One of the most common religious practices among Thai Buddhists is merit making. Whether it is giving food to the monks on their daily alms round, bringing offerings to the temple, or chanting in the ancient language of Pali, Thai Buddhists love to make merit. Granted, some people are more diligent and enthusiastic than others but nonetheless merit making is a mainstay of Buddhist religion in Thailand. But what benefit do they get out of it? Why make merit?
I had been thinking about the motivation behind merit making and the righteousness freely offered in Christ when I saw on the book rack at 7-11 a book entitled “Accumulating Merit” (สะสมบุญ). I picked it up and found and a chapter near the beginning of the book entitled, “Why We Make Merit”. The author, a Thai Buddhist, writes that making merit is beneficial to both the Buddhist monks [who receive offerings] and to the Buddhists [who bring the offerings]. He puts forward the following reasons for why we (i.e. Thai Buddhists) make merit:
1) The majority of Buddhists who make merit are hoping to gain happiness in the present life. Namely, they want to have happiness and prosperity, good luck, success in their job responsibilities, and people who are faithful to them.
2) Of secondary importance to the first reason is the benefits that merit making brings in creating a higher kind of happiness, a greater inner happiness in your spirit through doing things that are good, being a moral person, helping others. There is also the contented feeling that this merit will have good effects on your next life.
3) The last reason to make merit is to help you see the truth about life, namely life is always changing and never certain, there is birth and death, there is meeting and parting, material objects are impermanent, and to reduce desires and cease attachment to worldly things.
The author concludes by saying that the above reasons are the real motivations that we as Buddhists ought to have when we go to make merit if we want to be doing it right. If what we hope for in making merit is something other than these reasons, then we are on the wrong track.
There are two observations that I want to make about the author’s thoughts on why Thai Buddhists make merit:
1) People make merit for reasons other than what the author lists. This is obvious from his conclusion where he says, in effect, “This is what you should be doing”, implying that people do otherwise. I think that it is safe to say that there are LOTS of people who make merit because of pressure from family or society.
‘It is important to Mom, so I’ll do it’.
‘My whole class at school is doing it so I need to do it too although I’d really rather be playing video games’
‘I am a business manager or government official and it is part of my duties so I’ll do what I need to do’.
Also, I am sure that some people make merit in order to be thought well of by others.
2) The primary reason that the author lists has everything to do with health, wealth, and prosperity in this life, and nothing to do with spiritual realities or the afterlife. It is all about the here and now. He does go on to list other, more spiritual reasons, but the primary reason is very pragmatic and this worldly. If there were masses of people going to the temple to make merit to try to make up for their sin or bad karma, or trying to accumulate merit to get a better next life, then I think that would make for an easier bridge to talking about the Gospel. Jesus said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32). If people are burdened about their sin, then the Gospel has a solution to that burden. But while people are still convinced that their own efforts can create happiness for themselves, then the Gospel has nothing to say to them.
A few weeks ago when I saw masses of people come out for a local merit making festival, I thought ‘All these people feel like they need merit in their lives yet they don’t know Christ - the only one who truly has merit to give and has infinite merit to give to the repentant.’. Even while I was thinking about that though, I wondered whether that was actually the thought in people’s minds. I now suspect that a desperate need for merit to amend a perceived spiritual lack in their lives may not have been the primary motive. Maybe they all just want more happiness and prosperity. Maybe their parents, spouse, relatives, etc. dragged them along. Or maybe some of them truly desire inner happiness or some spiritual benefit. It is impossible to apply any general statement to a particular person without talking with them, but it is helpful to know some of the main reasons why people do what they do.
In order for Thai Buddhists to take an interest in the Gospel, I could tell them that believing in Christ will bring greater happiness and prosperity than what they are currently doing. I could try to show them that Christ will fulfill their felt needs better than Buddhism. I could go out and take a survey of Buddhists to find out what they think a Christian church should offer that would make them want to go.
Or I could refuse to pander and compromise and simply preach Christ crucified and love my neighbors as myself. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinth. 1:22-24). I love the message of the cross. I love the message of the crucified savior poured out to save me from sin and from the wrath of God. I love knowing that I am made right before God, credited with Christ’s righteous life, and the Holy Spirit is purifying me day by day to more reflect Christ’s holy character. All of that sounds like pie-in-the-sky spiritual foolishness to unregenerate sinners so I rely on the Holy Spirit to convict sinners of their sin so that the Good News will start to sound like Good News to them. How do we reach people for Christ? We pray for God to work conviction of sin in their hearts and we share the old old story of the precious Savior - a sweet story to those whose hearts God is opening and nonsense to those who feel not their own sin.
I find it helpful to understand the motivations of the Thai Buddhists around me but until they feel that burden of sin and need for help beyond themselves, then the Gospel has nothing to say to them. But God is the one who changes hearts and make the Gospel beautiful to those who were never interested before. Because God is the one who is at work in drawing people to himself, the message of the cross (without any embellishment) is the message that will draw people to Christ. Because God is the one who draws them.