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earning merits

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Walking up the hill to Doi Suthep, a touristy Buddhist monastery high above the Thai city of Chiang Mai, I saw a woman loaded with a pile of cages holding little birds. Just then three women approached. Coins and a cage changed hands, the three moved aside, stood with hands held palms-together, chanted briefly, bowed, and … released the birds.

My guide-book told me that this road-side ritual followed a circular protocol designed to generate merits: karmic bonus points resulting from good deeds, acts, or thoughts, which carry over to later in life or the next life. By setting the birds free, the women earned merits by doing a good deed. The one renting out the birds, by making their act of generosity possible, similarly earned merits. In addition, she made her living from the earnings. The birds, meanwhile, having been in the care of the vendor since birth, returned to their cage after a short flight, ready to repeat this amazing cycle of spiritual commerce.

I was reminded of this when talking to a person who’s facing death from a steadily encroaching cancer. She expressed her reluctance to ask friends and family for support. I’ve always been independent, she told me, and would feel guilty burdening others with my troubles. “Imagine,” I suggested, “the gift you’ll be giving to people who love you: to be able to practice compassion … an opportunity to do good.”



9 responses »

    • what a question … seemingly out of no-where. all’s well with me. then this morning (and still ongoing) an overhwelming sense of familiar listlessness … under the heading og “depression.”

      so thanks for asking. i’m watching these dark clouds (and my reactions to them) most carefully.

      • mmm…
        let’s see – you changed your blog theme to grey on gray with splashes of black and white… even changed the blog icon. Does the internet have the equivalent of body language? Even your headings are scrambled…

        When studying tai chi it was observed that shifting weight simply points out areas needing homework…
        strengthening one’s root leads to being more difficult to uproot during trying times.
        one leg empty while the other full… is hard work but it strengthens
        60-40 was really closer to 50-50…
        a bit of house keeping to renew freshness…

        …or is making these observations, an attempt at gaining merit?

        Are these questions? or curiosity? Do I really have a need to know? In this practice am I then collecting merit?

        Is there a practice for …. purity of heart?

  1. not immersed in mental
    or emotional struggles

    refraining from wickedness

    neither attached to life
    nor to death


    reverent without sympathy

    harboring no hatred

    coveting nothing

    not overly concerned with trivial matters
    nor grieving over difficulties

    the joyful cook rings the dinner bell

    from Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo

  2. Yes, Peter.
    I’ve heard a similar story about a teacher who used to pick out the poorest quality vegetables to buy for himself, until he realized that in doing so he was depriving others of the opportunity to gain merit by doing the same thing.

    It’s tricky, this merit thing, it seems to me. My ego wants to step in and look good. To gain merit. Perhaps it’s better to forget about the idea of gaining something – anything – and do the best I can without concerning myself with gaining points. After all, where’s the difference between buying and selling indulgences and trying to gain merits? (There is a difference – but again it gets tricky and my focus gets diverted). Good stuff for reflection

  3. It becomes “tricky” as you say malcolm, when we believe and act for merit, i.e. personal gain or credit. Is that why you volunteer at hospice? if you say “no,” as I assume you do, then the issue is clear and you have no need to harken back to indulgences etc. only clouds the mind.

  4. Hi Peter,

    Marcus here, a friend of Chong Go Sunim’s. Are you in Thailand at the moment (or have I miss-read this post)? If you are in Thailand, do you have any plans to be in Bangkok any time? It would be lovely to meet you, perhaps at the English-language Sangha’s regular Monday night meditation?

    And if you are currently in Chiang Mai, have you visited the Green Papaya Sangha there? My apologies if I have made incorrect assumptions here. This is one of the first few times I’ve been to your site and perhaps should have read more deeply before posting.

    Wishing you happiness,
    Marcus _/\_

    • thank you for this kind invitation, marcus. i’d love to join you on monday nights. trouble is 🙂 I live and write from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. My last stay at Wat Doi Suthep was in late 2008. Kindly knock on my door the next time your travels take you to the Pacific North West. with palms together, peter daishin


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