Northern Thai Buddhism (along with every other authentic religious system) contains a paradox. In this case it has to do with the accommodation of two antithetical principles.
In principle Buddhism’s central premise is that suffering comes from ignorance which can be overcome by a cognitive breakthrough to enlightenment leading to the end of cycles of karmic-driven reincarnation. It is essential that this search for enlightenment be undertaken by each person individually. It is agreed that only monks can accomplish this, so those who wish to follow this quest for enlightened extinguishing of the flame of existence need to separate themselves from society through ordination. Then they live in a disciplined environment where the interference of society can be limited. They practice disciplines that shut out social noise and distractions, and hopefully discover the liberating truth of non-existence. The ideal environment for this is in a forest in solitude.
On the other hand, society exists through the participation and contribution of everyone. This unity is essential. Disruption of it is unfortunate. Social continuity and events that potentially enhance society (e.g. marriages, births, promotions) are celebrated.
At the same time, there are two social disruptions that must be ritually and thoroughly handled: deaths and ordinations. In both of these events society is being deprived of a valuable member – which is a threat to social welfare. In principle, as the logical conclusion, a death as well as an ordination portends the extinction of society.
Yet, ordination in Thai Buddhism is understood as having surpassing value. In fact, ordination is so meritorious that not only the individual acquires merit to offset demeritorious karma, but the community does as well. Basically, becoming a monk is not only a doorway to self-improvement and the remote possibility of enlightenment (which helps the monk more than anyone), a monk also signifies and expounds the Dharma (in Thai Tham or thamma) which helps the community toward understanding. It is a social benefit. So the community of monks residing in a village temple helps the village by providing essential education, often in the form of sermons and ritual enactments, and also assisting the people of the village by giving them opportunities to make merit by supporting the temple and its monks.
The people in a village who benefit most from the ordination of one of its boys or men would be the family of the ordinand. They make a significant sacrifice when they relinquish the social support those males would otherwise provide. As if to compensate for this loss, there is a ritual transfer of merit incorporated in the ordination ceremony by which the person being ordained reassigns the merit he is acquiring to his parents, especially his mother who is prevented by her sex from being ordained. [This misogynistic concept may be breaking down as women, too, are being ordained.] As the whole village, in a way, participates in the ordination, the whole village makes merit.
Making merit is a good thing. It is easy to accumulate demerit through daily living. It behooves one to make as much merit as possible. The economy of merit is a vague and suspicious subject, but some actions are clear. Killing is frightfully demeritorious. Becoming a monk is supremely meritorious. To avoid a disadvantageous rebirth, and a probably transition through hell beforehand, it is important to acquire merit.
However, acquiring merit for oneself presumably ends with death. Death is the other common disruption of salubrious life functions. As paradoxical as it appears, there is universal acceptance throughout North Thailand (and elsewhere) that merit can be transferred not only to the living (such as to mothers) but to the dead (including ancestors). A funeral service is basically a complex merit-making and merit-transferral ceremony. In fact, there is probably no frequent opportunity in a village for more people to make more merit in more ways than at a funeral.
In a funeral that I attended a couple of days ago merit was made and transferred in a score of ways, including especially: (1) sponsors/patrons who provided funds for aspects of the 3 days of funeral ceremonies, (2) the family members who provided the catafalque (meru) to hold the coffin, (3) the village housewives association who cooked half a dozen large meals, (4) the men and women who put up and took down awnings and tables, (5) the monks who came to chant and preach, (6) the 5 boys who were ordained for a day to make merit for their grandmother, (7) all of us who bought sets of robes to be ceremoniously presented to the monks on the cremation grounds, (8) those who attended the chanting services and then poured libations of water to transfer the merit to the deceased.
To return to the matter of the paradox inherent in all this, there are three ways of handling the matter. The paradox can be resolved, embraced or ignored. Every religion tries to resolve or embrace the paradox of suffering in the context of human existence, but usually fails in the short run.
If the religion supposes the existence of a creative divinity the question must be handled about why the divinity created beings with the need to experience suffering and loss. Either the divinity is imperfect in its creative capacity or it is malign and creation is a malicious farce. No major religion, however, draws this conclusion.
Some insist the fault is not with the creator but with us who transgress and introduce chaos into pristine creation. We need to be sorted out if creation is to be fixed.
Other religions agree that we are flawed, but it has to do with our perceptions and understanding. (A) We just think we are suffering. We are actually fabricating these thoughts because we are confused. Given the right perspective we would agree that this suffering is illusionary. (B) Our suffering is real enough, but it is beneficial. We are being improved by this experience and we will emerge from it far better persons. We should delight in our suffering. Given the right perspective we should agree that the paradox is illusionary.
On the whole, as with village Thai Buddhism, the paradox is ignored. Certainly, the objective is to acquire the insight necessary to transform our perception of the world and our condition in it. This is a quest that potentially removes us, and everyone else, from society. We would cease being either cause or effect. Suffering would be resolved by having no one left to suffer. Nevertheless, meanwhile, society is a practical necessity, and a serene, well-functioning society is to be desired. We would like to have our monks helpful and not far removed from home. They serve to keep our social circumstances centered and tending toward practical elimination of suffering as far as can be done. We can ignore the philosophical issue of how to resolve such things as the nature of society when the wisest among us quest for non-existence, or how to mitigate the post-mortem suffering of our ancestors or how to join them in paradise. Merit making and merit transfer may be inconsistent with one aspect of the quest, but concern about that inconsistency dissolves in the satisfaction of going on with getting along.
[Thanks to Charles F. Keyes for his explication of this complex and controversial issue in “Merit Transference in the Kammic Theory of Popular Theravada Buddhism” published in Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry, ed. by Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.