We have all heard the saying, “Benevolence is repaid with benevolence. Malice is repaid with malice.” From the perspective of Buddhism, this is correct. “Good deeds and thoughts” refer to having good conduct and ideas, all of which are recorded and then karmically rewarded when the time comes.  The same goes for malicious thoughts and deeds. These are also recorded and corresponding punishments will be meted out. As the saying goes, “retribution will be served unfailingly”. What is worth knowing is that the karmic rewards for good deeds and thoughts are not able to counteract the karmic retribution brought about by our evil deeds and thoughts. In other words, if someone who has performed numerous good deeds has also committed one serious malicious deed, they will receive their karmic reward but will not be able to escape their karmic retribution. That explains why some acclaimed kind-hearted people suffer in Hell after they pass away.

The notions of merit and virtue are highly emphasised in Buddhism. What is a “merit and virtue” and what good do they do? Merits and virtues are good deeds and thoughts, but are considered to be meritorious and virtuous only taken after making a vow in front of Bodhisattvas. In the absence of such a gesture, our good deeds and thoughts, regardless of whether they are from our intention or done under the influence of Buddhism, will remain merely our own self-expression. Take the following example; if a person has been practising vegetarianism for many years but did not make a vow in front of the Bodhisattvas, their practice can only be regarded as their personal choice of lifestyle. This explains the importance of making a vow to practise vegetarianism in front of a Bodhisattva as the practice would then become a meritorious action in our resolution to refrain from killing. Therefore, we must make a resolution when performing all benevolent and charitable deeds, be it in helping others, showing filial piety towards our parents, or being kind towards our siblings. However, there is an exception— good deeds performed at Buddhist places of worship such as a temple or Guan Yin Hall. Deeds performed at these places are naturally considered meritorious and virtuous, rendering a separate resolution unnecessary. Just like how our documents need to bear the signature of a JP (Justice of the Peace) to be valid, good deeds and thoughts can only be transformed into merits and virtues if a resolution has been made and witnessed by a Bodhisattva.  

What is the purpose of merits and virtues? We all know the damages karmic obstacles and negative karma could cause. They are like the viruses in a computer program hiding in a person’s Alaya Consciousness. When the time comes, they will be incited and take effect on the person. This explains why a perfectly healthy person could suddenly become critically ill, get involved in an accident or encounter a catastrophe. Some people’s negative karma is so weighty that they constantly face problems throughout their lives and their complexions are dull. They always blame everybody and everything but themselves. If one continues to commit malicious deeds and acts of killing (e.g., animals) in their present life, even if they have residual karmic rewards, their malicious deeds will transform into negative karma, which will be planted in the Alaya Consciousness. The Alaya Consciousness is the Eighth Consciousness—the fundamental consciousness. This consciousness stores countless karmic seeds that can trigger a person’s benevolent or malicious behaviour (predominantly one’s mental behaviour). This is also where the karmic obstacles are stored. To remove karmic obstacles, we can only rely on significant merits and virtues. They can enter the Alaya Consciousness and counteract karmic obstacles, resulting in the effect of its purification. As the Buddhist verse goes:

“The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight.”

We rely on our merits and virtues to remove the defilements from our mind. Therefore, one of the most important functions of merits and virtues is to eliminate and counteract karmic obstacles. That is the primary goal of a Buddhist practitioner. Only when karmic obstacles are eliminated can our mind become tranquil and peaceful, thus allowing us to gain wisdom, leading to the possibility for eventual enlightenment.  

Vol 1.7 Difference between Good Deeds and Merit and Virtue