Making merits is an important part of Buddhism and sometimes people may misunderstand it completely.
What is merit?
In Chinese it is known as 功德 and in Sanskrit, Punya. In English, merit means “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.”
The key word is therefore, being good to deserve a reward. In the religious context, reward would naturally be perceived as gaining auspiciousness and getting good favorable conditions in life. Perhaps to unearth a huge diamond in your own back yard or winning the lottery? While finding diamonds in our backyard and winning the lottery is a good thing, they unfortunately means that we will have to dig the backyard for diamonds and to gamble. Now, that is not be a very Buddhist advice, right?
While commonsense tells us to work honestly and diligently, there are people who hoped for a windfall in life. In Buddhist countries, rumors of windfall after doing good meritorious deeds in certain temples spread like wildfire; attracting throngs of worshippers to pray for good luck at that temple. From this example, we know that some Buddhists perceive merit as a kind of divine reward for some specific actions. Such actions usually involves religious activities such as attending prayer ceremony or some form of ritualistic deeds.
In the Mahayana Sutra, merits are usually attributed to the practice of certain sutra. Some sutra states that one will be freed from calamities or receive divine blessings from Thousands of Buddhas. One’s illnesses or disease will be cured and one’s wishes will be granted. So on and so forth.
If we consider carefully, all the above stated merits are just worldly good fortune. The same stuff that Buddha advised us to let go and give up. What is the use of a Ferrari or a Hermès Birkin? Did the Buddha really promise that one will be free from misfortune after one takes refuge in the Triple Gems? If so, shouldn’t all Buddhist be exempted from Covid-19?
This only illustrates the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg of ignorance and wishful thinking. We just can’t help it, can we?
The Real Merit
The best reward is actually enlightenment. When we are enlightened, all our wishes will be fulfilled. Why is that so? Because when we are enlightened, we no longer wish for anything that is in Samsara.
Therefore, the real merits involve any actions that we do, to awaken our enlightened mind.
May all be well and happy.