Evolution of the Theravada Buddhist Idea of ‘Merit-transference’ to the Dead, and its Role in Sri Lankan Buddhist Culture
Keywords:death rituals, merit-transference, Sri Lankan Buddhism, dakkhiṇā, pattidāna, puṇyānumodanā, pin anumodan-, pin dīma
The practice of merit-transference in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism has evolved over three important stages of development, namely, assigning of dakkhina, giving of patti, and direct transferring of merit. These stages are generally understood as similar practices but are significantly different from each other. It is not the merit but the meritorious act that is dedicated to, or shared with the departed ones in first two stages. Pattidana, in this context, does not strictly mean giving merit or giving what is obtained or achieved, as it has so far been interpreted, but giving a share of or stake in the ownership of a meritorious act. It is in the third stage that the idea of merit-transference appeared in Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka. Understanding this historical development is important for interpreting Buddhist texts in their historical contexts as well as for realizing the larger role assigned to the living in the contemporary practice of merit-transference (punyanumodana/ pin anumodan-/ pin dima) and its influence on other arena of social and cultural life in Sri Lanka. This idea of merit-transference transformed mourning and sorrowful funerals into merit-making events. Practices related to this idea of merit-transference also successfully fulfill the psychological needs of the living to assist departed relatives and to maintain some form of relationship with them. It also allowed local beliefs to be assimilated into the Buddhist fold and shaped the social structure of the living, particularly the lay-monastic relationship.
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