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Why you should dedicate merit to other beings and especially to deceased relatives

karmablueskarmablues Veteran
edited July 2013 in Philosophy
In many Buddhist countries, it is part of the culture to regularly offer alms to the Sangha in the name of deceased relatives in order to dedicate the merit to them. Here, I want to look at the rationale behind that practice.

In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha declares five duties of a child towards his parents as follows:
"In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents as the East:
(i) Having supported me I shall support them,
(ii) I shall do their duties,
(iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
(iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
(v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honour of my departed relatives.
In the Filial Piety Sutra, the Buddha also advices that "For the sake of your parents, make offerings to the Triple Jewel".

So how are offerings to the Sangha done in honour of the deceased beneficial? There are three benefits, one that accrues to the dead, one that accrues to the giver himself/herself, and one that accrues to the receiver of the gifts (the Sangha).

In what manner are the dead able to gain benefit from the almsgiving? The Suttas clearly say that it is through the act of rejoicing in the meritous act done by the giver that the dead are able to gain merit themselves and enjoy happiness when such merit bear fruit. Thus it is by way of the wholesome mental quality which is produced in the mind of the dead by the act of rejoicing that they are able to gain merit themselves.

This means that there is no actual "transfer" of merit as some people tend to misunderstand. Dedicating merit to the dead therefore merely provides an opportunity for the dead to gain merit through their own action by performing the wholesome deed of rejoicing in other people's meritious deeds. This is particularly very important when we consider the possibility that they may have been reborn into a lower realm where there is much suffering and no chance to perform meritious acts such as almsgiving themselves. In fact it is said that in some hungry ghost realms, the the only source of happiness for those beings are by rejoicing in the merits that are dedicated to them.

In the Kaladana Sutta, the Buddha said:
In the proper season they give —
those with discernment,
responsive, free from stinginess.
Having been given in proper season,
with hearts inspired by the Noble Ones — straightened,
Such — their offering bears an abundance.
Those who rejoice in that gift or give assistance,
they, too, have a share of the merit
and the offering isn't depleted by that.
So, with an unhesitant mind, one should give
where the gift bears great fruit.
Merit is what establishes
living beings in the next life.
In the Tirokudda Sutta, the fact that the dead are able to gain merit through rejoicing in the act of giving is clearly stated. In this Sutta the Buddha also says that offerings made to dead relatives should be done as an act of compassion.
Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives
give timely donations of proper food & drink [to the Sangha]
— exquisite, clean —
[thinking:] "May this be for our relatives.
May our relatives be happy!

And those who have gathered there,
the assembled shades of the [dead] relatives,
with appreciation [they rejoice and] give their blessing
for the plentiful food & drink [offered to the Sangha]
"May our relatives live long
because of whom we have gained [this gift].
We have been honored,
and the donors are not without reward!
Furthermore, offerings made in the name of the dead are to be regarded as an act of gratitude and for repaying the kindness that we once received from them when they were alive. In respect of dead relatives, one also discharges one's duty towards them by making such offerings. Again, from the Tirokudda Sutta:
"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
they were my relatives, companions, friends":
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus on things done in the past.

For no weeping, no sorrowing
no other lamentation benefits the dead
whose relatives persist in that way.
But when this offering is given,
well-placed in the Sangha,
it works for their long-term benefit
and they profit immediately.
In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown,
great honor has been done to the dead
and monks have been given strength:
The merit you've acquired isn't small.
I think it's worth pointing out that while the act of dedicating merit is often associated with almsgiving, it is also often done after meditation sessions. In addition, the act of rejoicing in other people's meritious deeds is not something that only the dead can do, but it is also an important practice for the living. In the Theravada tradition, rejoicing in other people's merits is regarded as one of the ten wholesome ways of making merit as stated in the canonical Abhidhamma Pitaka and its commentaries. Such act also constitutes a way of developing sympathetic joy (mudita) which - along with compassion, metta and equanimity - is one of the four sublime states. In the Mahayana tradition, rejoicing in other people's meritious deeds is part of the fifth vow of the ten great vows of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra as proclaimed in the Avatamsaka Sutra,

In conclusion, for those who don't do so already, I would hope that you consider the act of dedicating your merits to the dead. This practice can be regarded as developing compassion as well as to show our gratitude to those who were kind to us when they were alive. But in the context of developing compassion, we can dedicate our merit not just to our relatives or those who we knew, but to all beings whether they are devas or hungry ghosts or whatever, so that they may gain benefit from our meritious deeds and thereby enjoy happiness through the act of rejoicing. Furthermore, whenever we see or learn about meritious/wholesome/skillful acts done by someone else, we should rejoice in those actions as a way to develop mudita (sympathetic joy).


  • zombiegirlzombiegirl beating the drum of the lifeless in a dry wasteland Veteran
    I used to offer prayers for the dead twice a day when I was a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and I can definitely echo your statements on how important it can be for the living to remember.
    I recently found an item of my grandfather's and was struck by just how long it had been since I had really thought about him or any of my deceased relatives. It made me realize how much I missed certain aspects of that practice. A lot is in flux for me at the moment, including my practice, but I have been thinking about reintegrating this aspect back in. :)

    Thanks for the reminder.
  • PatrPatr Veteran
    For those whose keen on chanting to the departed, try 'The Great Compassion Mantra'.
    by Kuan Yin Bodhisattva.

    Works like magic.....
  • karmablueskarmablues Veteran
    edited July 2013
    I think from a Theravadan perspective, praying and chanting for the departed could also give them an opportunity to rejoice in the Dhamma contained within the prayer/mantra which would be very beneficial to them as well.

    I listened to the Great Compassion Mantra, it has a very soothing effect. I like this version by Ven. Ani Choying Drolma (a Nepalese nun) who has a very beautiful voice:

    In Thailand, we often chant some standard verses in Pali when performing merit dedication which in English reads as follows:
    May all beings — without limit, without end —
    have a share in the merit just now made,
    and in whatever other merit I have made.

    Those who are dear & kind to me —
    beginning with my mother & father —
    whom I have seen or never seen;
    and others, neutral or hostile;

    beings established in the cosmos —
    the three realms, the four modes of birth,
    with five, one, or four aggregates —
    wandering on from realm to realm:

    If they know of my dedication of merit,
    may they themselves rejoice,
    And if they do not know,
    may the devas inform them.

    By reason of their rejoicing
    in my gift of merit,
    may all beings always live happily,
    free from animosity.

    May they attain the Serene State,
    and their radiant hopes be fulfilled.
  • PatrPatr Veteran
    In the Tirokudda Sutta, the fact that the dead are able to gain merit through rejoicing in the act of giving is clearly stated.

    Hmm, shouldnt the merit gain through the act of giving be attributed to the giver...?
    If one realises that certain sutras are recited for the departed exclusively, then there would be rejoice in the part of the reciter. After all, they should not be expected to seek any joy (attachment), but seek release.

    In fact it is said that in some hungry ghost realms, the the only source of happiness for those beings are by rejoicing in the merits that are dedicated to.

    The departed, into fallen into lower realms, is very 'lost'. We cannot assume their realms have any similarity to ours and their faculties to be of the same intensity as ours.

    I do presume that the sutras travel far and wide and they do actually understand the message contained, hence the joy is in receiving 'knowledge, instructions, directions' to escape and progress towards liberation from their current realm.

    As mentioned, some sutras do a magical job of attracting the audience, hence they must work to a very great degree of conveying their message.

    Those who are able to communicate with the departed, will often speak of their asking for help, being hopelessly lost and hence wandering souls.

    Try this.
  • karmablueskarmablues Veteran
    edited July 2013
    Patr said:

    Hmm, shouldnt the merit gain through the act of giving be attributed to the giver...?

    Yes, the giver gains merit through his/her act of giving. However, anyone else who knows about this act of giving and rejoices (ie. approves and takes delight) in it also gains merit. This is because the act of rejoicing involves a wholesome consciousness (kusala citta). This wholesome quality of rejoicing is basically the same as the one which arises when we develop mudita (sympathetic joy) which is one of the four Brahmaviharas.

    In Thailand, it is customary for someone who has done some merit-making activity to make such deed known to family and friends and usually we literally say, "I've brought some merit along for you. Today, I [insert description of meritious activity that was done]." The family member or friend would then say, "Anumodana, Sadhu!" which is a Pali phrase to say "Excellent! I approve and take delight in your meritious deed".

    So that is why when we dedicate merit to the departed, we also chant some Pali verses that I posted in my comment above and this serves to inform them of the dedication so that they can approve and take delight in whatever meritious deed was performed in their name. Through this act of rejoicing, they gain merit and thus happiness when such merit (good karma) bears fruit. In case for some reason they are not aware of the merit dedication, we ask that the devas inform them.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    Frankly, although I learned much of my understanding of Buddhism from Thailand, I have never believed in giving merit to others. It's a nice considerate thing to do, but I fail to see how karma can be affected by someone else that is not involved in what the initial person did.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    In my understanding the wish to make someone else happy helps us to shed ego. In our lives we become more generous. This becomes our natural habit. It could have a benefit such as a more lovingly radiant mind. Or it could reduce attachment to wealth.
  • @vinlyn

    Let me try to explain it this way.

    One gains good karma/merit by performing actions that involve wholesome mental states. So, for example, if I offer food to the Sangha I would thereby gain good karma because that act of giving involved me having a wholesome mental state.

    So if I came along and said to you, "Hi Vinlyn. Yesterday I offered food to the monks of an entire temple." Now if you react to this information by rejoicing in my act of generosity, you have thus performed good karma yourself. By approving and taking delight (ie. rejoicing) in my act of generosity, you yourself have performed an act which involves a wholesome mental state and through such act you have yourself gained good karma/merit.

    On the other hand, if you had reacted in a negative way then the results would have been the opposite. For example, if instead of rejoicing, you had thought to yourself, "What an idiot. He only offers food to the monks of an entire temple to show off his wealth and brag about it." In such situation, instead of gaining good karma/merit, you would have gained bad karma because of the unwholesome mental state involved in your criticism of my meritious deed.

    So merit dedication is not really literally "giving" merit to others. It is about declaring our good deeds and making them known to others so as to provide an opportunity for those others to react in a positive/meritious manner ie. which is to approve and take delight (rejoice) in those good deeds. It is therefore up to the person who receives the merit dedication to react in a wholesome way that produces good karma/merit.

    Anyways, I tried to explain this point in the OP but perhaps did not make myself clear enough but hope this comment clarifies things better.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    karmablues, I understand the process. I don't believe in it. I even used to go through the motions, even though I didn't believe in it.

    My karma is a result of my actions. And what you do will not affect my karma. That's my belief.
  • karmablueskarmablues Veteran
    edited July 2013
    vinlyn said:

    My karma is a result of my actions. And what you do will not affect my karma.

    That's exactly my point. Your act of rejoicing in the good deeds performed by me is your action not mine, ie. It is you who is doing the rejoicing not me. And the wholesome mental state accompanying your act of rejoicing is your wholesome mental state not mine.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    Giving my merit to someone else may improve my karma, but it does nothing for the other person.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    I think it's an imponderable. We don't know how the universe works. Their could be some 'mystical physics' that allows a being to help another. For example saying dedications for a deceased. If you already believe in reincarnation, which cannot be proved, you could take that further to believe the organization of the universe allows merit to be transferred. On the other hand Buddha himself said that each person must walk the path and obviously Buddha couldn't wave his magic wand and make someone enlightened.
  • karmablueskarmablues Veteran
    edited July 2013
    vinlyn said:

    Giving my merit to someone else may improve my karma, but it does nothing for the other person.

    The point is you can't "give" your merit to anyone else. All you can do is to inform someone else about a good deed you have performed. Then it is entirely up to what that other person does which determines whether s/he will benefit or not.

    If the other person remains indifferent then yes, it can be said that your dedication of merit does nothing for that person. However, if s/he reacts by rejoicing in your good deeds, then s/he would gain good karma/merit and also develop mudita (sympathetic joy) which - along with metta, compassion and equanimity - is one of the four Brahma viharas.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    But I don't think that's what most people are talking about.

    We have fairly common examples right here on this forum when someone is ill and in the hospital, and a forum member asks the rest of us to intervene with our prayers and meditations. Essentially, in Buddhism, that's giving merit. And that ill person in the hospital doesn't get well (or not) because of our prayers and meditations. Not saying it's not a nice thing to do, but my Thai ex didn't get a cure of his heart conditions or hepatitis, or aplastic anemia by all those friends and relatives who are giving him their merit.

    I can agree with you about feeling joy. But I think are talking about more than just feeling good here.
  • Actually when someone is ill, what practicing Buddhists usually do in Thailand is ask that other people send metta to that person. Personally, I like to believe that sending good thoughts to someone could at least help them feel emotionally better and to have a sense of some kind of mental comfort. I don't think sending metta can have an effect on the physical illness itself though.

    If someone in my family became ill, I would also pray and meditate for them. But this wouldn't be about giving merit. Rather it would be a case of performing good karma so as to create the cause for the fruit of happiness. And if my own happiness is heavily dependent on my relative's health, then the fruit of my good karma should cause my relative's health to improve in order to create happiness for me.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    If I were ill I would want them to think of me and the question if prayer helps is a mystery to me. The person can open out to that mystery and think of what their 'heart connections' mean in the context of not knowing when we are going to die. Sorry to hear of your loss @vinlyn
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    Jeffrey said:

    If I were ill I would want them to think of me and the question if prayer helps is a mystery to me. The person can open out to that mystery and think of what their 'heart connections' mean in the context of not knowing when we are going to die. Sorry to hear of your loss @vinlyn

    What loss?

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited July 2013
    @vinlyn, Oh sorry I was understanding that your ex died because of no treatment. What a terrible error in reading comprehension. What you said was that the prayers didn't provide a treatment, not that she didn't get ANY treatment. 1000 pardons. I was probably projecting my aunt dying because she tried to faith heal herself and read the words wrong.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    LOL...don't worry about was nice of you to give me sympathy...even when not needed. No, we are ex's due to relationship problems...and the riots in Thailand.

    Oh, that's interesting. Did the faith healing help in any way?
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    The faith healing didn't do the job on the tumor though I suppose it made her feel better emotionally. By the time she got western medical treatment the tumor was as big as a grape fruit and she not only had the cancer, but also pain from the tumor. She was actually the only Buddhist in my family. She went from one spirituality to the next. Crystal healing, Buddhist, with a Swami (whatever that religion is called), Native American spirituality where she was the wise woman staying up with the 'braves' during a right of adulthood. She was a student in India where she only had a small jug of water to do all of her hygiene in but turned away from that because the Swami was sleeping with his students.

    So she was a very interesting person. She wrote me a deep letter when I was about 10 which I never answered because she was approaching me with deep religious vibe when I was a jock who played basketball all of my free time that was not spent watching sports, or reading sci/fantasy fiction. When she died in my 20s I remembered the letter and I still had it and read it. I wrote her an answer and then I burned my answer to send it to her.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    Very interesting, Jeffrey. I can't say I believe in faith healing, but I try to remain open-minded about it.
  • wrathfuldeitywrathfuldeity Veteran
    edited July 2013
    There is the 49 days of reading the bardo thodol to the deceased relative or other...I could only imagine that doing this would be of great benefit to all involved.
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