This question is raised by most of the people since the objective of the transferring merits is abstract and profound to understand. That is why it has been complex for many and misunderstood most often. But those who know the original teachings of the Buddha should not have such complexities and misunderstanding as they know the very answer given by the Buddha to this question two thousand five hundred years ago.
One day a Brahmin named Janussoni comes to the Buddha and says, “Master Gotama, the Buddha, let me tell you we Brahmins give charitable gifts: we make the offerings to the dead, saying, May this gift to our blood relations who are dead and gone be of profit: May our relations who are dead and gone enjoy this offering. Please tell me, The Exalted One, does that gift profit our blood relations dead and gone? Do they really enjoy that gift?”
This is what the Buddha says to Janussoni. “Well, Brahmin, if there be ground for it, it does profit them, but not if there be no ground.”
Here, the Buddha explains the difference between the ground and the no ground. According to the discourse No. 177 Janussoni Sutta in the Numerical Basket, there are five places reliable for rebecoming (rebirth) of beings after death. They are,
1. The Hells (apaya)
2. The Animal World (thirisan)
3. The Human World (manussa)
4. The heavens (deva)
5. The hungry ghosts’ World. (peta)
There, in this Peta World, are four types of sub peta worlds. Namely,
1. Vantasika: - The petas that feed on vomit.
2. Khuppipasino: - The petas that are constantly hungry.
3. Nijjhamatanhika: - The petas that are consumed by thirst.
4. Paradattupa-jivi: - The petas that depend on what others give.
Out of these four peta worlds, only the last type of petas, the paradattupa jivi, can receive our merits and others cannot. The importance here is that if the targeted relative is not in a position to receive our merits any other relatives who have died and born in this world can receive our merits.
There is another very good reference to prove this clearly in The Dhammapada Attakatha where the act of transferring merits has come into practice in the time of the Buddha. One day the king Bimbisara dreams a nightmare in which he sees some ugly figures and screaming noises and he is so frightened. Then he calls upon his ministers for advice though none of them can read his nightmare. So he is disappointed with his ministers and finally visits the Buddha in the Jethas Grove to clear this out to make his mind and the Buddha tells the king not to be frightened with it at all but to organise a Dana (to give away food for monks) and transfer those merits to some of his deceased relatives in the previous lives, now in the peta world, badly in need of merits. They have been waiting for his spiritual support throughout the samsara. The figures appeared in the dream were his peta relatives and the sounds he heard were the lamenting cries of their grief. The story proves that the deceased relatives of the king received the merits given by the king. Thirokudda Sutta in the Khuddaka Nikaya, which is expounded by the Buddha at the king Bimbisar’s dana ceromoney mentioned above explains this in detail. According to the discourse the petas in the Paradattupa-ajivi peta world sometimes come to our door steps and wait until we fulfil their needs. When perform danas and transfer merits to them, they enjoy our merits and go to better lives with the help of the merits received. If not the merits remain with us for our well being.
In the book Milinda Panha, The Debate of King Milinda, we read the same information. The king asks the same question from Venerable Nagasena, the scholar monk.
“Is it possible for all deceased relatives to share in the merit of good deed?”
No, only those who are born as hungry ghosts who feed off the merit of others are able to share in the merit. Those born in hell, those in heaven, animals and hungry ghosts who feed on vomit, or hungry ghosts who hunger and thirst, or hungry ghosts who are consumed by craving, do not derive any profit.
Then the offerings in those cases are fruitless since those for whom they were given derive no profit.
No, O king they are not fruitless nor without result for the givers themselves derive benefit from it”.
Ven. Nagasena here using an example further explained this to the king. If some people prepared a meal and visited their relatives but those relatives did not accept the gift the owners themselves would have it. Like in the same way those who organise the dana will themselves derive benefit from it.
Do not misunderstand this point. We usually transfer merits to the deities. And often we wish well being good luck of others after pujas. This is something different from the transferring merits. Whenever we wish others well being they too share our merits but they don’t come and wait for our support like petas and they do not go to another lives as petas do. They only share the merits and rejoice in their own realms.
Including the Sigalowada Sutta that especially taught to the lay people, the Buddha shows the importance of transferring merits to the dead and gone. In this discourse one of the great duties of the children towards their parents is to transfer merits after death of their parents.
Out of ten meritorious deeds mentioned in the Dhamma books one is sharing merits with others. This is why it is customary to share our merits with others usually at the end of the religious services.
According to the evidence provided above, now you can understand the real meaning behind the act of transferring merits on behalf of the deceased relatives. So it is always good to practice these traditions with much understanding. The most important thing here one should remember is that Dana on behalf of one’s dear departed is different of other Dane one practices on other days. When a Dane is often practiced it is basically enough to be fulfilled these three things.
- Readiness in thought: - which means the reduction of greed, hate and delusion and employment of generosity, loving-kindness and understanding in one’s thought process to purify the mind.
- Availability of offerings: - which means that suitable and acceptable alms food and other essential requisites for the monks.
- Availability of maha sangha: - the community of bhikkhus assumedly in the past, present and the future.
If these are well met one can perform a perfect Dana in which the merit one accrues is limitless. According to the teaching the results of such a dana come after one giving all the samsaric happiness until he/she attains supreme bliss of Nibbana. But in a Dana ceremony to pass merit to certain specific relative, one has specially to be compassionate and grateful to that relative. That is the most important feature in a memorial Dana. Then only it becomes certainly fruitful. The both parties benefit the merit derived from it. So practice act of giving dana whenever possible and pass the merits to your dead relatives as a habit. You will always get long life, comfort, happiness, strength and wisdom by dint of merit of dana.
BY VEN K. ARIYARATHANA