any other being, from an insect
to a Buddha ;
* sexual misconduct
: is analyzed in terms of
the "Four Wrongs" :
(a) wrong object : any unsuitable object of
attention : for a celibate monk (nun) : any other person, for a
layman : anyone else's partner, our own parents, a child, a monk (nun), a
pregnant woman, animals, any non-consenting person ;
(b) wrong organ : anal or oral sex ;
(c) wrong place : places offending others
(public space or sacred space) ;
(d) wrong time : during pregnancy, illness or
when one has taken vows ;
* stealing : anything someone else regards as
their own ;
* lying : about what is seen, heard, experienced,
known, not seen, not heard, not experienced, not known and certain
non-verbal actions like physical gestures, writing or remaining silent ;
* slandering : two or more people having a
* abusing : any person who can be hurt by what
is said ;
* gossip : any meaningless object ;
* malice : hurting any other person by thought,
word or deed ;
* avarice : wanting anything belonging to someone
* wrong views : denial of what is needed
for liberation & enlightenment ;
the intention of
: for there to be a full intention
to commit any negative deed, three factors are needed :
(a) correct discrimination
: the correct
identification of the object ;
: the will to carry out
what has been correctly identified ;
(c) delusion : a mind motivated by one
of the Three Poisons : ignorance, craving & hatred. A medical doctor may
kill the sick mother to save the healthy baby. A Bodhisattva may kill a
potential murdered out
of compassion to save lives and/or to prevent the culpit from accumulating
vast negative karma ;
the preparation of
the action :
the preparation of the means to engage in a negative action ;
the completion of the action
the negative action is complete when the object of the action has been
realized, i.e. not abrogated.
The severity of non-virtuous actions or the degree of
suffering caused depends on the power of the action. The latter is
determined by six factors :
The Six Factors of Severity :
of the action : physical & verbal non-virtuous actions can
be listed in order of the degree of the harm inflicted : killing,
stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, abusing & gossiping. Among
the mental non-virtuous actions, the order is : wrong views, malice &
: the stronger the delusion, the more negative the intention.
Insofar an bad action is immediately followed by a thought negating its
inherent existence, the negative intention is lessened, if not eliminated ;
: the degree of harm inflicted by the chosen
: the more
important the object, the more powerful it becomes ;
: the more
it is repeated, the more powerful it becomes ;
the absence of an opponent
absence of virtue or regret is more powerful.
Non-virtuous actions have three effects :
The Three Effects :
rebirth into a lower realm or rebirth as a
human burdened with vast suffering ;
similar to the cause
: these are tendencies or experiences similar
to the cause. Tendencies make us repeat similar actions in the future and experiences
bring us in direct contact with similar negative actions (done by others),
but of which
we are the object ;
: rebirth in hostile environments resembling
the non-virtuous action.
Moral discipline is to deliberately refrain from the
Ten Non-Virtuous Actions on the basis of a clear recognition of
their dangers. Realizing the effects of bad actions and the firm
motivation to practice their abandonment constitutes the practice of
good actions. Not performing bad actions is thus not enough. To
harvest the beneficial effect, we have to be conscious of the difficulties
caused by bad actions. The same four factors of completion and three kinds
of effects also pertain
for good actions.
The power of good & bad actions depends on four factors :
The Four Factors of Power :
who is the object of the action
: to direct actions towards those who are
kind to us increases their power ;
the vows taken
performed as the result of vows, actions become more
instrumental in the action
: when the object is useful or helpful to the
other person, the action is more powerful ;
the motivation : actions done with a strong motivation
are more powerful.
Moral discipline is to deliberately refrain from the
Ten Non-Virtuous Actions on the basis of a clear recognition of their
Most virtuous actions, so-called good "karma", do not liberate or
enlighten sentient beings. They cause to experience happy results and good
circumstances in future lives, but this "karma" does not set them free.
Why ? Ordinary beings taint their virtuous actions by self-cherishing,
thinking the "I" performing the good action exists inherently, from its
own side, as an independent substance. This ignorance (or confusion about
the real nature of the subject) is mixed with our mind when performing the
good deed. We cherish the good deed by thinking : I am doing good and will
be rewarded ! Although our intentions are not deluded, the delusion of an
autonomous subject is present. As a result, our virtuous
actions producing good "karma" are still the cause of rebirth in
"samsâra". Hence, the virtuous actions of ordinary humans are "throwing
actions", hurling them in the fortunate worlds of desire of humans or
gods. Likewise, non-virtuous actions throw them in the unfortunate states
within cyclic existence : the hells, the painful state of the hungry
ghosts or the ignorant existence of animals.
At this point, the crucial difference between good "karma" and merit
("punya") becomes poignant. By itself, positive "karma" does not free
sentient beings from cyclic existence. It just makes them "move up" the
ladder of "samsâra". Their type of suffering alters, but suffering
remains. It does not end actions, but causes
good effects within "samsâra". But, as the
Wheel of Life teaches, the effect of all actions exhausts
itself, making all actions impermanent & transient. So although they
have created for themselves better conditions (less painful suffering),
the causes of this improvement eventually end and so chances are they find
themselves again in the same or even in more severe types of closed
spaces. All sentient beings
experience the exhaustion of their good and bad "karma". Only merit builds a supramundane "capital".
Only "nirvâna" is true peace, lasting, permanent, unceasing ...
This reflects the optimism of the Buddhadharma, and the fundamental way it
differs from the traditional Brahmanistic interpretation of "karma".
In sensu stricto, merit can be defined as the result of
virtuous actions not causing samsaric rebirth. These are not
throwing actions, for they cause liberation from cyclic existence by virtue of
the special power of the object of merit : the Three Jewels : the Buddha,
the Dharma & the Sangha. Hence, virtuous actions
associated with merit have two effects : (a) they result in positive
effects within "samsâra" without throwing us in cyclic existence and (b)
end actions, i.e. liberate us from suffering by the power of cessation
inherent in the Dharma.
Placing moral boundaries, or taking vows, is part of the process of
transformation and must be done with great skill. Three levels exist :
: to protect one's own well-being ;
the Bodhisattva vows
to protect the well-being of others ;
: to protect one's relationship with one's
Higher Self or tantric Deity.
Meritorious actions are all activities of mind,
speech (energy) & body having as object one of the 84.000 Dharma doors,
leading to Refuge in the Three Jewels. This technical definition
points to the Buddhist interpretation of virtue. Good karma is not enough.
Liberating actions are needed. Buddha points to three major causes of
merit, leading to good fortune : giving, moral discipline &
Lesser Vehicle, the individual
accumulates merit & wisdom as two separate baskets. Because we lack time,
it is not possible to enlighten all sentient beings. Only the mind of
enlightenment for oneself is generated.
Great Vehicle, the mind of enlightenment
for the sake of all sentient beings (or "Bodhicitta")
is generated, enlarging the scope of merit. This "extraordinary"
or "excellent" merit of
the Bodhisattvas is the result of great
compassion, intimately linked with this
In the Great Perfection Vehicle, merit is accumulated through practicing
the Six Perfections : generosity, moral
discipline, enthusiastic perseverance (diligence or joyous effort), patience, concentration
& wisdom. It takes a
Bodhisattva many lifetimes to accumulate
enough to become a
Buddha. In the
Tantrayâna, the subtle
energy of the Vajra Body is addressed, contributing to
a different understanding of merit. Through tantric practice, the subtle
energy body grows in strength, health, power and radiance. In the
different Tantras, various methods are use to accumulate vast merit and
gain the "illusionary body" or "Sambhogakâya" (cf. the
Trikâya). This is the purified & transformed subtle wind-body.
Indeed, the Lesser Vehicle & Great Perfection Vehicle have no methods to allow merit & wisdom to
arise simultaneously in consciousness. In the
Tantra Vehicle, the special method of Deity Yoga allows
rise together, achieving the "Form Body" or "rupakâya" of a Buddha. This Form Body is
the unity of "illusionary body" ("Sambhogakâya") and "manifestation body"
("Nirmânakâya"). Without merit, in particular Bodhicitta,
tantric practices produce small to no results.
As Buddha taught the Dharma in numerous ways for lesser, middle & great
practitioners, he pointed to common, uncommon and secret ways to
accumulate merit, i.e. perform actions with the power of cessation,
empowering the removal of the Three Poisons.
The "common" ways to accumulate merit are popular practices like circumambulations of holy places, temples & monasteries,
offering food to the "sangha", the community of practitioners, recitations
of mantras, make offerings to the enlightened ones, recitation & copying
of Buddhist scriptures, studying, understanding & teaching them, etc.
"Uncommon" ways refer to the preliminary cycle of rituals of
dedicated laymen, monks and
nuns, like the Seven-Limbed Practice of refuge & prosternation, offering,
confession, rejoicing in virtue of others, supplication and dedication, offerings to the Buddhas, hundred thousand ritual recitations
mandala offerings to the Guru etc. as well as the practice
of the Four Immeasurables & the Six Perfections.
When Bodhisattvas accumulate merit in a "secret" way, they boost
or perfect the
positive effect of their actions by realizing there is no actor independent
from the action, neither as an independent cause and/or an independent
effect, and so counter self-grasping. In this way, a vast amount of
liberating merit is swiftly accumulated. Together with
wisdom, this is one of the "two baskets" necessary to enter "nirvâna".
Moreover, whatever merit they accumulate, the wise dedicate it to the
benefit of all sentient beings, inviting them to partake in it and find
true peace. In this way, the accumulation does not end with the end of the
virtuous action, nor is it lost by the fault of non-virtue.
Likewise, Great Bodhisattvas are capable of transfering their own merit to
their disciples, causing awakenings in their mindstream (this is also the
rationale behind blessings & empowerments).
The Repetition of
Analyzing the various ways to accumulate merit, the
common divisor is the repetition of a joyous effort cultivating the
mind of enlightenment for all sentient beings.
Although one prosternation done in a pure
way (without self-grasping) does
produce vast merit, such purity is seldom present. Usually, there is a
mixed intention, one aimed to do the good, while another considers the
doer as independent from his or her deed. To eliminate these stains of
grasping from our practice, much work is needed, implying the good deed
has to be done over and over again, practicing it without designating the
doer. Each time, we go over the instructions, sense the energy at hand and
execute the action as fluently as possibe. Only after a certain pattern
has been repeated again and again, will it sink into the deeper strata of
When, in Chinese Martial Arts, a movement or defence has been performed a
hundred thousand times, it is deemed to have become integrated in such a
way one no longer has to think when recalling it. It happens of its
own accord, quasi as a reflex. Defence and attack have become
simultaneous. Such deep integration happens on three levels :
the pattern is part of the body and when done feels
as "natural" as standing, walking, eating, etc. ;
the pattern is experienced as springing from our
natural vitality & energy, just like our speech ;
: the characteristics of the pattern (its
sequence and specifics) is such an intimate part of our mind, we need to
produce no generic image or concept in our mind before initiating it, just
like we do not need an image of ourselves when we convey our name to
Likewise, in the preparatory exercises or
foundational practices of the Vajrayâna (called "ngöndro" in Tibetan),
acts like prostration, refuge, prayer, Vajrasattva purification, mandala
offering, mantra recitation etc. are repeated in sets of hundred thousand.
In this way, every practice is completely integrated. For
example, after a hundred thousand prostrations, the seeds of pretence,
pride and vanity are destroyed and each time we see an object of merit we
automatically wish to prostrate and pay reverence. After a hundred
thousand rituals of refuge, we seek the shelter of the Three Jewels as
naturally as a child would run to its loving mother when hurt. After a
hundred thousand Vajrasattva purifications, all our delusions & afflicted
emotions are eliminated, and we detect any impurity as quickly as we see
clouds dim the light of the Sun, etc.
To go over the basics of virtue again and again is part of the spiritual
practice of every religion. In the context of merit, such exercises aim to
make meritorious action as natural as breathing and to actualize
compassion or extraordinary merit. Every
moment of conscious life is used to practice merit, as great practitioners
know. If this is spontaneous & automatic, every action can be infused with
meritorious intent and in this way great stores of merit are quickly
accumulated. Due to this deposit in the "basket of merit", the
practitioner is able to start filling the "basket of wisdom". At this
point, not meritorious action, but meditation on the nature of reality is