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The meaning of merit transfer in Chinese Buddhism

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Author

Cheng, Kim

Date

2004

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies

Committee

Lancaster, Lewis R.
Guruge, Ananda W. P.
An-Hue, Thich

Abstract

The dissertation is as study of the meaning of merit transfer in Chinese Buddhism. First, the research methodology used for this research has been focused on the textual traditions of the Chinese Buddhist canon as well as the Pali canon of Theravāda. In order to explore the history of the carious ideas regarding merit transfer, it is necessary to make use of the statements found in the textual canons and to trace those ideas as they moved from India into China and the rest of East Asia. The practices, including rituals, as well as the philosophies of merit transfer in the Buddhist tradition are a part of this important element of the religion. Of particular interest is the way in which these ideas were assimilated into the whole of the religious landscape of China that included Confucian and Taoist beliefs. Because transfer of merit became central to Buddhist life in China, a study of the history is essential for research on Chinese sociology and religion.
It is the case that Chinese Buddhists have long given their attention to the popular rituals associated with merit transfer. They have not attempted to understand the ideas or the patterns of thought that have surrounded the concept. The research on a topic such as this one must explore the lineage of the idea and practices as they emerged in early Buddhism. Following this establishment of the oldest layer of the concept, one can proceed to the impact of merit transfer within China as it accepted the Indian religious doctrines. The interpretation of the importance and function of this doctrine can be seen in the variety of statements made by the schools of Buddhism in China.

Second, the research in this paper attempts to move beyond the expressions represented in China through the rituals and the sacred objects of that ritual practice. It is crucial to understand the motivation behind the ritual and the merit transfer. Working through the historical documentation of the term, we can explore the metaphysical claims and construct evidence that can be analyzed in terms of the social and religious values of the centuries under consideration.

Third, it is necessary to keep in mind that there are soteriological factors involved in these doctrines and rituals. The issues are complicated because they involve past experiences of previous lifetimes as one of the major “cause and effect” patterns in the present moment. Nevertheless, it is from these conventions of rituals, moral claims, and social constructs that we can find a method to describe the miraculous and metaphysical realm that was thought to be a part of merit transfer. While the text may in essence provide the de jure element of this study, the currently practiced rituals are the de facto aspects that must be included.

This special type of charitable giving has empowered Chinese Buddhism. At the same time it is the source for benefits for both the giver and receiver. For these reasons, merit transfer provides an excellent vehicle for the study of Buddhism in its full flower in China as well as its form in India.

Degree Granter

University of the West

Library Holding