He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fair Questions: Does Buddhism have indulgences?

A while back, one of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries I follow on Facebook posted about an opportunity to earn lots of merit.

The following are the details of the event:

"Event (Buddha's Great Miracles): Tsog offering

Time: Thursday, March 5th at 7pm

Location: Gaden KhachoeShing monastery

On full moon day of 1st lunar month (Sunday, March 16th) is celebrated as Great Miracles day. On this Buddha perform great miracles and all merits accumulated on this day is increase 100,000 times."

One of my friends observed that this sounded like Roman Catholic indulgences, and suggested that they were essentially the same thing.  I was willing to admit there were some strong similarities, but I wasn't quite sure that I could conclude that they were quite that alike.  Accordingly, I decided to look at the available evidence and see whether or not I could conclude that Buddhism has indulgences.

For the sake of comparison, we can first define Roman Catholic indulgences and then look at the evidence of Buddhist teaching and practice to see if the Buddhist understanding of the transference of merit aligns with Roman Catholic teaching and practice as it concerns indulgences.  Both practices rest on a concept rendered in English as "merit" and indicate that it is possible for that merit to be used for helping others.

Merit & Indulgences

In Roman Catholic teaching, merit is a property of morally good actions which earns for the one performing the actions a reward of some sort.  Merit in principle belongs the person who performed the good works, and it cannot be transferred to anyone else, as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"(c) Owing to the peculiar relation between and material identity of merit and satisfaction in the present economy of salvation, a twofold value must in general be distinguished in every good work: the meritorious and the satisfactory value. But each preserves its distinctive character, theoretically by the difference in concepts, and practically in this, that the value of merit as such, consisting in the increase of grace and of heavenly glory, is purely personal and is not applicable to others, while the satisfactory value may be detached from the meriting agent and applied to others. The possibility of this transfer rests on the fact that the residual punishments for sin are in the nature of a debt, which may be legitimately paid to the creditor and thereby cancelled not only by the debtor himself but also by a friend of the debtor. This consideration is important for the proper understanding of the usefulness of suffrages for the souls in purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, Decret. de purgat., in Denzinger, n. 983). When one wishes to aid the suffering souls, one cannot apply to them the purely meritorious quality of his work, because the increase of grace and glory accrues only to the agent who merits. But it has pleased the Divine wisdom and mercy to accept the satisfactory quality of one's work under certain circumstances as an equivalent of the temporal punishment still to be endured by the faithful departed, just as if the latter had themselves performed the work."

However, the satisfaction of the debt we owe God (gained from the same good works which produce merit for us) can be applied to others because God allows us to help each other pay our debts to Him, specifically the debt of the punishment we face due to our sinful acts in this temporal existence.

Thus we can help the souls in Purgatory by offering the satisfaction we gain along with our merit to God in order that He might cancel part of the temporal punishment which due to them.  And not only can we help the souls in Purgatory draw closer to the Beatific Vision, but we too can be helped by satisfaction associated with the merits of Christ and the Saints so that God would see fit to cancel part of the temporal punishment we face for our sins.

"An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive. Regarding this definition, the following points are to be noted: "

The numerous qualifications and distinctions are available in the linked article, but the basic point is that when we do good works, we can positively impact those who are in another life as well as those in our own lives, and the satisfaction from the merits of those in Heaven can positively impact us.

So is that true in Buddhism as well?

Transference of Merit

The Tibetan Buddhist understanding of merit is quite explicitly not the same as the Roman Catholic understanding of merit.

"First of all, karma is talking about what is the result of acting constructively, and what is the result of acting destructively. It is talking about behavioral cause and effect. We do use expressions like “laws of physics.” These are physical things: there is no justice involved with objects following the laws of physics. Even among the Chinese, where laws are just part of the universe, the idea of justice is still there. Here in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, however, we are talking about a system that makes sense, but is not based on justice or fairness. It is just what is."

It is made very clear that while in Western thought, merit is inextricably bound up with notions of justice (specifically the justice of God in Roman Catholic teaching), and such is not the case in the Buddhist understanding of merit.

"Positive potential is Verdienst or merit: the potential for happiness to arise. To “build up” is not as though we are collecting points. It is not as though we have earned it either, like building up evidence in a legal case so that, as a result, you are going to be released. It is not like that. A more helpful to way to conceptualize it, I think, is that we strengthen the network of our positive potentials. Because we have a basic network that is part of our Buddha-nature, we are strengthening it so that it can function better."

The Buddhist understanding of merit involves no corresponding satisfaction for a debt owed to a divine being, despite the presence of plenty of divine beings in Buddhist cosmology.  And for the Buddhist of the traditions which practice the transference of merit, we can very directly and simply transfer merit we have accrued to others, whether they are with us on this plane of existence or not, as we can see from reading the following passages from the BuddhaSasana website.

"The method for transferring merits is quite simple. First some good deeds are performed. The doer of the good deeds has merely to wish that the merit he has gained accrues to someone in particular, or to 'all beings'. This wish can be purely mental or it can accompanied by an expression of words."

And just as in Roman Catholic teaching, we see that those on a higher plane of existence can positively impact those on a lower plane of existence because of their good works.

"Those who did not harm others and who performed many good deeds during their life time, will certainly have the chance to be reborn in a happy place. Such persons do not required the help of living relatives. However, those who have no chance to be reborn in a happy abode are always waiting to receive merits from their living relatives to offset their deficiency and to enable them to be born in a happy abode."

So to return to the original issue, which was the multiplication of merits on the Day of Miracles, we see that on this day the Buddha performed numerous marvelous acts which lead to the liberation of many.  This multiplication of merits certainly strongly resembles the Roman Catholic practice of attaching indulgences to special events, which can make it appear that they are the same in essence.


So does Buddhism have indulgences?

Both Buddhism and Roman Catholicism share a belief that those on these and other planes of existence can positively impact others who are on different planes of existence, and that this is accomplished by good works.  Both also teach that our good works are productive for reaching our final goal.  They do not agree on our final goal.  Nor do they agree on the cosmology in which beings positively impact other beings.  Nor do they share an equivalent understanding of merit, and disagree on the question of whether or not merit can be transferred to another being.

In the end, I don't think it's correct to claim that Buddhism has indulgences because there are very fundamental and significant differences between Roman Catholic indulgences and the transference of merit in Buddhism.  That said, I can certainly see why people would think that Buddhism has indulgences based on the very real similarities between indulgences and the transference of merit.

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