Third LessonThe Ways of Accumulating Merit
In the old days, there was a woman named Yen. Before she agreed to give her daughter in marriage to the man who later became Confucius’ father, she only asked if the ancestors had accumulated merit and virtue and did not care if they were wealthy. She felt that as long as the ancestors had accumulated merit, their offspring would definitely be outstanding. Confucius (551- 479 B.C.) himself had praised Shun (one of the first emperors of China) on his filial piety. For that, Shun will be known for thousand of years and his offspring will be prominent for many, many generations, and these sayings are actually based on truth.
I will give you another example, In Fukien province, there was a prominent person, Yang Jung, who held the position of Imperial Instructor. His ancestors were "boat people" who made their living by helping people cross the river. Whenever there was a storm and flood, the flooding would destroy houses and oftentimes the people and animals and goods floated down the river. Other boats were trying to collect the goods, and only his great-grandfather and grandfather would be interested in helping people and they would not take any of the goods. The villages thought they were very stupid. After Yang Jung’s father was born, the Yang family became very wealthy. One day a Taoist monk came to the Yang family and said, "Your ancestors have accumulated a lot of merit; their offspring will definitely enjoy wealthy and prominence. There is a special place where you can build the ancestors’ tomb." So they followed the suggestion and then Yang Jung was born and he passed the imperial examination when we was quite young and received imperial appointments. The emperor had given even his grandfather and great grandfather imperial honours. His descendants are still very prominent.
Another example, Yang Tzu-ch’eng, was from the prefecture of Jin, and was a member of the staff in the prefecture courthouse. He was a very compassionate person. Once the prefecture magistrate was punishing a prisoner, beating him until he was bloody, but still the magistrate was very angry. Yang pleaded with the magistrate to stop beating the prisoner. The magistrate said, "This person has broken the law, how can one not get angry?" And the staff member said, "When people in positions of power have not followed the Tao, the people do not understand Tao either, and so they do not understand the law. Thus in a case like this we should be more understanding." The prefecture magistrate then stopped the beating. Yang came from a poor family, yet he never took any bribes. If the prisoners were short of food, he would always take food from his own home even if it meant going hungry himself. This practice of compassion never ceased. He had two sons - was Shou-chih, and they both became very prominent, and held important positions. Even their descendants were prominent for a long time as well.
Another story took place during the cheng-t’ung reign period (1436-1449) of Ming Emperor Ying-tsung. In the province of Fukien there were lot of bandits, and Mr. Hsieh was appointed to lead imperial armies to pacify them. Because they wanted to make sure that innocent people would not be killed, they manage to get a list of all the bandits who belonged to an organization and secretly gave them a white flag to those who did not belong. They were told to place the flag on their door when the imperial armies came into town. The imperial armies were ordered not to kill the innocent. Because of this procedure, tens of thousands of people were saved, and many of Hsieh’s descendants as a result became very prominent.
Another example is the Lin family. Among the ancestors there was a mother who was very generous. She would make rice balls to give to the poor. However many pieces people asked for, she would give. There was one Taoist monk who would ask for six or seven each time, and he came every day for three years. The woman always gave to him, and never expressed any displeasure. The Taoist monk realized the sincerity of this woman’s kindness and told her, "I have eaten of your rice balls for three years with noting in return to show you my gratitude, but I want you to know that in the back of your house there is a good place where you can build the grave for your ancestors. The number of your descendants who will have imperial appointments will be equivalent to the numbers of seeds in a pound of sesame seeds." And so in the first generation after the Lin family built the ancestral grave there were nine men who passed the imperial exams, and it was that for every succeeding generation.
Another famous person was the imperial historian whose surname was Feng. One day his father on the way to school saw a person frozen on the snow. He quickly took his coat off, put in around the frozen man and took him home. That night he had a dream in which he was told, "When you helped that man, you helped with a pure heart, and I will send the famous general from the Sung dynasty, Han-chi to became your son." Later the child was born and his nickname was Ch’i.
Another story of a famous person was Ying who lived in Tai-chou. When he was young he used to study in remote areas. In the night time he often heard ghosts and sprits but he was never afraid. One day he heard a ghost speaking, "Because a woman’s husband left a long time ago and has not returned, her in-laws think that their son is dead and are forcing her to re-marry. Tomorrow night she is going to commit suicide, and then she will replace me and so I will be able to be re-born." Mr. Ying heard this and immediately sold a parcel of his land for four lien ( a weight unit) of silver, and he made up a letter form the woman’s husband and sent the silver with it to the home. The mother noticed that the writing was not her son’s handwriting, but she then thought, "Perhaps the letter is fake, but the silver cannot be fraudulent. Why would anyone want to send me the silver? Maybe my son is fine and we should not force our daughter-in-law to remarry." And later the son did come home. Then Mr. Ying heard the ghosts say, "Originally I was able to be reborn but now Mr. Ying has interfered with this." Another ghost said, "Why don’t you take revenge?" The first ghost said, "No, because of his goodness he is going to become very prominent. How can I hurt him?" Mr. Yang thereafter was even more diligent on accumulating merits. Whenever there was a famine he would take his money and help people, or he would help people in emergencies. And when things did not always come his way, he also looked within himself rather than complain on the outside. Even nowadays his descendants are still very prominent.
There was another person, Mr. Hsu, who father was very wealthy. Whenever there was a famine he would donate a lot of foods to others. One day he heard a ghost say, "in truth, the family of Hsu will have a person who will pass the imperial exam." This went on for several days, And sure enough, that year Hsu passed the imperial examination. From then on his father was even more diligent in accumulating merit, whether it was building bridges or taking care of travellers or monks. Then he heard a ghost say, "In truth, the Hsu family is going to have a person who will pass even the higher level imperial exam." And sure enough Hsu later on became the governor of two provinces.
Another person T’u used to work on the courthouse and he would spend the night in the prison visiting inmates. If he met anyone who was innocent, then he would write a secret report to the judge so that when they opened the court the judge could question the prisoner and clear their case. So they released ten innocent people, and all the people were grateful to this clerk of the court. Mr T’u then also sent a memorandum to the Imperial Judge, "In the land within the four seas there are many people, and there are bound to be many more innocent people who are imprisoned. I recommend that every five years you should send a special agent to check into each of the prison to reduced sentences in order to prevent innocent people from remaining in prison." The Imperial Judge agreed, and T’u was chosen as one of the sentence-reducing agents. One night he dreamed that a god told him, "In your life you were not destined to have a son, but this act of reducing prison sentences for innocent people is in line with the wishes of the heavens, and do the heavenly emperor is going to send you three sons. They will all obtain high positions." Soon after that, his wife became pregnant and gave birth one after the other to three sons all of whom later became prominent men.
Another person, Pao-p’ing, was the seventh son of the magistrate of Ch’ih-yang and married into the Yuan family. He was a good friend of my father. He was very knowledgeable and very talented. Once touring around Lake Mao, he came to a village and saw a temple in disrepair with a statue of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin wet from the rain. He took out all his money, which was ten lien of silver, and gave it to the abbot and said. "This is to go towards repairing the temple." The monk said, "This involves a lot of money. I’m afraid we cannot accomplish what you wish." Then Pao-p’ing took out all his expensive clothing and fabrics and turned them over to the monk. Even though his servants tried to prevent him from doing this, he said, "It does not matter. As long as the statue does not get damaged so what if I do not have any clothing." The monk said, " To give money and clothing is not difficult, but your sincerity is difficult to attain." After the temple was repaired, he came with his father to visit and spent the night in the temple. In his dream the Dharma protector came and thanked him, "Your children will enjoy prominence." Later on his son, Pien, and his grandsons Ch’eng and Fang, all were appointed to imperial positions.
In Chia-shan prefecture there was a person named Li whose family name was Chih. His father was once a staff member on the prefectutal courthouse. There was a prisoner who was sentenced to die but was innocent. The staff member knew about it and attempted to plead his case with his superior. The prisoner, after hearing about it, requested his wife to invite the staff member to her home and offer herself to him in marriage as an expression of gratitude, and also as a way to increase his chances of living. The wife cried as she listened to her husband’s request because she really did not want to do it. The next day when the staff member came to visit she offered wine and told him of her husband’s wishes. The staff member refused the offer of marriage but continued the effort to clear the case. When the imprisoned man was finally released, both he and his wife came to thank the staff member. They told him that since he had not a son yet, they wanted him to take their daughter as his wife. The staff member agreed and sent gifts to marry her. Their son Li passed the higher imperial examination when he was barely twenty. Li’s son, Kao and grandson, Lu, and great grandson, Ta-lun, all received imperial appointments.
With regards to accumulating merits, one can go into further details. There is true goodness, and false goodness; there is the straightforward goodness and crooked goodness; there is the hidden goodness and the visible goodness; there is the appearance goodness when there is no goodness; and there is the half goodness and the full goodness; and there is the greater goodness and the lesser goodness, difficult goodness and easy goodness. So we need to go further to understand; otherwise is we practice what we think is goodness, but it actually has negative effects, then it is not accomplishing our goal. Sometimes people say, "So and so is a philanthropist yet his descendants are not successful. Yet someone else may perform demerits but his family or descendants are very successful," and start to misinterpret the common saying that the rewards of goodness and evil is like the shadow falling after them. This is all nonsense. Often people do not really understand what is true goodness and what is evil, so one cannot judge by appearance.
For example, just take true goodness and false goodness. Beating and scolding someone, and taking someone’s wealth is usually considered evil. Respecting someone, being courteous to someone is usually considered good. These kinds of conduct are not necessary good or evil, because we need to go further and understand the motivation behind them. It is only then we can understand whether it is true merit and demerit. Popularly speaking, as long as it benefits humankind then hitting or scolding someone is consider a merit; if it is for one’s own selfishness then respecting others and treating others with courtesy is considered demerit. As for one’s behaviour in the world, what benefits others is true merits but what benefits oneself is demerit or false goodness; if it is only for show it is a false goodness. If one performs a virtuous act without expecting anything, that is true goodness; if one performs it with a thought of a goal, then it is a false goodness.
What about straightforward goodness and crooked goodness? Usually, one considers a cautious and easygoing person to be a good person, but actually the sages think that those who are daring and courageous are truly good. Everyone might consider the person who is careful and weak, without personality, to be a good person, but the person actually does not have any will and any virtuous spirits. Using this, one can judge others in society as well. Anyway, the judgement if the heavens of what are considered good and evil is the same as the sage’s but oftentimes differs from the average view of society.
Therefore, if one wants to accumulate merits one cannot do it simply by following the way of the world and pleasing other people. It has to come form within where the only thought is to help the world and not to please the world. Truly wanting to help others is straightforward, proper goodness. If one has any thoughts of pleasing the world or playing with the world, then it is false goodness.
Goodness can also be divided into hidden goodness and visible goodness. If one performs goodness and it is known by others, then is consider a visible goodness. If one performs a good deed and it is not known by others, then it is hidden goodness. Visible goodness can only received the rewards of a good reputation, while hidden goodness heaven will rewards even more. If someone’s reputation is beyond one’s true worth, then one will invite great trouble. Fame is not considered a blessing because many people who have reputation oftentimes have it falsely. It does not have true virtue behind it. That is why lot of families with fame oftentimes have strange mishaps. Therefore the ancient wise men have recommended that it is important to have no more fame than one’s true worth. If one has not made any mistakes but is given a bad name, the one who can accept this and not disturbed by it is a someone with great virtue. Oftentimes the children of such person will become successful. Anyway, the difference between visible and hidden goodness is whether it is known or not known.
In performing good deeds, there is also what appears to be goodness that is not actually goodness. For example, in the state of Lu, the law provides that if there are people who are capture by another state, then if people are willing to pay a ransom to bring back the captured, the government usually gives a reward. Confucius’ student, Tzu-kung, after he paid the ransom to bring back the captured people, did not want to receive the reward. When Confucius heard this, he scolded him saying, "You are wrong, because what a gentleman does can affect society. It becomes a model for everyone; you cannot do it just for yourself. In the state of Lu there are very few wealthy men, most people are poor. If you start this example of making the receipt of reward money as a shameful thing, then who is going to be able to afford to pay the ransom? The tradition of paying ransom to bring the captured back will disappear."
In another example, a student of Confucius, Tzu-lu, saved someone from drowning and was given a cow as a token of gratitude. Tzu-lu received the gift and when Confucius heard this he said, "Very good. Now people in the state of Lu will be happy to save drowning people, because one is willing to rescue and the other is willing to thank. They created a proper model." And if you use the two examples just mentioned, an average person would view Tzu-kung not receiving the reward money as being very good and Tzu-lu receiving the cow as not being a good thing. Confucius’ view is different from the average person. Therefore, when one performs a good deed, one cannot just look at conduct but has also the final outcome. One should not consider only one’s own personal gain but how it affects the greater society. I f I perform something that appears to be a good deed, yet the final result actually hurts people, then it is something that appears to be goodness but is not. Or, on the other hand, if behaviour or conduct is not good but the result benefits others, then the ultimate result is goodness. There are other examples of what appears to be goodness but actually is not, such as improper forgiveness and tolerance; overly praising someone and causing the person to lose his senses; keeping a small promise and causing a greater trouble; spoiling a child and causing later problems; these are all worth contemplating.
In terms of goodness there is also proper and improper. How does one explain that? For example, there was a One-time prime minister, Lu. Who retired and returned to his village. The villagers still treated him with great respect. One day, a villager got drunk and went over scolded him. Mr. Lu was not concerned by it, thinking that it was because the man was drunk so he did not punish him. Next year, this man became even more outrageous in his behaviour. Eventually he committed a crime for which he was given the death penalty. This time Mr. Lu was quite remorseful. He said, "At that time, if I had disciplined him then it would have straightened him out and maybe he would not have continued his behaviour causing him to do something that incurred the death penalty. I should not have been too lenient with him." This is an example of how a good heart can actually do evil.
I can give you another example of how bad conduct can actually produce good results. Once during a famine the people became violent and began to openly take food from other people. There was a very wealthy man who reported this to the government but the government did not care, so these people became more and more violent, and more open in their behaviour. In this situation, the family had to punish those people on their own, and the area had some peace. Everyone knows that goodness is proper and evil is improper. But if one is being good yet causing a situation to worsen, that is improper. Being evil but causing a situation to be good, is proper.
One should also understand what is half goodness and full goodness. In the I-Ching it is mentioned that if goodness is not full, one does not become successful. If evil is not full, then one does bring destruction. It is like throwing things in a container; if one is diligent in accumulating then it will become full, while if one is lazy it will not become full. For example, once there was a woman who went to the temple to offer her prayer and wanted to give something but because she came from a poor family she could only find two cents; the temple’s abbot still came out to bless her. Later, this woman became a palace woman and brought much gold. This time the abbot sent only one of his students. Therefore she asked, "Last time when I offered only two cents you came personally to bless me. Today, I am offering thousands. Why will you not give me a personal blessing?" The abbot said, "In the past, although you gave little, you were sincere. Unless I personally blessed you it was not enough to reward you. Today although you give much, your heart is not sincere. Therefore I only sent my student." This is an example of thousands in gold as being half goodness, and two cents as being full goodness.
Some time ago, there was an immortal name Chung-l. He was teaching Lu Tsu the art of transforming iron into gold to help the world. Lu asked whether this gold would ever return to it original form, and Chung said that five hundred years later it could return to iron. Lu said, "Won’t it cause people trouble five hundred years later?" I do not think I want to learn this." Chung said, "To become an immortal one needs to accumulate three thousand merits, and just this speech of yours is worth three thousand merits. Now you can practice becoming an immortal." Therefore true goodness must come form naturalness and sincerity, even such that one does not make a conscious note of it afterwards. And so even if it was a small goodness, it will bear good fruit. If one has a goal for doing good or in giving wants a reward, then even if one performs goodness all life long it is still half goodness. For example, in giving money it can get to the point that there is no though there about it. In giving to the person, it is as though there was no recipient. Therefore, the giver, the receiver, and the money are all outside of one’s consciousness. In this kind of giving one cent is enough to neutralize thousands of lifetimes worth of negative karma, and the giving of a pound of rice can bring about infinite merits as well. If one gives and does not forget, or in giving expects return, or in giving material goods feels agony, then even if one gives much gold that is still half goodness.
Let’s discuss the fact that goodness has qualities of greatness and smallness, and difficulty and easiness. In the old days, there was someone named Wei Chung-ta. He was a high official in the palace. Once when his spirit left his body he was taken to the underworld, The king of the underworld took out the record of his good deeds and bad deeds. He noticed that the records of his bad deeds filled up the whole courtyard, yet the records of his good deeds was only a few pages. Then the king of the underworld asked some of his staffs to weigh it, the many books of records of his evil deeds were lighter than a few pages of his good deeds. Chung-ta was curious and said, "I am barely over forty. How could I have accumulated so many bad deeds?’ The king of the underworld said. "Evil thoughts are recorded as well. One does not necessarily have to carry them out." Then Chung-ta asked, "Why is the record of good deeds heavier than that of the bad deeds?’ The king said, "The emperor oftentimes has building projects. When they were about to build a stone bridge in Fukien province you had proposed that it not be carried out because you were concerned about ten of thousands of people undergoing hardship." Ching-ta answered, "I did send the proposal but the emperor did not take my suggestion. How can it bear any weight?" The king said, "Because even though the emperor did not take your suggestion, your intended good deed would have had affected tens of thousands of people. If the proposal had been accepted then the weight of the good deeds would have been even greater."
Therefor, one can see that when one thinks about the world, if it affects ten thousands of people, and even though the deed may be small the merits can be great. If one is concerned only about one person, and the goodness affects only one person, and even though the act of goodness is great, its total effect is small.
When it comes to difficult and easy kinds of deeds, one uses the same principle as working on oneself. If one starts with the difficult parts then one will not make even small mistakes. Examples of people performing good deeds under difficult conditions are as follows. The Chiang-hsi’s Mr. Shu used two years of his salary from teaching to pay for another person’s violation fee so to allow that person’s family to reunite. In Hunan province, there as a Mr. Chang who used his savings from ten years to help someone return a debt and so saved the person’s wife and daughter. Cheng-chiang, had on son
when he was old, yet he still did not want to take in a young woman offered by his neighbour as a concubine.
So the above examples of people who gave all they had to benefits others, to understand and consider others, these are all cases where people were doing beyond what a normal person would do or tolerate. This kind of goodness is most special. When one has on money or no power, it is more difficult, but the merits is the greatest.
If one has money and power, then the opportunity to perform good deeds and accumulate merit is very easy. If, in a situation where it is easy to accumulate merit and to perform good deeds one does not do it, then it one giving up on oneself. As the common saying goes, "One who si wealthy and does not perform goodness, is like a fat pig."
We have discussed the principles and understanding behind performing good deeds. Now we will talk about helping others through other methods. The first method is to benefit people; the second is to treat people with respect and love; the third is to facilitate the wishes of others to do good; the fourth is to encourage others to perform goodness; the fifth is to help people in emergencies; the sixth is to support public work; the seventh is to give of one’s wealth; the eighth is to protect and support spiritual teachings; the ninth to give respect to elders; the tenth is to protect living beings.
So, as to the first one: what does it mean "to benefit other?" One of our first emperor, Shun, when he was young, would watch people fish in the Shantong province. He noticed that the places where there were lot of fish, such as in deep water, were usually monopolized by the younger fishermen. As the weaker older fishermen were left in the rapid streams, he felt very sad. So he decided to join them in fishing, and whenever he met other fisherman who pushed him and took his place, he would let them take his place, would not complain. And if he saw that someone gave him the opportunity to fish, then he could praise him and be grateful. After a while he created an atmosphere of mutual respect in giving. And so, think about the talent of Shun who could easily have used words to teach but he set his own example to change the atmosphere. Therefore, in one’s behaviour in life, it is important not to use one’s own good points to highlight the weak points of others. Do not overtly demonstrate one’s goodness to show up the evil of others, and certainly do not use one’s cleverness to play tricks on others. Always live in humility. If one sees that others have shortcomings, one should be tolerant. If one sees others performing small good deeds then praise them. And so, it will become a silent treatment to those who are evil, but also will not damage other person’s reputation, allowing them to change gracefully. Therefore, always thinking about the welfare of the whole and protecting the truth, this is what is meant be benefiting others.
Secondly: what does it mean to have a "respectful and loving heart?" If I were judging from behaviour, the difference between a gentleman and a non-gentleman is sometimes very difficult. But if were seeing it from the aspect of motivation, then it would be easy to tell. Therefore, there is a saying that the difference between a gentleman and a non-gentleman is in their thoughts. There is another saying that the same kind of rice feeds a hundred different kinds of people. Although people are different in closeness, in high and low positions, or in intelligence, they are people. Therefore one should treat all of them with respect, and respect the ordinary people in the way one respects sages and understand where the average persons comes from.
Thirdly: what does it mean to facilities others to perform good deeds? Generally speaking, in society there are fewer people who perform good deeds that those who do not. Usually people have the habit of defending their own kind and pushing out those who are different. Therefore, a gentleman in this society, unless he has great determination and courage, he has a very hard time making a stance. Oftentimes those who have the motivation for performing good deeds have speech and conduct that are different from the rest of society. They usually are very honest and do not calculate on every things, and do not know how to build themselves up to receive the proper recognition. Therefore, people who lack wisdom oftentimes will criticize these people and so they do have a change to perform goods deeds. So it is important to support the gentlemen, the ones in a society who have good hearts. It is like treating jade. One does not throw it out like rocks but polishes it to become a jewel. Therefore, when one see others performing good deeds, one should give them support to help them accomplish their goals.
Fourth: What does it mean to encourage others to perform good deeds? Everyone has a conscience but the confusion of life and also the attractions of frame and wealth oftentimes caused people to sink, Therefore, in interacting with the average person it is important always to remind others to do good. There is a saying that "to wake people up one moment one uses the mouth. To wake people up for a hundred generation, one writes books."
Fifth: what is meant by helping people in emergency? Often in one’s life one will be in a situation of failure or misfortune, one should treat them as though one is encountering misfortune oneself, and give help without reservation, For example, one can use words to give comfort, or use other methods to help them.
Sixth : what does it mean to support public work? This is to support work that is for the public good. Building dams and bridges, and helping the poor are examples of public work that one should support.
Seventh : what does it meant by giving of one’s wealth? In the teaching of Buddha there are ten thousand ways of developing spiritually, and the first is to give. Giving is also non-attachment. The more evolved ones can be giving inwardly the six senses, outwardly the six worldly phenomena. And everything that one can possesses can be given without any question. Of course, the average person cannot accomplish this level and oftentimes sees wealth as more important than life, therefore the first step in becoming unattached us to start giving what is most difficult, and that is money, To help others in to build up one’s merit. Inwardly one will start to remove the selfishness, the miserliness, and outwardly one can help others on an emergency which will facilitate the spiritual growth. In the beginning one may feel it is forced, but then it becomes very natural. It will also neutralize one’s other shortcoming.
Eighth : what is meant by supporting the spiritual teachings ? The spiritual teachings of Buddha provide a guide to becoming liberated, to becoming free from life and death. In particular when one sees Buddha’s temple and sutras one should treat them with respect and protect them.
Ninth : what is meant by respecting elders? This means respecting parents, elder brothers and sisters, people who are in authority, and especially those who are virtuous and wise. In treating one’s parents, one should treat them with kindness and respect, And in working in society, one should not misbehave even if the "emperor is far away." In punishing prisoners, it is important not to overdo it. This all has to do with accumulating merits as the hidden merits.
Tenth : what is meant by protecting life ? The ancient ones have said, "Because one cares about the rats, one saves some rice for the rats, and because one cares about the moth one does not light the lamp." Of course, this is hard for the average person to do, but this is a reminder that we all have innate compassion. This is why Mencius said, "The gentleman should stay far away from the kitchen," (in China most of the butchering of meat takes place in the kitchen) as a way to protect people’s innate mercy. He also said that even if one cannot become a complete non-meat eater, one should at least come to the point that if the animal was raised by oneself, one does not eat it: if one has seen the killing of the animal, one does not eat the meat of it; if one has heard it being killed, one does not eat the meat of it; and if it is killed specifically for us, we do not eat the it. These are the four cases where one does not eat the meat, at least to start building compassion and also to expand one’s merit and wisdom.
The ancient people boiled the silk cocoons to get silk for clothing, and nowadays when we farm we get rid of insects. As the sources of clothing and food all involved killing, it is important to protect out things, not to waste food and clothing, and so indirectly to protect life. And, sometimes one will accidentally step on things or hurt things with our hands; so one should be very careful. The methods with one can accumulate merit are many and I cannot describe them all in full details, but if one could at least start with these ten methods it would be a good beginning.