A fortunate or unfortunate life depends on individual merits and demerits.
The performance of good actions gives rise to merit (punna), a quality which purifies and cleanses the mind. If the mind is unchecked, it has the tendency to be ruled by evil tendencies, leading one to perform bad deeds and getting into trouble. Merit purifies the mind of the evil tendencies of greed, hatred and delusion. The greedy mind encourages a person to desire, accumulate and hoard; the hating mind drags him to dislike and anger; and the deluded mind makes one become entangled in greed and hatred, thinking that these evil roots are right and worthy. Demeritorious deeds give rise to more suffering and reduce the opportunities for a person to know and practise the Dhamma.
Merit is important to help us along our journey through life. It is connected with what are good and beneficial to oneself and others, and can improve the quality of the mind. While the material wealth a person gathers can be lost by theft, flood, fire, confiscation, etc., the benefit of merits follows him from life to life and cannot be lost, although it can be exhausted if no attempts are made to perform more merits. A person will experience happiness here and now ass well as hereafter through the performance of merit.
Merit is a great facilitator: It opens the doors of opportunity everywhere. A meritorious person will succeed in whatever venture he puts his effort into. If he wishes to do business, he will meet with the right contacts and friends. If he wishes to be a scholar, he will be awarded with scholarships and supported by academic mentors. If he wishes to progress in meditation, he will meet with a skillful meditation teacher who guides him through his spiritual development. His dreams will be realized through the grace of his treasury of merit. It is merit which enables a person to be reborn in the heavens, and provides him with the right conditions and support for his attainment of Nibbana.
There are several rich fields of merit (recipients of the deed)which give rise to bountiful results to the performer of the good deed. Just as some soil can yield a better harvest (say black fertile soil compared to stony soil), a good deed performed to some persons can give rise to more merits than to others. The rich fields of merits include the Sangha or holy people, mother, father and needy. Good deeds performed to these persons will manifest in many ways and be the fountainhead of many wondrous results.
The Buddha taught ten meritorious deeds for us to perform in order to gain a happy and peaceful life as well as to develop knowledge and understanding. The ten meritorious deeds are:
Reverence or respect
Service in helping others
Sharing merits with others
Rejoicing in the merits of others
Preaching and teaching the Dhamma
Listening to the Dhamma
Straightening one's views
The performance of these ten meritorious deeds will not only benefit oneself, but others as well, besides giving benefits to the recipients. Moral conduct benefits all beings with whom one comes into contact. Mental culture brings peace to others and inspires them to practise the Dhamma. Reverence gives rise to harmony in society, while service improves the lives of others. Sharing merits with others shows that one is concerned about others' welfare, while rejoicing in others' merits encourages others to perform more merits. Teaching and listening to the Dhamma are important factors for happiness for both the teacher and listener, while encouraging both to live in line with Dhamma. Straightening one's views enables a person to show to others the beauty of Dhamma. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha taught:
'Should a person perform good,
He should do it again and again;
He should find pleasure therein;
For blissful is the accumulation of good.'
'Think not lightly of good, saying,
'It will not come near to me'?
Even by the falling of drops a water-jar is filled.
Likewise the wise man, gathering little by little,
Fills himself with good.'
Ten Evil Deeds
There are ten demeritorious deeds from which Buddhists are advised to keep away. These deeds are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, and will bring suffering to others but especially to oneself in this life and later lives. When a person understands the Law of Kamma and realizes that bad deeds bring bad results, he will then practise Right Understanding and avoid performing these actions.
There are three bodily actions which are kammically unwholesome. They are: (1) Killing of living beings, (2) Stealing, and (3) Unlawful sexual intercourse. These bodily deeds correspond to the first three of the Five Precepts for people to follow.
The effects of killing to the performer of the deed are brevity of life, ill-health, constant grief due to the separation from the loved, and living in constant fear. The bad consequences of stealing are poverty, misery, disappointment, and a dependent livelihood. The bad consequences of sexual misconduct are having many enemies, always being hated, and union with undesirable wives and husbands.
Four verbal actions are kammically unwholesome, and they are as follows: (1) Lying, (2) Slander and tale-bearing, (3) Harsh speech, and (4) Frivolous and meaningless talk. Except for lying, the other unwholesome deeds performed by speech may be viewed as extensions of the Fourth Precept.
The bad consequences of lying to the one who performs the deed are being subject to abusive speech and vilification, untrustworthiness, and physical unpleasantness. The bad effect of slandering is losing one's friends without any sufficient cause. The results of harsh speech are being detested by others and having a harsh voice. The inevitable effects of frivolous talk are defective bodily organs and speech which no one believes.
The three other demeritorious deeds are performed by the mind, and they are as follows: (1) Covetousness, or eagerly desirous especially of things belonging to others, (2) Ill-will, and (3) Wrong view. These three deeds correspond to the three evil roots of greed, hatred and delusion. The non-observance of the Fifth Precept of abstention from intoxicants can not only lead to the performance of these three demeritorious mental actions after the mind is intoxicated, but also the other demeritorious deeds performed by body and speech.
The undesirable result of covetousness is the non-fulfillment of one's wishes. The consequences of ill-ill are ugliness, manifold diseases, and having a detestable nature. Finally, the consequences of false view are having gross desires, lack of wisdom, being of dull wit, having chronic diseases and blameworthy ideas.
A person should always perform good actions and restrain himself from doing evil actions. If, however, a person has performed an evil action, it is necessary for him to realize where he has done wrong and make an effort not to repeat the mistake. This is the true meaning of repentance, and in this way only will a person progress along the noble path to salvation.
Praying for forgiveness is meaningless if, after the prayer is made, a person repeats the veil action again and again. Who is there to 'wash away a person's sins' except he himself? This has to begin with realization, the wonderful cleansing agent. First, he realizes the nature of his deed and the extent of the harm incurred. Next, he realizes that this deed is unwholesome, learns from it, and makes the resolution not to repeat it. Then, he performs many good deeds to the affected party as well as to others, as much as possible. In this way, he overcomes the effect of bad deed with a shower of good deeds.
No wrong does, according to Buddhism, is beyond redemption or rehabilitation, especially with realization and Right Effort. To be seduced into believing that a person can 'wash away' his bad deeds through some other 'miraculous' way is not only a mere superstition, but worse, it is also not useful particularly to the spiritual development of the person himself. It will only cause him to continue to remain ignorant and morally complacent. This misplaced belief can, in fact, do a person much more harm than the effects of the wrong deed he feared so much.