In This Article Merit Transfer

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Studies
  • Critical Studies

Buddhism Merit Transfer
by
James Egge
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0222

Introduction

Merit transfer is directing one’s own good deeds (or karma) to benefit another being. Practices of merit transfer are common in all major Buddhist traditions, and are typically performed to help deceased family members, deities, or all beings. Merit transfer is also important in Mahayana understandings of the bodhisattva path, which involves dedicating all of one’s merit for the good of others. Although the expression ‘merit transfer’ is well-established in Buddhist studies (as well as Hindu and Jain studies), the phrase ‘merit transfer’ does not directly translate any expression in a Buddhist classical language; rather, it corresponds to a range of expressions. Pariṇāmanā (transformation) is the most common Sanskrit term for merit transfer in Mahayana, while in Theravada pattidāna (gift of attainment) is the standard Pali term from about the 5th to 7th centuries onward. Studies of the origin of Buddhist merit transfer have focused on two distinct sets of practices: 1) dedication of gifts (dakṣiṇā) to monastics for the benefit of deities or ancestors, a practice with strong precedent in Brahmanical ritual, and 2) direction or transformation (pariṇāmanā) of one’s own good deeds to ripen for the benefit of oneself or others. Throughout the Buddhist world practices of merit transfer have been shaped by indigenous beliefs and practices, particularly customs regarding caring for the deceased. Several studies have examined the perceived conflict between the idea of merit transfer and the general Buddhist view that an action produces a karmic effect only for the doer of the act; scholars have argued either that these two concepts are contradictory, or that Buddhists do not actually hold that merit can be transferred. Many scholars have argued that merit transfer serves important social and psychological functions by softening the severe individualism of karma, and by relating monastics and laity to each other and to ancestors and deities. Finally, several studies raise questions as to whether ‘merit transfer’ really names a clearly delimited set of ideas and practices.

General Overviews

Tanabe 2003 provides a general introduction to merit transfer in Buddhism, while Weeraratne 1965 and Walter 2004 discuss merit transfer to benefit the deceased. “Anumodanā,” the title of Weeraratne’s article, is the Pali term for rejoicing by the recipient of transferred merit.

  • Tanabe, George J., Jr. “Merit and Merit-Making.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 532–534. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.

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    Tanabe defines merit transfer as the dedication or transfer of the benefit or blessing derived from merit to another through rituals performed by monastics. He distinguishes merit transfer from a broader category of karmic interchanges that take place directly between individuals, such as curses and harm inflicted by ghosts on the living.

  • Walter, Mariko Namba. “Ancestors.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 20–23. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

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    Walter provides an overview of merit transfer rites for the deceased.

  • Weeraratne, W. G. “Anumodanā.” In Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1, Section 4. Edited by G. P. Malalasekera, 747–750. Sri Lanka: Department of Buddhist Affairs, 1965.

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    Weeraratne discusses several Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese accounts of giving to benefit the dead, which he interprets as the transfer of merit. He notes that in some passages when food and clothing are given, divine food and clothing appear in the ghost (peta) world, but he understands this transformation as the result of transferred merit.

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