Feb 12, 2022
Martin Goodson

Rejoicing In Other’s’ Merit

Although all ‘intentional’ actions are karmic producing, meaning further rebirth, 'intentional' actions are in some sense necessary part for liberation from rebirth. Martin takes a closer look at this tricky concept.


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Merit is a term that is closely associated with the subject of karma.  A karmic act of body speech or mind is one that is based on intention.  Ultimately it is an ‘I’ based action, with the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion (the conviction of self-beliefs) at its root.  Although all intentional activity is karma producing and thus means further re-birth on the Wheel of Life, the different re-birth states shown on the wheel are not the same.

The Buddha said that liberation is only possible from the human state.  The human state is a karmically conditioned one, dependent upon those acts of body, speech and mind which are brought into existence by the practice of skillful actions.  In short, what is being said is that the practice of this list of ten actions and of others will, over time, ‘humanize’ us psychologically and bring us to a genuine state.  This state is not only within the human body,  which we are already born with, but also concerns real human feeling and connectedness with others,  commonly called empathy.  But what is this human state towards which our training is taking us?

It is worth considering that every human civilisation, culture or society has some kind of ideal of what it is to be truly human.  Our myths and folklore and our history are full of those heroes and heroines whose actions we look up to and admire.  The type of actions they exhibit may be varied but often the virtues that motivate these actions are similar.  For example, we all admire the action hero who rises to the challenge, faces difficulties and overcomes them, all in an attempt to win the great prize, whatever that may be.  However, we instinctively recognise the difference between the one who does these things  purely for personal gain and the one who does it for the general good.  We do not feel the same way about Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab as we do about Robin Hood.  And yet both are action adventurers and both faced great difficulties.  What marks them out from one another is that the former is motivated by revenge, whilst the latter is motivated to benefit others.

In folktales these two different motivations which lie behind similar actions are often contrasted in the same story to show the different outcomes.  It is a process indicative of a karmic process.

The Grimm brothe’s’ collected story of Mother Hollé is a good example of this type of tale.  

There are two sisters and a nasty mother.  One child, the ugly, selfish one is the favoured one.  The other is good, beautiful and sweet natured and is treated like a slave. She is the one who drops the spindle down the well and is ordered by the cruel mother to jump in after it, only to find herself in the beautiful meadow.  She follows the path and happily takes out the baked loaves from the oven when asked to do so.  She also ‘liberates’ the apples from the tree whose boughs creak under the weight.  She is taken in as maid by kindly old Mother Hollé and works well for her.  At the end of her stay she is rewarded by a shower of gold.  Then she returns home.  The other sister sees her sibling’s good fortune and now intentionally goes the same way but this time for her own personal gain.  She, with her eyes on the great prize, cares nothing for burning loaves or burdened apple trees and ignores them.  She too meets Mother Hollé and works for her, but she is lazy and does not do the job well.  Her reward is to be showered in soot and muck and so she makes her way home with her ‘prize’.

Put simply, what marks out our heroes and heroines from those who are out for themselves is whether or not their hearts are open or closed.  If we look carefully at those actions we commonly call heroic, almost without fail what makes them so is that their perpetrator’s hearts were open to the situation or to a feeling for others.

The fact that these themes are common throughout the world and throughout different ages indicates that they are deeply embedded within us and in our nature;   our human nature.  We may decry that this is not often achieved.  However, the fact   that such an ideal exists and that we are motivated to go towards it and respond to it shows at least that there is indeed such an instinct.

For example, when we look at the skillful action of rejoicing in othe’s’ merit we again see this ideal.  After all, what is it to rejoice in othe’s’ merit?  Remembering that doctrinally our circumstances are brought about by karma, then too our good fortune is karmically conditioned.  So, to be well or to recover one’s good health is a product of ripened merit.  To be in good or pleasant circumstances, whatever they may be, is also the result of merit.  To have great wealth, be it material or spiritual, likewise is indicative of ripening merit.  Of course, we need to be careful about how we interpret such things since otherwise, rather like the greedy sister, we get the wrong end of the stick.  I now think “If I’m good then these things will happen to me.”  And therefore I strive after them.  However, the motivation is in fact from a closed heart and the seeds that are planted will not be favourable.  But in Buddhism what is the most favourable circumstance?  Surely it is this human state from which liberation is possible?  This is the great wealth, the good health and fortune alluded to by the doctrine of meritorious actions.

This is precisely where the difficulty lies for ‘I’.  It is not possible for me  truly to rejoice in another’s good fortune without the feeling that somehow ‘I want some of it too’.  With that thought the heart is no longer truly open.  It is rather like Christ exhorting his followers to ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’.  To rejoice in another’s merit as if it were your own already.  Is that really possible if there is a feeling of ‘I’?  We know that it is not since I always feel a lack; your gain reflects my lack.  I cannot feel ‘my lack’ and rejoice in your gain as if it were my own at the same time.  This is why this particular action is such a good indicator of that open heart; it cannot be faked.

More often than not we bemoan our situation with the cry of ‘It’s not fair!’ , disguising our own wanting under the banner of injustice.  Even down to the smallest things.  In fact, I would prefer to see you go without if I too cannot have it  rather than bear this feeling of lack.  The same is true not only of material wealth but also of spiritual wealth or character.  Although we admire good character, if we are laden with the ‘I’ feeling, then we register the lack of it in ourselves.  An open heart would  be motivated to cultivate it, but a closed one resents it and seeks to despoil it in others.   This is the ‘dragging down’ that is so prevalent in our time.  But we can remember the lesson from Mother Hollé: the clear results that come from actions based on this closed heart and those from the heart being open, and perhaps, even if we do recognise those jealous thoughts and feelings, we cannot indulge them, knowing that they lead away from the great prize, the heart’s own fulfilment.

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