Merit-making, like Enlightenment, is one of the great parts of practicing Buddhism. Merit is like the spiritual funds in your celestial bank account. When you cash out at the end of your life, you can use the merit you’ve accrued towards a reincarnation that will be more prosperous than your last. If you earn enough merit, you can bypass the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth all together and instead head straight to Nirvana.
Buddha preached three ways through which a devotee can earn merit: spiritual growth, virtuous living and devotional offerings. As spiritual growth is time-consuming and laborious, and virtuous living entails not engaging in the seven deadly sins that humanity holds so dear, devotional offerings tend to be the most popular form of merit-making. Offerings usually take the form of incense, candles or flowers that are presented to an image of the Buddha at a shrine or temple.
The first month of the new year is an especially auspicious time for merit-making, and I happened to be spend this New Year’s in Thailand, the world’s most religious Buddhist country. I went on a mini-pilgrimage to make offerings at the nine holiest temples in Bangkok, plus one Catholic church, lest God get jealous. I think I was rewarded for my diligence and faithfulness at the last temple of my pilgrimage. As I was praying, the monk kneeling in front of me pulled a camera phone out of his orange robes and took a picture of the golden Buddha statue before us. In reaction, I surreptitiously took a picture of the monk and thereby captured forever the highlight of my entire winter vacation.
Another high point of my merit-making was a trip to Erawan Shrine, located in the center of Bangkok’s ritziest shopping district. This popular shrine, nestled between Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Chanel, reconciles two heretofore opposing lifestyles: Buddhist non-attachment and modern consumerism. For a small fee, worshippers at Erawan can set caged birds free, which also imparts merit because it is an offering of help to another being. Louis Vuitton’s adjacent window display, coincidentally (?), featured their signature bags held captive in gilded cages. What type of statement is the French fashion industry trying to make with such a presentation?