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Is Making Merit really Meritorious?
7 Principles that every karmically-influenced person should know about getting into heaven
By Tim McLachlan
Foreword: This essay is translated from the Thai language article ทําดีจะได้ดีจริงหรือ? (tam dee ja dai dee jing reu?) written with Thai Buddhists in mind, those who commonly recognize that making merit (tam boon) is a means to earn their way into heaven in the afterlife. Because of cultural and language differences which would be lost in a more literal translation the author/translator has chosen to make slight communicative changes in the English translation in order to enhance the reader’s understanding.
Principle No. 1
No one can be completely good.
“Tam dee, gor ja dai dee” ( “If you are good, you will receive good” ) is a religious mantra that Thai people are very familiar with. Hearing this phrase constantly taught in the home, at school and in temples from childhood they therefore grow up with this concept engraved into their souls as a basic principle in life. As parents they then teach this rule of karma to their children in order that they too will be good, with the promise that they will receive good things in return.
Every normal person wants to receive ‘good’, and so we see many people ‘being good’, with a double-sided motivation - they not only want to receive good, but they also fear that bad things will happen if they are not good. However, if a person is truly good, wouldn’t they do good simply because they are a good person, not because they want something in return, or because they are scared something negative might occur to them? In other words, a truly good person is not just someone who performs good deeds, but performs good deeds because he is an inherently good person, being motivated to do good deeds from the good (virtuous) thoughts produced within his soul.
The reality is that most people do good deeds because they want something in return. Someone with a lust for power, approbation, or money might discover that performing good deeds in the sight of others is instrumental in gratifying their worldly desires. More religious types perform good deeds (making merit) in order to accrue points somewhere in the spiritual ether with which bad deeds (sins) are offset or cancelled out altogether. In so doing so they hope that they will escape the grasp of bad karma and be blessed instead, both in this lifetime and in the afterlife. For these people, they are motivated to do good by the guilt of personal sins and the fear of spending a long time in 'hell' (Please see footnote 1 [FN1] at the end of the article). On the surface these people might look like pillars of society and receive much praise from those around them, but it is praise directed toward a sinner doing honorable deeds with less than honorable intent.
In summary, a person who does good deeds is not necessarily a good person. However, a more objective ‘doer of good’ may come to the realization that he is constantly doing good deeds because he is striving to outweigh his sins, and by extension, come to realize that he is a sinner. This is a good thing, for admitting to oneself that one is a sinner is the first step to finding freedom from sin and its terrible consequences.
Principle No. 2
Human good has no absolute standards.
If you could ask a group of people directly: “Do you think you are a good person?”, chances are that some would answer “Yes”, some “No”, and others might respond with something like “Well, I’m good sometimes, but not so good at other times.” Most likely the person that replies “Yes” is assuming that he (or she) is good because he doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes; doesn’t cheat on his wife; doesn’t steal, or never killed anyone. But maybe this person is a habitual gossip, or tells lies frequently, or is constantly coveting his neighbor’s possessions. People like this might also say: “I never did harm to anyone” but maybe his constant maligning and gossiping about a neighboring couple helped to cause a breakdown in their marriage, leading to a divorce that meant their children had to live between two parents. This kind of situation often brings on deep depression which can ultimately lead to murder or suicide. No harm indeed. Maybe this ‘good’ person’s lying had caused a colleague to lose a promotion, or even his job, or caused his company to suffer a law suit and eventual bankruptcy. Viewed in the context of Buddhist theology this is where the ‘law of karma’ takes on somewhat realistic proportions – every action does indeed have a consequence, regardless of whether you are aware of it or not.
Some people proclaim that if you eat vegetarian food (“kin jay”) during the annual vegetarian festival you will most certainly receive merit in return for your good deed, and your chance of going to heaven is greatly increased. Others would argue against them, saying, “That is simply not sufficient. You must eat vegetarian food every day of the year, not just during the annual festival.” This attitude is still lax compared to the rigid dietary mandates of certain sects of the Jain religion, whose followers will not even allow potatoes and other vegetables grown in the soil to pass their lips, lest they should disturb (let alone ingest) certain insects which habitat within the roots!
In contrast to this fantastic, and quite fanatic, show of mercy toward the most basic of creatures, some people believe that if you hijack a passenger jet and fly it into a skyscraper, killing thousands of people, you will be greatly rewarded in heaven. What more needs to be said? Obviously there are greatly differing ideas within the myriad of belief systems (religions) as to what constitutes what is right and wrong, what is good and evil. To carry this argument just a little further, within the Jain religion already mentioned is a sect called the Digambara whose followers walk around stark naked, because they believe that having any form of possessions (including clothing) produces “worldly attachment” - a direct and graphic contrast to certain sects of Islam which mandate that females must be covered from head to toe while in public in order not to encourage “worldly attachment” to any weak minded individuals in her periphery.
Every religion, cult and sect has its individual mandates, precepts and taboos of which the followers attempt to adhere to in the hope that should they fulfill these religious requirements, they would ultimately be approved by their god, or gods, who will allow their entry into heaven and possibly bestow rewards upon them for extra good behavior as an added bonus. Even within individual sects each follower tends to have their own subjective interpretation of what needs to be done to receive divine approval. With billions of people in the world adhering each to their own standard of what they think should be achieved to attain salvation and happiness in the afterlife, the question begs to be asked: Who is right? Who is wrong? And most importantly: what is the absolute standard for entry into heaven anyhow?
Principle No. 3
God is the absolute standard.
God is sovereign. He has the highest position in the heavens above all creation, for it is His creation. By means of His omnipotence He created the heavens, the universe, and the earth in all of its natural splendor, including all animal life and the first human beings. You may believe unscientific theories of a big bang that bought the universe into existence, and how subsequent processes formed single-cell animal life which evolved into human beings, but common sense should tell you that it is impossible for systematic order and precision to develop from chaos [FN2]. An explosion of matter will never find itself randomly and coincidentally re-forming its contents together into a person, or even a simple lump of clay, no matter how much time you give it. The perfection we see in all areas of science and natural manifestations throughout the universe can only be the result of divine omnipotence. The Holy Bible, inspired by God Himself, tells us in the opening verse:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
You might disagree with this statement, but if you reject the words of the Creator of the universe, the One who gave you life and soul, you are also rejecting His way of entry into heaven, which is the only way in which you can attain the standard that God requires of you to enter into His eternal kingdom [FN3]. God and His standards are perfect and therefore He cannot allow sin to enter into his presence. Heaven is for those who are without sin, and all the morality in the world does not take away a person’s sin. In fact, God tells us through His prophet Isaiah “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy menstrual cloth” (Isaiah 64:6a). Under divine inspiration the apostle Paul wrote “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), and “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Principle No. 4
Only God can provide entry into heaven.
“Ton bpen ti peung haeng ton” (“The individual must rely on oneself”) is another mantra that is constantly heard and taught in the context of both daily living and for working out one’s entry into heaven, or a better afterlife. This maxim may certainly apply in many contexts in life, but for anyone seeking entry into heaven they must rely solely on God to provide a way of salvation [FN4]. God’s perfect standards cannot be compromised. Therefore He cannot allow anything less than perfect entry into His heaven, and into His presence.
In the preceding paragraphs you have read that God is the absolute standard. He is perfect, being without sin, being perfectly righteous and manifesting perfect justice in all his laws, decrees, and judgments. If you believe that God is the Creator of all things then you also believe in His omnipotence. Throughout the pages of the Bible, God continues to reveal to mankind who He is, in order that we might know the thinking and character of God. Another characteristic of God which we see constantly mentioned in the Bible is ‘Love’. In 1 John 4:8 we read “God is love” revealing that love is an inherent part of God’s thoughts, decisions and actions. God loves every person and is very concerned for our eternal welfare. He does not wish for any person to suffer for eternity in the lake of fire:
“The Lord is… …not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance [FN5].”
(2 Peter 3:9)
Because God loves us all with an infinite love that only God can possess, He therefore wishes that every person born into human history would spend eternity in heaven with Him, and so He provided the means by which every person could attain salvation. God the Father sent God the Son (Jesus Christ) into the world, in order that He (Jesus Christ) would receive the judgment for all the sins of humanity in our place:
“For God loved the world [all of humanity] in this way – He gave His son, the uniquely born one [Jesus has always been God, and is the only person in history to be born of a virgin conception], in order that whosoever should believe in Him [i.e. believe that Jesus took the punishment for every one of their sins] would never perish [i.e. eternal judgment in the lake of fire] but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“God demonstrates His love toward us in this way: While we were yet sinners, Christ died as a substitute for us [while on the Cross Jesus had our sins imputed to Him and then judged by God the Father].” (Romans 5:8)
When Jesus was 33 years of age, the religious people of Judea (Israel) accused Jesus of both blasphemy against God and insurrection against Caesar. Jesus had been rightly claiming that He was the Savior and Messiah that the prophets had spoken of and recorded in scripture for over a millennia beforehand. Because of their unbelief, self-righteous arrogance, and fear of losing their positions of power to Jesus – proclaimed by his followers to be the anointed king of Israel - the hateful religious leaders used their influence to have Jesus crucified on a cross, a common means of capital punishment used throughout the Roman Empire at that time. God, knowing all things, knew of these events in exact detail even before they occurred, and even allowed them to take place in order to fulfill His grace plan of salvation for mankind. 700 years prior to Jesus Christ being nailed to a Cross, the prophet Isaiah was inspired by God the Holy Spirit to write the following:
“He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities, the chastening of our wellbeing fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Peter, a disciple of Jesus Christ and a personal witness to Christ’s life, ministry and His resurrection from the dead, wrote in one of his epistles: “…and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
The disciple John, also being inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, wrote: “…and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
Principle No. 5
Whoever trusts in God for salvation shall be saved from eternal judgment.
Everybody has faith. Faith is making a freewill choice to put your trust in something, or somebody, or in the instruction and guidance of a certain individual. Many people of this day and age believe that the universe in all its beauty came about from an exploding ball of goo or that man evolved from single-cell life-forms that crawled out of a swamp one day. They believe these things because they have faith in the scientists and school-teachers who teach these theories. Some believe that a particular politician will bring them personal happiness, or bring about a better society, and so they show their faith in that politician by voting for him at election time. When it comes to believing in the existence of God or heaven, and how to get into heaven, as young children we tend to believe whatever our parents, or teachers, or community religious leaders tell us. The common answer which is universally taught in all the world’s cultures and throughout history is: “Do good, avoid sin and evil, and you will go to heaven.” But if we really want to know how to get to heaven, shouldn’t we believe the words of one who has come from heaven, (and obviously can prove that he is from heaven) rather than somebody who has never been there before?
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”
“Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father but through Me.' ” (John 14:6)
The Bible teaches us that anyone wishing to enter into heaven must put his faith (believe) in God and the work that He has done on our behalf, rather than put his faith into his own human works of (self-) righteousness. God has provided salvation for us as an unconditional gift, given in grace. No amount of good deeds can get you into heaven, no matter how hard you strive or how sincere you are. The only way you can get into heaven is by receiving God’s gift of salvation by faith, which is exempt of all human works.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this [salvation] is not from yourselves but is a gift from God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Through doctrinal studies of the Bible we understand that ever since the time of the first humans (Adam and Eve), God has revealed to mankind the need for a Savior, and promised that the Savior would come upon the earth to provide the path of salvation (The name Jesus comes from the Jewish word which means ‘Savior’). Even before the coming of Jesus Christ upon the earth, God always gave opportunity to anyone willing to hear His message regarding the coming Savior. So, even before Jesus went to the cross, whosoever believed the words of the prophets that spoke of salvation in Jesus Christ would be saved. At the moment they believed they would receive God’s very own righteousness, a divine act which instantaneously makes a sinner into a perfectly righteous person, justified in the eyes of God and free from eternal judgment. The Bible gives us the example of a man, Abraham, who lived more than 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus:
“Then he [Abraham] believed in the Lord [referencing Jesus Christ, the prophesized yet-to-arrive savior], and He [God the Father] reckoned [imputed] it to him as [perfect] righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6, recorded by Moses circa 1440 B.C.)
Around 30 years after the death, resurrection and ascension to heaven of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul reiterated the example of Abraham, confirming what the prophet Moses had written 1500 years prior:
“For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it [Abraham’s faith in Jesus Christ] was reckoned [imputed] to him as [perfect] righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)
Principle No. 6
You alone decide whether you go to heaven, or to the lake of fire.
God has done everything for you. The scriptures have proved themselves to be true. Jesus Christ received the punishment for all your sins upon the cross around 2000 years ago. Now the only thing left for you to do to receive entry into heaven when you exit from this life is to make a decision: Do you believe what the Bible says about Jesus Christ is true? Just as a person might extend a gift to you and say ‘take it, it’s yours’, you still have to accept the gift before it becomes yours.
If you reject God’s grace gift of salvation you have rejected God’s only means of entry into heaven. Rejection of Christ’s work on the cross means God is unable to impute His very own righteousness to you, that is: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” (Romans 3:22a)
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the uniquely born Son of God.” (John 3:18)
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
May it be emphasized again that God loves you very much, and that He has done everything possible in order that you can have eternal life with Him in heaven. All you have to do is admit to yourself that you are a sinner and unable to do anything to get yourself into heaven; and then you need to accept (believe) that Jesus is the only way of salvation, because He was the one that received the punishment for all your sins in your place.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)
Principle No. 7
Appreciation of God’s grace will motivate a person to do good deeds, not because he wishes something from God, but because he has received God’s best already.
If you have already believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, your eternal salvation is secured. You have become a child of God with all the privileges that entails, including being free from the judgment which sentences sinners to the eternal lake of fire. All this is because of God’s grace extended to you in Jesus Christ, not because you tried to ‘do good’ and become a good person.
Usually, when a person has absolute confidence that God’s promise of eternal life in Christ is true, he has much appreciation for what God has done for him, and for many they will develop a strong desire to know God and His plan for their life. The only way a person can know God is by in-depth study of God’s very own words, His thinking, recorded in the scriptures we know as The Bible. God has prepared a person (called a “Pastor-teacher” in the Bible (Eph. 4:11)) to teach you Bible doctrine, and by means of the Holy Spirit, who is your spiritual mentor. You can learn to understand who God is, what His plan is for your life, and how you can find true happiness and stability in life under the loving protection and provision of the God of the Universe. Through studies of Bible doctrine you will also find answers to questions such as “Is Jesus God, or is He a man?”, “What is heaven like?” and, “What does God want me to do with my life?”
God will also teach you what is right and what is wrong, what is sinful, and what is good in the eyes of God. You can also learn how to overcome sin in your life, not in order to become worthy of entry into heaven (belief in Jesus Christ as your Savior has already made you ‘worthy’ even though you will continue to commit sins until the day you die), but because a righteous God desires that His children would be free of sin and therefore more capable of receiving the blessings that He wishes to bestow upon them.
If you appreciate God’s grace you will have a genuine interest in learning the Word of God, and as you learn the Word of God from a prepared and qualified Pastor-teacher you will learn principles that will produce truth, integrity and unconditional love for fellow humans in your thought patterns and decision making processes, so that ultimately you will be motivated to do good deeds from an inherent (divine) good within your own soul. In this way you will become a good person, not because you wish for something good in return (or fear misfortune will come upon you in the guise of bad karma), but because you have already received the best thing that any human can every have – an eternal relationship with Almighty God. Jesus was specifically speaking to those who blindly labored on the course of ‘merit making’ when he said:
“Come to me, all who are weary [both the physical and mental weariness of continuously trying to perform good works] and heavy laden [under the burden of religious laws and taboos], and I will give you rest [no longer working for salvation but having peace of mind knowing that you have been saved by God’s grace].” (Matthew 11:28)
Other promises from the Word of God which can you give you confidence that your faith in Jesus Christ guarantees your eternal relationship with God in heaven:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word [the teachings of Jesus Christ], and believes Him who sent Me [God the Father], has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1)
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26)
“The Lord is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Psalms 18:2)
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
FN1. While scholars and purists will argue that the original Buddha never taught of the existence or even non-existence of heaven or hell, the reality is that a large majority of Thai people and Buddhists worldwide either strongly or somewhat believe that these places exist, either as actual or metaphysical locations. [Back]
FN2. True science (from the Latin word ‘scientia’ meaning ‘knowledge’) is based upon empirical observation of events. If a certain experiment or natural phenomena, bearing exactly the same causes and conditions can be reproduced with the same results every time, observations can be made and scientific laws established. Unfortunately in today’s liberal-progressive scientific and academic communities, all too often what should be regarded as hypotheses or theories are being taught as scientific law, with total disregard to this basic principle of scientific truth. [Back]
FN3. You might reject the existence of God altogether, but to do so is tantamount to claiming that you have perception and knowledge of all things, including spiritual matters, and therefore have claimed yourself to be as God, possessing His very omniscience. This is the undeniable paradox that confronts all atheists. [Back]
FN4. Within the context of this thesis, ‘salvation’ means ‘being saved’ from the divine judgment of eternal damnation, and receiving entry into heaven. This word ‘salvation’ (ความรอด / kwarm rord), or any associated concept is not found in Buddhist theology, because it implies that help is being provided from a source other than self, a concept totally foreign to Buddhism. [Back]
FN5. The English word ‘repentance’ has been translated from the original Greek word ‘μετανοια / metanoia’, literally: ‘change of mind’, or ‘change of thinking’. In this context we understand that God wishes for all to have a change of mind regarding Jesus Christ, i.e. having heard the facts about Jesus Christ, each individual must make a free-will decision to stop believing their own (self-) righteous deeds, and instead believe in Christ for salvation. [Back]
(First translation edition, Copyright 2014)