What Does Accumulating ‘Merit’ Mean? Understanding Punya & the Mysterious Power of Goodness

“The idea of Punya is fundamental to Buddhism. It is related to the idea of kushalamula, literally ‘roots of goodness’.  Goodness here refers to karmically wholesome actions that arise from and give rise to wholesome states of being. 

They are like roots spreading out into the ground of our being causing wholesome and happy states to sprout in the space of our experience again and again.  It is as if we were trees whose power and strength lay in their roots.  A well-rooted tree is not easily destroyed by storms, frosts, drought, or setbacks of any kind.  It may lose all its leaves and look withered and dead – but then because of its good roots it springs back to life again and again. 

We own these roots in a more real sense than we own anything else in life.  They are our true wealth and they go with us from life to life.  So it is meaningful to dedicate them for whatever purpose we choose.  It is like our money to spend on whatever we choose. 

Punya, usually rather misleadingly translated as merit, is the power of goodness inherent in kushalamula and the word punya is often used more or less synonymously with this latter term. What is this mysterious power of goodness?  If unwholesome karmic states arise from actions motivated by ignorance and the kleshas that arise from it, where do wholesome karmic states arise from?  How do they arise in a mind covered by ignorance? 

Most Buddhist sources simply say that punya comes from wholesome karmic states and actions, but if this were the whole story all the qualities and activity of enlightened beings that resulted from practising the path would be conditioned and not of the nature of Enlightenment.  Since the Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena are suffering, it does not make sense to think that the qualities and activity of enlightened beings are conditioned. 

This is why the Mahayana teaching on Tathagatagarbha explains that the power of goodness is actually the Buddhajnana itself; in other words it is unconditioned Reality itself.  Since this is always active within all beings at some level or other, beings always have the capacity to produce wholesome roots. 

The power of goodness is intrinsic to what beings are.  It is intrinsic to the nature of the universe.  The more our veils of ignorance and confusion are lifted, the more it manifests and so the happier we become and the more wholesome our actions are.  So although the whole Buddhist tradition from beginning to end teaches the need to accumulate punya, in fact it is not so much accumulated as released. 

Nevertheless, there is some sense in talking about accumulating punya and for Bodhisattvas to accumulate punya for the sake of helping others.  Why?  From the point of view of what conditions are necessary to carry out their good deeds, the power of punya is essential in order to do anything.  Here it is helpful to think in terms of the Mandala Principle.  The reason the Bodhisattvas vow to act forever, visiting different Buddhas in their Pure Lands, making them offerings, bathing them, pleasing them in all sorts of ways, asking them to teach, listening attentively, asking them to live long in that world for the benefit of the beings there and so on, is that all this activity creates a powerful energy exchange.  It puts tremendous energy into the mandalas of those Buddhas and in response to that those Buddhas become even more powerful in terms of what they can do for beings. 

That is why Bodhisattvas make pranidhanas to visit every Pure Land and make offerings to all the Buddhas of the past, present and future.  Somehow, because of the interpenetrative nature of Reality and the power of the intention coming from the pure heart of a Bodhisattva and because of the power of the Bodhisattva’s realisation of Truth and allegiance to it—such actions are able to truly benefit us all instantaneously in a timeless sense.  That is why it is said that Bodhisattvas continue to accumulate punya for three countless kalpas, even after they have realised emptiness and are beyond ordinary rebirth in samsara. 

Since punya is actually the Buddhajnana itself, when we realise the true nature of our being as Buddhajnana we realise that we are punya itself.  All that power of goodness for oneself and others emanates from the centre of one’s being. 

So punya and the six paramitas (dana/giving, shila, kshanti, virya, dhyana and prajna) are interrelated concepts.  Punya is a shorthand way of referring to all of them, but particularly the first five.  Increasing prajna is more usually referred to as accumulating jnana.  So the Buddhist path is often summed up by the expression ‘accumulation of punya and jnana’.  From the Tathagatagarbha point of view punya and jnana are the same ultimate Reality.  But before one understands the teaching on Tathagatagarbha deeply within oneself, it is often easier to talk as if punya and jnana were separate.  We do things to accumulate punya and our realisation of emptiness or jnana accumulates jnana. 

Punya As Personal Wealth & Power

Since punya belongs to us, it is our personal wealth and power, which we can give away for the benefit of others.  In order to give to others in a way that will truly benefit them, we have to think about what is the most effective way of using our punya.  For example, if you had a lot of money and decided to give it all away, you could just leave it out on the street for any passer-by to pick up.  However, if they did not know what it was, they might simply waste it.  It takes a lot of thought, wisdom and care to be able to give to others in a way that will produce the maximum benefit for them.  That is why the Bodhisattvas think very carefully about how they intend to dedicate their punya.” 

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is adapted from an excerpt from a book by Lama Shenpen on the Samantabhadracharya Pranidhana. View on Amazon here.

Punya (Tib:  bsod rnam) – somewhat misleadingly translated as ‘merit’.  It is the power of goodness inherent in kushalamula (roots of karmically wholesome states) and is often used more or less synonymously with that term. 

Jnana – often translated as ‘primordial wisdom’.  It refers to the living quality of non-conditioned Reality as non-dual, or non-conceptual awareness inseparable from its content – i.e.  it is the whole of Reality. 

Buddhajnana – Buddhajnana is the non-dual ultimate nature of Reality as realised by the Buddhas. 

Tathagatagarbha – often translated as ‘Buddha Nature’.  Literally it could be translated as the Tathagata’s (Buddha’s) heart essence, embryo, womb or matrix.  Generally it refers to the power inherent in beings to attain complete and perfect Buddhahood.