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The Seen and Unseen World of Merit and Rebirth

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Rebirth and Merit are two important concepts in the Buddhist way of life. The two are intimately attached. Under Buddhism a person tries to end the suffering of rebirth by attaining merit through good works. In Buddhism merit is “the fruit of good actions which can be devoted to the welfare of other beings.” (1) As one accumulates merit he or she expects to attain a higher state of enlightenment through a more desirable rebirth that gets him or her closer to the goal of nirvana.

This concept sounds simple enough. Do good works and be rewarded. Yet there is a catch that many Buddhist, perhaps even you have experienced. How do you know when your good thoughts, feelings, and actions outweigh your bad ones? How can you know if your merits toward rebirth really outweigh your demerits?
Many Buddhists have great private struggles with their merit and demerit, and for very practical reasons. They simply cannot remember all of their good deeds and bad deeds. The answer for many Buddhists has been to dedicate themselves more fully to the Buddhist way of life—meditations, visiting monasteries, making gifts, attending teachings, and performing rituals. Out of a fear of suffering and imperfection they try to do more in hopes of earning a better rebirth. Rebirth, in this sense, is a form of punishment—in other words, a form of justice.
But is the rebirth concept practical, possible, or even just?
In looking for an answer let’s use an example from author M. Tsering, to illustrate the injustice of the Buddhist philosophy of karma (merit and rebirth).
“Dawa is a Buddhist who is serious about her religious life. She tries to gain merit for her next rebirth by practicing meditation, giving generously to the local monks, and being kind to animals. But like all people, Dawa occasionally does things she knows aren’t right. How will the law of karma work in her life? First of all, Dawa’s good works will earn her a certain amount of merit., and her faults will earn a certain amount of demerit. But even Dawa’s slightest fault will earn far more demerit than her good works earn merit, because the system is set up to work that way. When Dawa takes tock of her merits and demerits, she finds that even though her good actions outnumber her bad ones, the demerit built up by her faults outweighs the merit built up by her good works.
“Anxious about this, she tries to make more merit. Because Dawa can “sin” without knowing it, but can only make merit when she consciously tries to, her demerits accumulate at a faster rate than her merits. In this way Dawa accumulates a colossal load of karmic debt that she can never repay. Now suppose that Dawa dies. Because of her demerits, she is reborn as a beggar girl named Mingma who is abandoned in the street. But Mingma cannot remember her former life as Dawa. She has no idea why she is suffering from hunger, cold, and abuse. Even worse, in her unhappy new life as Mingma she accumulates new sins. Mingma’s poverty prevents her from making merit through religious ceremonies and expensive gifts to the monasteries. Awash in a sea of karmic debt, Mingma becomes a living illustration of Milarepa’s proverb, ‘Religion is forbidden to the poor.’ The story of Dawa and Mingma shows why rebirth and karma can never reward good actions or punish bad ones. Since people’s personalities perish at death and only an impersonal life force is reborn, no one ever suffers for their own sins. Mingma suffered because of the sins of Dawa, shom she had never met. This is not justice, but pointless misery.” (2)
Is Rebirth Real?
That is a question every Buddhist or Buddhist-leaning person should explore. After all, if you can’t substantiate that there is a significant chance rebirth is even real, then the whole Buddhist system would fall apart. Every religious system, even Buddhism, advances the idea that it holds the proper perspective on life, death, and eternity. So, is rebirth an actual fact? Does it happen? How can we know?
In fact, not even the Buddha, the one who taught the concept of merit and rebirth, was even sure rebirth existed! A Buddhist may “have belief in these principles, [but] not direct knowledge of their reality…In one early text (M.I.403) the Buddha says that to believe in these principles, and so live a moral life, will lead to a good rebirth if rebirth exists.” (3)
How could the Buddha say these things lead to a good rebirth if the existence of rebirth is not a surety? He can’t! Doing so would be nothing more than supposition, at best, a guess. It’s no wonder that many Buddhist struggle with the ideas of merit and rebirth when their efficacy and reality is so uncertain!
Is rebirth real? In fact, there is no real world evidence that rebirth is a reality of existence. To be sure, there are some people who claim to remember past lives. However, claims are not evidences. The Buddhist system is, in point of fact, set up the way author M. Tsering claims. A person is not supposed to remember a so-called past life since the personality dies and only an impersonal life force is rebirthed. According to one Buddhist author, “Even the most accomplished lamas cannot remember their own past lives.” (4) Consider, from what you have just read, what the Buddhist practitioner puts his faith in:
  • An ethereal system its founder could not prove existed,
  • A system without evidence for its existence in the real world, and
  • A system designed to withdraw a person from the real world in favor of what is unproven.
Where are you putting your faith?
How Does One Break the Cycle of Suffering?
The reality offered by Jesus Christ is far different than that which is taught by Buddhism. In contrast to the Buddhist concept of merit and rebirth, Jesus Christ taught redemption and resurrection.
Contrary to Buddhism’s ideas of merit and demerit, Jesus presented a much simpler solution: redemption. Instead of having to worry about whether we have enough merits to outweigh our demerits (sin), the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on our behalf paid for our demerits (sin), wiping our spiritual slate completely clean. The scripture notes that God,
“Delivered us from darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (5)
Elsewhere the Bible also notes:
“God, in his gracious kindness, declares us not guilty. He has done this through Jesus Christ, who has freed us by taking away our sin.” (6)
What a tremendous difference this is from the burden of having to make up for demerits by laboriously trying to gain good merit, never being sure of the outcome.
Just as Buddhism makes (unverifiable) claims that karma is efficacious. So too the Bible makes claims—but with a significant difference. The Bible is a written record of eyewitness accounts that Jesus’ claims are true in the real world, as well as the one to come. The Apostle John said,
“What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched…and we have seen and testify and announce to you too…” (7)
What was announced? That Jesus’ death for us is sufficient to pay the debt of sin we have incurred. His resurrection is the evidence of payment for sin that is efficacious in a way that the karmic system is not. Jesus said of himself,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even if he dies.” (8)
Did Jesus really rise from the dead. What kind of real world evidence was there for such a claim? Resurrection, after all, is not a philosophy, point of view, or ritual. The claim of Jesus’ resurrection is based on evidences of eyewitnesses in the real world.
“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (9)
“Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and he was buried and he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at one time…” (10)
Under Jesus Christ you will not be held to account for the sin of another in some past life, for Jesus has paid the penalty for all of our sins, for all time, for all who believe in Him.
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  1. Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Hugh Partridge, page 470.
  2. Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, M. Tsering, chapter 8, pages 155-156.
  3. An Introduction to Buddhism, Peter Harvey, “Early Buddhist Teachings: Rebirth and Karma,” page 44.
  4. Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, M. Tsering, chapter 8, page 155.
  5. Colossians 1:14
  6. Romans 3:24 New Living Translation
  7. I John 1:1-2
  8. John 11:25
  9. II Peter 1:16
  10. I Corinthians 15:3-6