We’ve all heard the saying, “Benevolence is repaid with benevolence. Malice is repaid with malice.” From the Buddhist perspective, this is correct. “Good deeds and thoughts” refer to possessing 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, with corresponding punishments 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 be unable to escape their karmic retribution. That explains why some acclaimed kind-hearted people suffer in Hell after they pass away.

In Buddhism, the notions of merit and virtue are highly emphasised. What is a “merit and virtue”, and what good do they do? Merits and virtues are good deeds and thoughts, but they are considered to be meritorious and virtuous only after the making of 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 mere acts of self-expression. Take the following example: if a person has been practising vegetarianism for many years but did not make a vow before the Bodhisattvas, their practice can only be regarded as their personal lifestyle choice. This explains the importance of making a vow to practise vegetarianism before 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 every benevolent and charitable deed, be it in helping others, showing filial piety towards our parents, or being kind to our siblings. However, there is one 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 unnecessary the making of a separate resolution. Just as 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 is witnessed by a Bodhisattva.  

What is the purpose of merits and virtues? We all know the damage karmic obstacles and negative karma can cause. They are like viruses in a computer program hiding in a person’s Alaya Consciousness. When the time comes, they will be incited to take effect. This explains why a perfectly healthy person can suddenly become critically ill, get involved in an accident or encounter a catastrophe. Some people’s negative karma is so heavy that they face problems constantly throughout their lives, making their complexions dull and always blaming everybody and everything except themselves. If one continues to commit malicious deeds and acts of killing (for example of animals) in their present life, and even if they have residual karmic rewards, their malicious deeds will transform into negative karma. In turn, it will be planted in the Alaya Consciousness. The Alaya Consciousness is the Eighth Consciousness – and the fundamental one. This consciousness stores countless karmic seeds that can trigger a person’s benevolent or malicious behaviour – in particular their 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 any karmic obstacles, resulting in 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 minds. Therefore, one of the most important functions of merits and virtues is to eliminate and counteract karmic obstacles. In fact, that is the primary goal of any Buddhist practitioner. Only when karmic obstacles are eliminated can our minds become tranquil and peaceful, thus allowing us to gain wisdom and the possibility of eventual enlightenment. 

BPT Vol 1.7: The Difference between Good Deeds, Merit and Virtue