In the history of Buddhism there gradually evolved the concept of how the compassionate merit of one person can provide a bounty or treasury that can be given to another who lacks merit. Malalasekera explains how the ideas of parivatta (transferring merit) and karma can coincide in Buddhism:
The act of sharing one’s good fortune is a deed of compassion and friendliness and, as such, very praiseworthy and meritorious…. The recipient of the transfer becomes a participant of the original deed by associating himself with it. Thus the identification of himself with both the deed and the doer can sometimes result in the beneficiary getting even greater merit than the original doer, either because his elation is greater or because his appreciation of the value of deed is more intellectual, and therefore more meritorious… What is significant is that in order to share in the good deed done by another, there must be approval of it and joy in the beneficiary’s heart…. Here, too, as in all actions, it is the thought which according to Buddhism, really matters. (Malalasekera 1967, 86, Cited in Holt 1981, 16)
The idea that the merit of a person’s acts can create a treasure to draw upon was first introduced in connection with providing karmic merit to ancestors. But it soon expanded, especially in relationship to Pure Land Buddhism, a movement within Mahayana Buddhism. While earlier forms of Buddhism stressed monastic, rigorous discipline, Pure Land Buddhism was more capacious in its teaching that common persons may attain Nirvana through the worship of Buddha Amida (‘Amida’ is his Japanese name; in Sanskrit it is Amitabha). This Buddha of Light and Life is believed to dwell in a land of bliss (Sukhavati) and provide the means of liberation due to his abundant wisdom. Any one who calls on his name in faith (without any karmic works of his or her wisdom) will be cared for by Amida’s merit.
The idea that one may transfer merit may seem counter to the Buddhist notion of karmic works, for karma seems foundational to a Buddhist explanation of suffering through reincarnation and desert. Arguably however, there is no compromise, given the idea that a person may—through compassionate action—create a surplus of merit enabling others to receive this merit even if they have none themselves. In some Buddhist teaching, the transfer of merit requires that the recipient must call out the name of the Buddha, whereas in others the Buddha may confer merit to those who make no such explicit petition.
Does the concept of the transfer of merit make sense in a Buddhist or non-Buddhist context? I suggest that it does in both. Consider a non-Buddhist, secular case in which you have been wronged by a person (Pat). Imagine Pat shows some remorse, but the injury to you was so grave that you continue to blame Pat and contemplate legal compensation. Then Chris enters the scene. Long ago, you wrongly injured Chris, but rather than Chris blaming you and seeking compensation, Chris displays such compassionate love for you that you naturally come to confess your wrong, undergo remorse, and resolve to do good works. Chris then asks you to forgive and care for Pat. Wouldn’t the “merit” of Chris’s act transfer, giving you good reason to respond lovingly (or trying to) in your relationship with Pat?
If such a transfer makes sense in a secular context, there seems to be coherence in terms of karma and the distribution of good works. Christians in the West may have difficulty with the concept of transferring merit because of the abuse of such a notion at the time of the Reformation when the Roman Catholic Church sought to sell indulgences—essentially, this was a guarantee of reducing the punishment of souls in the next life by appealing to the treasury of merit created by the saints. Protestants objected that there can be no surplus of merit, for God calls for our full devotion; one does not get “extra credit” for saintly works. In reply, it should be appreciated that the transfer of merit in Buddhism is not subject to commerce; the transfer is free. It may also be important to stress that Christians themselves often accept a transfer of merit in at least one central case: Christ. The transfer of merit may not be a point of tension between Buddhism and Christianity; it may instead be a point of poignant similarity. The similarity is so strong that I suspect (contra Schellenberg in the last chapter) that a Christian’s experience of the compassionate merit of Jesus might be appreciated as similarly “illuminating and compelling” as a Buddhists experience of the compassionate merit of Buddha Amida. It seems a live possibility that both Buddhist and Christian may (or may not) authentically experience a transcendent compassion.