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

Revised July 7, 2018

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) has been described in Dhamma.

  • Not only the merits of a good deed, but also many other versions of “mental energy” can be transferred, as we discuss below.
  • The basic idea can be thought of as follows: If one has an oil lamp that is lit, and if others have oil lamps that are not lit and they do not have a way to light them, wouldn’t it be better for everyone to let others use one’s lamp’s flame to light their lamps?
  • Thus while it is not possible to “create” many oil lamps starting with one, it is possible to make thousand other lamps to become useful by sharing the light. In the same way, the receiving person needs to have a basic 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 a great service.
  • One “giving merits” is doing pattidāna or “conditions” for good kamma 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 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 Pali 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. This is also called “pattanumōdanā”.

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

  • The direct way of giving/receiving is when one gives money or something material. It is deducted from the giver’s ledger and is added to the receiver’s: it is fully transferred.
  • When a teacher teaches a classroom full of kids, he/she is teaching the same way to all the kids. But how much a particular kid “receives” or comprehends depends on that particular 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 device and also whether it has been “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 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, “Cetana ham bhikkave kamman vadami”, or “Bhikkhus, I say intention is kamma”. And kamma is the fundamental 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 Pali or Sinhala word for “principle”.

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

6. When one is “transferring merits” by sincerely saying that “May so and so receive merits from this good deed that I have done”, or doing metta bhāvanā by saying, “May all beings be free from the suffering in the apayas” or some version of it, 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 receiver has a matching mindset; it is just like the case of a radio/TV, where the receiving device need to be set to the “right frequency” to receive the signal.
  • This is explained in the post, “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya”. Don’t be discouraged by those Pali words; sometimes, as in the case of paticca samuppada, it is best to use the Pali words, because it is not possible to find an English word that can convey the same meaning.

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 Sangha or similar meritorious deed is done and pattidāna is offered to the deceased relative.

  • If the deceased party is in a state where it can receive merits (such as a gandhabba state), then that gandhabba will be there anxiously awaiting to receive such merits.

8. It is possible to “give Dhamma” or to “give kusala” too. In fact the Buddha said, “sabba danan Dhamma danan jinati” 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, some attained Sōtapanna stage, etc during the discourse itself and there were others who did not attain any stage but possibly still accumulated kusala. Kusala (“ku” or “kunu” or “dirty”+”sala” or “remove”, and thus shedding impure things from the mind) thus means absorbing wisdom, non-greed, non-hate  AND discarding greed, hate, and delusion.
  • During such a discourse it is mainly the delusion that is removed (and wisdom that is gained), which in turn results in discarding greed and hate to the extent of how much delusion was removed.

9. How much a given person receives in such an occasion depends of course on the intellectual level (and the state of mind) of the person. But it is not possible to quantify the intellectual level using modern standards of “book knowledge”. For example, 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 an amazing 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. Even the same person may be receptive to “receiving Dhamma” at times when his mind is in a calm state, but may not comprehend anything when his mind is excited, or is distracted. This 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 with other matters.
  • In Asian countries, this is a major reason for going to the temple and making offering of flowers to a statue of the Buddha or the Bo tree at the temple. Such activities get the mind into a calm, peaceful state suitable for listening to a Dhamma discourse afterwards; see, “Buddhist Chanting” and “Tisarana Vandana and Its Effects on One’s Gathi“.

11. Therefore, it is important that both annantara and samanantara are optimized in order to make all these activities efficient.

  • Of course if one is not learning the true Dhamma, annantara is not good and one is wasting one’s time. However, even if the Dhamma is good, if samanantara is not good, i.e., if the receiver’s mind is not receptive, then again it is a waste of time.

12. This concept is easily grasped with the following example: Having “good kamma beeja” is like having “good seeds”. Suppose person X has good 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, there are some beings that have “good kamma seeds”, but do not have the necessary conditions for them to bring the corresponding good kamma vipāka. When one doing pattidāna, that like donating water and nutrients in that simile (example).

13. A seed is the anantara or the cause (kamma beeja), and the  receiving party must have that. However, unless that field is moist, has nutrients, and is exposed 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 ananatara and samanatara are optimized and  matched that full benefits result. i.e., optimum transfer takes place. For those whose are familiar with the “resonance effect” in physics, it is quite similar to that: the absorption of a photon by an atom is optimized when the photon energy is matching an energy gap in the atom.

 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 merits come from? It comes from the mental energy of Y who became joyful upon seeing the good act. This is part of the mental energy (javana) that a human possesses; see, “Power of the Human Mind“.
  • It is also possible for the effects of immoral acts to be transferred 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 also encouraged the killing, 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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