“Making merit is like business. In a business, you make money in order to spend money. Merit is the same. If you run out of merit you have to make more.”
Shan-Tai prayer month 2011, day 19
The worldview of the Shan is not too hard for secular westerners to understand – there is a cause and effect relationship between the good a person does and the blessings they will reap in the afterlife. Obviously this is the dumbed-down version, but the overall idea is simple enough.
In fact, a similar view holds sway in the society in which I grew up. While most New Zealanders do not believe in God as a person, they do have a general attitude that ‘good’ people should receive good in their life and it is not ‘fair’ if this does not happen. They have thrown out belief in God but retained an assumption that good deeds are recorded somehow and held in credit.
The Buddhist understanding of merit (kuso) and demerit (akuso) is much more complex and nuanced with the accumulated balance of karma (kam) determining such things as the circumstances of one’s death and next birth. So while Shan people may resort to means such as amulets, tattoos and offerings to spirits in order to gain benefit during life, they hold that only merit, the balance of kuso/akuso (karma) is effective beyond the current life.
Therefore, accumulating merit is essential in order to effect a better reincarnation. The Shan version of life insurance. My secular society holds money to be the highest good obtainable in life so attempts to ensure a continuation of money even after death. A bit of a pointless pursuit if you ask me, much more sensible to concern yourself with what can be taken with you than what has to be left behind!
For a Christian the crucial ‘attribute’ is not merit but faith – believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died in your place. God does all the working, we simply believe. We rely upon grace, knowing we could never earn enough merit to compensate for the offence of failing to give glory to our creator. Christian faith is not an insurance policy to keep us out of hell, it is an obsessive desire to know Christ, the object and the end of our faith.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
(Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
- God to reveal the concept of His grace to the Shan (Hebrews 7:26-27, Romans 11:5-6).
- The Shan to realize that no amount of merit can ever amount to salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Shan to know the hope of salvation that is found only in Christ (Acts 4:12).