Of all the concepts central to Buddhism, merit (puñña) is one of the least known and least appreciated in the West.
This is perhaps because the pursuit of merit seems to be a lowly practice, focused on getting and “selfing,” whereas higher Buddhist practice focuses on letting go, particularly of any sense of self. Because we in the West often feel pressed for time, we don’t want to waste our time on lowly practices and instead want to go straight to the higher levels.
Yet the Buddha repeatedly warns that the higher levels cannot be practiced in a stable manner unless they develop on a strong foundation. The pursuit of merit provides that foundation. To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist, one cannot wisely let go of one’s sense of self until one has developed a wise sense of self. The pursuit of merit is the Buddhist way to develop a wise sense of self.
Buddhist wisdom famously focuses on perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self, but the application of that wisdom grows out of the pursuit of what is relatively constant and pleasant and requires a mature sense of self: able to plan for the future, to anticipate dangers, to sacrifice short-term happiness for long-term happiness, to consider the needs of others, to substitute harmless pleasures for harmful ones, and to develop a strong sense of self-reliance in the pursuit of a happiness that is wise, pure, and compassionate.
…For all the rewards of meritorious action, however…the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit…
In the course of developing a wise sense of self in the pursuit of merit, one is already learning how to let go of unwise ways of “selfing” as one learns to overcome stinginess, apathy, and hard-heartedness through the development of giving, virtue, and good will.
The teachings on the three perceptions simply carry this same process of “de-selfing” for the sake of an even truer happiness to a higher pitch.
These reflections by Ajaan Geoff are from the Study Guides book, Merit: The Buddha’s Strategies for Happiness, “Introduction.”