Transfer of Merits (Pattidana) – How Does it Happen?

Revised July 7, 2018; Revised August 16, 2019

1. Even some Buddhists are skeptical that merits can be “transferred” to other beings: It does not appear to be “scientific.” However, Buddha Dhamma is far ahead of science, and this is another example. Even though the vocabulary is different, mechanisms of “energy transfer” (mental energy) are also explained in Dhamma.

  • It is possible to transfer the merits of a good deed, and also many other versions of “mental energy.”
  • The basic idea can be thought of as follows. Suppose one has a lighted oil lamp, and many others have oil lamps that they are unable to light. Wouldn’t it be better to let others use one’s lamp’s flame to light their lamps?
  • Of course, it is not possible to “create” many lighted oil lamps starting with one. But it is possible to light a thousand other lamps by sharing the flame of one oil lamp. In the same way, the receiving person needs to have essential ingredients to reap the benefits, as explained below. But since all those lamps will be useless without a way to light them, the person providing the light is doing an excellent service.
  • One “giving merits” is doing pattidāna or “conditions” for good kamma bija (or beeja) to germinate. The receiver must have good kamma beeja or “root causes” and receive those pattidāna willingly, which is called “punna anumōdanā” which rhymes as “punnānumōdana.

2. Anumodana means the receiving mind is becoming joyful with the merits it received (“anu” + “ōdanā,” which rhymes as “anumōdanā”). The giver is giving (“dāna”) the “paccayā” or the auxiliary causes. (The common word is “pratyaya” but that is the incorrect Sanskrit word; the correct Pāli word is paccayā). It is paccayā that represents “patti” in “pattidāna” (pronounced, “paththidāna“).

  • Other than in direct giving (see below), the giver cannot make the receiving party “receive what is intended” unless the person receiving has a mindset that is attuned to receiving.
  • It is the receiving person that is doing the “punna anumōdanā”, i.e., gladly receiving the pattidāna of the giver and becoming joyful with the merits received. That is also called “pattānumōdanā.

3. Giving and receiving can be done in many ways:

  • The direct method of giving/receiving is when one gives money or something material. It is deducted from the giver’s ledger and added to the receiver’s: Transfer is complete.
  • When a teacher teaches a classroom full of kids, he/she is giving instructions the same way to all the kids. But how much a particular kid “receives” or comprehends depends on that specific kid’s ability to receive.
  • A radio/television station is broadcasting a program. But the reception of the program by a radio/TV depends on the quality of that receiving device. Furthermore, it has to be “tuned” to the correct station.
  • This transfer can happen instantaneously or with a time lag, because that mental energy is in the “nāma lōka” and is accessible at any time; see, “Memory, Brain, Mind, Nama Loka, Kamma Bhava, Kamma Vipaka,” “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis,”, and “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”

4. Therefore, only in “direct giving,” the amount received is the same as given. The amount received in the other two “indirect giving” methods depends on the receiver. A similar mechanism is at work when one does a good deed and “transfers merits” to another person who may be far away.

  • All intentions have kammic energy. You may remember that the Buddha said, “Cetanā aham bhikkave kamman vadāmi,” or “Bhikkhus, I say that intention is kamma.” And kamma is the vital potential energy for everything in this world.
  • People very much underestimate the power of the human mind. Those who have experienced at least anariya jhanas can sense at least a little bit about the power of the mind; see, “Power of the Human Mind – introduction” and the two follow-up posts.
  • Direct giving is “dāna“; indirect giving is “pattidāna.” These are two of the ten meritorious deeds (punna kamma); see, “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.”

5. One such mechanism is the annantara-samanantara paccayā; see “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya.” It is one of the universal laws governing how kamma and kamma vipāka operate (kamma niyama). Many people pronounce “niyama” as “niyāma,” but “niyama” is the Pāli or Sinhala word for “principle.”

  • Thus kamma niyama are the universal laws of kamma (like the law of gravitation).

6. Suppose one is “transferring merits” by sincerely saying that “May so and so receive merits from this good deed that I have done.” One could do Metta bhāvanā by saying, “May all beings be free from the suffering in the apayas” or some version of it. In both cases, one is BROADCASTING one’s intention.

  • However, just because one is doing such a “giving,” the intended recipient may not receive the benefits UNLESS the recipient has a matching mindset. It is just like the case of radio/TV, where the receiving device needs to be set to the “right frequency” to receive the signal.
  • That is explained in the post, “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya.” Don’t be discouraged by those Pāli words. Sometimes, as in the case of paticca samuppada, it is best to use the Pāli words and to understand the meaning of them.

7. Transfer of merits is efficient when the giver and the receiver are together, and each is aware of the other’s intention. For example, in Asian countries, it is customary to transfer merits to deceased relatives. Almsgiving to the Sangha and pattidāna offered to the deceased relative belong to this category.

  • The deceased party can receive merits if it is in a state where it can receive such merits, for example, if it is in a gandhabba state.
  • But if the deceased is reborn an animal or human, then it cannot receive full benefits, even though it may benefit to some extent.

8. It is possible to “give Dhamma” or to “give kusala” too. The Buddha said, “sabba dānaṃ Dhamma dānaṃ jināti” or, “from all kinds of giving, Dhamma giving is the most meritorious.”

  • When the Buddha gave a discourse, those who were listening “received” Dhamma or kusala in varying degrees. Some became Arahants, and some attained the Sōtapanna stage, etc. during the discourse itself. But others did not achieve any stage but possibly still accumulated merits or kusala. Kusala (“ku” or “kunu” or “dirty”+”sala” or “remove,” and thus shedding defiled thoughts from the mind). That means gaining wisdom, non-greed, non-hate  AND discarding greed, hate, and delusion.
  • During such a discourse, one mainly cultivates wisdom. That, in turn, results in discarding greed and hate.

9. How much merits a given person receives depends on the state of mind of that person. It also depends on the intellectual level of that person. But it is not possible to quantify the intellectual level using modern standards of “book knowledge.” It is not directly related to one’s formal education. It is easier to give some examples.

  • Ven. Ananda was highly literate, a former prince, and had a fantastic memory power. He had the whole Sutta Pitaka in his memory. And he was with the Buddha for many years but attained the Arahanthood only after the Parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha.
  • Suneetha was of low-caste and was carrying buckets of feces when the Buddha met him. The Buddha with his supernormal powers saw that Suneetha was capable of comprehending Dhamma and asked Suneetha to become a bhikkhu. Ven. Suneetha became an Arahant within seven days.

10. A given person may be receptive to “receiving Dhamma” when his mind is in a calm state. But the same person may not comprehend anything when his mind is excited or distracted. That is the same as saying that the five hindrances are active; see, “Key to Calming the Mind – Five Hindrances.” Therefore, it is IMPORTANT to have a correct mindset when learning Dhamma, whether by listening or reading.

  • Therefore, try to read these posts at quiet times, when the mind is receptive, and NOT during the brief breaks at work when the mind is occupied or agitated.
  • In Asian countries, that is a significant reason for going to the temple. At the temple, people make offerings of flowers to the Buddha or the Bodhi tree. Such activities get the mind into a calm, peaceful state suitable for listening to a Dhamma discourse afterward; see, “Buddhist Chanting” and “Tisarana Vandana and Its Effects on One’s Gathi.”

11. Therefore, both annantara and samanantara must be optimized to make all these activities efficient.

  • Of course if one is not learning the true Dhamma, annantara is not right, and one is wasting one’s time.
  • On the other hand, even with an excellent Dhamma delivery, the receiver’s mind needs to be receptive to get full benefits. In other words, samanantara must be good too.

12. The following example may help in clarifying this concept: Having “good kamma beeja” is like having “good seeds.” Suppose person X has potent seeds but does not have water and nutrients for those seeds to germinate and grow. Now, if person Y can provide X with water and nutrients, X can plant those seeds and get them to germinate and grow.

  • Like that, some beings have “good kamma seeds,” but do not have the necessary conditions for them to bring the corresponding good kamma vipāka. When one is doing pattidāna, that is like donating water and nutrients in that simile (example).

13. A seed is the annantara or the cause (kamma beeja), and the receiving party must have that. However, unless that field is moist, has nutrients, and has exposure to sunlight, the seed cannot grow, i.e., the samanantara (or suitable conditions) must be there too.

  • Therefore, the receiver can accept those conditions from the giver, and get those existing good kamma beeja to bring their good vipāka.
  • It is only when both annantara and samanantara are optimized and matched that full benefits result. i.e., the optimum transfer takes place. For those who are familiar with the “resonance effect” in physics, it is quite similar to that. Only when the energy of photon matches an energy gap of an atom that the absorption of that photon by the atom is optimum.

 14. There is a type of “anumōdanā” that happens in day-to-day life too. Suppose X starts a project to feed the hungry. Many poor people benefit from it. When Y sees that Y may become joyful seeing the hungry getting fed, and may thank X for doing it. This joy of heart, even if Y did not contribute, counts as “merits”; it becomes a good kamma vipāka for Y. That does not take any merits away from X.

  • .It is not possible for something to come out of nothing. So, where do those kinds of benefits come from? It comes from the mental energy of Y, who became joyful upon seeing the kind act. That is part of the mental energy (javana) that a human possesses; see, “Power of the Human Mind – introduction.”
  • That is true of immoral acts too. Suppose X is beating up Y. Person Z may be glad to see that and may encourage X to beat up Y. Now, suppose Y dies as a result of the beating. Then not only X but Z also gets bad kamma vipāka for that immoral act.
  • In our societies also, the same principle applies. If the police investigating the death of Y has evidence that Z encouraged the killing, then Z, as well as X, could be prosecuted.
  • Thus our feelings (good or bad) play an important role in accumulating good and bad kamma vipāka.
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