Merit (pu¤¤a) is the joy one feels having done something good. In traditional Theravàdin countries the meaning of merit has been seriously misunderstood. Today, rather than thinking of merit as a psychological quality derived from a particular type of behaviour, it has come to be thought of as an object or even a commodity that can be `made', `accumulated', stored up to be used later and even `transferred' to others. This misunderstanding has had a corrupting influence on the practice of Dhamma, particually in Thailand. All too often, people do not do good out of regard for the Buddha's teaching, for the simple joy of doing good, or because it is the right thing to do, but in order to `get merit'. As a result, generosity has been downgraded from an act of giving to a means of getting. Worse, people believe that they can `make merit' by performing certain rituals Ý putting gold leaf on statues, giving money to monks, circumambulating ståpas, etc. Ý rather than by having integrity and being virtuous in their everyday lives.
And all this despite the Buddha's exhortation: `Do not think that an external action brings purity. The skilful say that purity cannot be gained by one who seeks it in outward things'(S.I,169). According to the Padhàna Sutta, Màra, the Devil, tried to dissuade the Buddha from his spiritual practice by suggesting that he `heap up merit' (cãyate pu¤¤aü) instead, exactly the suggestion some monks make to lay people today. The Buddha firmly rejected this compromise saying: `I have not the slightest use for merit'(Sn.428-31). Likewise, the sincere Buddhist will create all the merit he or she needs through their practice of the Dhamma in their everyday lives.
The Buddha said: `In this world whatever gift or offering one were to give looking for merit, none of that is worth a quarter of the better offering of paying respect to the righteous'(Dhp.108). Cultivating a loving heart now, the Buddha said, is many more times more fruitful than contrivances that are supposed to deliver benefits in the next life. `Of all the grounds for making merit for the next life, none of them are worth a sixteenth part of the love that frees the mind. The love that frees the mind surpasses them and illuminates, glows and shines'(It.19).
Misunderstandings and corruption creep into all human institutions from time to time and in this respect Buddhism is no different from other religions. See Transference of Merit.