This morning I got up early and walked down to the main temple in Phra Phutta Baht to see the annual Flower Offering Merit Making Festival (ประเพณีตักบาตรดอกไม้) and take some pictures. The two parallel roads leading up to the temple were filled with people waiting to put flowers and dry food goods offerings into the bowls of 3,000 monks who were assembled for the occasion. See below for some photos followed by a bit of commentary.
As I took photos and watched the activities of the masses of people gathered, I couldn't help but think about their desire to make merit. Everybody wants merit. Although some people surely came out of conformity to family or national tradition, it would seem that many came because of a felt need to make up for some spiritual shortcoming in themselves. Even if they do not have a Biblical view of sin, all people know that they are not perfect and many are very aware of their own errors, weaknesses, evil desires and lusts. Thus they have an intuitive desire to make up for their sins and shortcomings in order to have greater happiness and peace in this life and the next.
Two phrases that I heard over the loudspeakers at the event particularly struck me, "If you have no merit, you have no life" and "outside of the Buddhist religion there is no merit". One statement I can agree with, but the other I can not. It is true that we must have merit in order to have life. However, no good deeds that we can do can ever make up for the evil wickedness of our hearts and actions. "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6 KJV). The merit that we desperately need is the merit of Christ, the Righteous One. Not saints. Not self. but Christ Alone. The infinite merit of Christ given to poor repentant sinners is the merit that we all need.
Looking at all the people seeking merit through their own efforts makes me long to see them look to Christ who can give them all the merit that they could ever need. But to come to Christ the Righteous One is difficult because a person must admit that their own efforts always fall short. They must abandon any confidence in themselves. And they must turn from devotion to self-love and the praise of others to a heartfelt devotion and obedience to Christ alone. To spend time and money in making physical offerings and chanting in unison once in a while is much easier than submitting your heart, mind, and soul to the Lord Jesus who desires not only outward conformity but an entire life which loves and adores him, as expressed in obedience to his commandments. To come to Christ is simple in that faith is all that is needed yet most difficult in that faith without works is dead (meaning, that if your faith does not have any outward expression than that absence is proof that there is not faith to begin with). To the second statement, that there is no merit outside the Buddhist religion, I would submit the words of the Apostle Paul who knew that there was no merit and no righteousness apart from that of the Lord Jesus Christ:
"But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Phil 3:7-9)