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

Revised July 7, 2018; August 16, 2019; February 12, 2020; August 9, 2022

Introduction – Unseen Mental Energy

1. Even some Buddhists are skeptical that merits can be “transferred” to other beings: It does not appear “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 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 but don’t have access to a flame to light them. Wouldn’t it be good 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 bīja) to germinate. The receiver must have good kamma bīja or “root causes” and receive those pattidāna willingly, which is called “puñña anumōdanā,” which rhymes as “puññānumōdanā.
What Is Anumōdanā?

2. Anumōdanā 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 commonly-used 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“).

  • Only in direct giving of material things can a giver ensure that the receiver receives what is given.
  • Giving merits (pattidāna) is different. The giver cannot ensure that the receiving party “received what is intended” unless the person receiving was attuned to receiving.
  • It is the receiving person that is doing the “puñña anumōdanā,” i.e., gladly receiving the pattidāna of the giver and becoming joyful with the merits received. That is also called “pattānumōdanā.
Giving Can Be Mental Too – Dāna and Pattidāna

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 gives 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. That is similar to pattidāna.
  • 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” is the amount received the same. The amount received in “indirect giving” methods depends on the receiver. That latter mechanism works when “transferring merits” to another person who may be far away.

  • All intentions have kammic energy. You may remember that the Buddha said, “Cetanā aham bhikkave kammaṃ 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 jhānā can sense at least a little 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 (puñña kamma); see “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.”
Giving Merits – Pattidāna

5. One such mechanism is the anantara-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, “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 apāyā” 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 Paṭicca Samuppāda, it is best to use the Pāli words and understand their meanings.

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. Alms-giving to the Saṅgha 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 as an animal or human, it cannot receive full benefits, even though it may benefit to some extent.
Dhamma Dāna Is The Ultimate Giving

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 listening “received” Dhamma varying degrees. Some became Arahants, and some attained the Sōtapanna stage 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.
Importance of State of Mind

9. How much merit 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 impossible 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 fantastic memory power. He had the whole Sutta Piṭaka in his memory. And he was with the Buddha for many years but attained Arahanthood only after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna (passing away).
  • Sunīta was of low caste and carried buckets of feces when the Buddha met him. With his supernormal powers, the Buddha saw that Sunīta could comprehend Dhamma and asked Sunīta to become a bhikkhu. Ven. Sunīta became an Arahant within seven days.

10. A given person may be receptive to “receiving Dhamma” when his mind is calm. 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 offer 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 Gati.”
Both Anantara and Samanantara Must be Optimized

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

  • Of course, if one is not learning the true Dhamma, there is nothing substantial in anantara. Thus, one would be 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 clarify this concept: Having “good kamma bīja” 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. If person Y can provide X with water and nutrients, X can plant those seeds and get them to germinate and grow.

  • Some people may have “good kamma seeds” but do not have the necessary conditions to bring the corresponding good kamma vipāka. When another person does pattidāna, that is like donating water and nutrients to that person.

13. A seed is the anantara or the cause (kamma bīja), and the receiving party must have that. However, like a seed cannot grow unless it is exposed to moist soil, has nutrients, and sunlight, that kamma bīja cannot bear fruit without suitable conditions. 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 bīja to bring their good vipāka.
  • It is only when both anantara and samanantara are optimized and matched that full benefits result. i.e., the optimum transfer takes place. This phenomenon is quite similar to the “resonance effect” in physics. Only when the energy of a photon matches an energy gap of an atom that the absorption of that photon by the atom is optimum.
 Different Types of Anumōdanā

14. A type of “anumōdanā” also happens in day-to-day life. Suppose X starts a project to feed the hungry. Many poor people benefit from it. Another person (Y) sees that and 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.

  • Something can 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 a human’s mental energy (javana); 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 due to 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. Suppose the police are investigating the death of Y. They have evidence that Z encouraged the killing; they can prosecute both Z and X.
  • Thus our feelings (good or bad) play an important role in accumulating good and bad kamma vipāka.