Every occurrence of the word puñña with hyperlinks to the referring sutta here:
And here is Ven. T's comments on the topic. He takes the position that how merit works energetically, is mostly similar to mudita as a brahmavihara, and piti & pamojja in the role of inspiring the mind. That is, because we delight in a virtuous subject, we reap the benefit of that, rather than merit/puñña having any kind of invisible positive energy that can be transferred between beings (debit some energy from sender, credit some energy into the recipient).
I suspect the EBT suttas probably supports his position, but in real life practice, I wonder if there is invisible positive energy that can be transferred. I'm thinking of cases, such as 14th Karmapa, taking on cancerous tumors and other fatal diseases from the recipients of his blessing. Doesn't that seem like energy debit and credited? Guy with cancerous tumor about to die now lives and no longer has a tumor. Karmapa now has tumor and many years taken off his life span.
B. Thanissaro’s commentary on Merit
thoughts on the subject culled from his writings and Dhamma talks.
* Merits should be dedicated to the dead and not the living.
* The reason is because the living wouldn’t benefit from dedication of merits unless they know you're dedicating it to them.
* For the living, instead of dedicating merit, give Metta since they'll receive it whether they know you're sending it or not.
* Hungry ghosts can benefit directly from merit dedications as they can be aware of them, which is why they are known to enjoy visiting monasteries.
* Is it disadvantageous to dedicate merits to evil beings? For example if we dedicate merits to Donald Trump, might that enable him to win a future term and do more evil in the world?
* AG responded that Trump wouldn’t know about the dedication, so he wouldn't receive the benefit.
* questioner follows up with, what if Trump keeps a psychic under employment, and knows merit is being dedicated?
* (no answer from AG)
* metta and brahmavihara: you can send to any being living or dead, and they'll receive and benefit regardless of whether they know you are sending it
* sharing of merit: the recipient has to know about the dedication, unless it's a ghost of a relative, ancestor.
* For a human, they have to know that you are dedicating merits to them, and they have to accept them for the benefits to be effective.
* Merit and Metta can be dedicated to one being or many beings, and the amount of benefit for each individual would not diminish.
* Those who appreciate that you thought of them, dedicate merit to them, and are happy for you and your kindness, that’s how they would get their merits.
* Merit is not a quantity or material thing that you can send out to people. It’s a quality of the mind: the sense of well-being that comes from appreciating a happiness that’s harmless, from doing things that lead to a happiness that’s harmless. Sometimes the texts talk about some activity making a lot of merit or a little bit of merit, but it’s not the kind of thing you can really measure. (from 12/24/18 talk)
Notes from AG Evening Dhamma Talks:
1/1/21 Talk 6:30. Those who help the ones that achieve release will receive lots of merits.
6/1/19: The Stingy peoples' minds are like they live in a narrow house. Those who are generous have minds like they live in a big house – lots of room. One cannot achieve the fruits of Dhamma without generosity.
5/30/2020: 6:00 – Thoughts of goodwill, the designated person doesn’t have to know.
Persons where the merits are dedicated to have to know to benefit.
There are beings that can pick it up.
The primary ones are the hungry ghosts as it is their food.
For them to partake in that food, they have to approve.
Example: A Catholic nun hungry ghost didn’t want the Buddhist merit.
They have to see it as a good thing.
Meditators communicate and dedicate merit to hungry ghosts.
Some of the hungry ghosts seem like they changed their clothes and moved on.
A couple of cases, there seems to be no improvement at all for them.
A. Fuang said whether they can receive it or not is up to their kamma.
Go beyond thinking about it, act on metta.
“I knew a man in Bangkok who lived in a condominium built over an area where there used to be a Catholic church and a Catholic cemetery. The church had been abandoned and so the church had been destroyed. The cemetery, all the bones and everything, had been dug up and moved away, and they built the condominium over it. So, the people in the condominium were having visions and dreams of old Catholics coming to harass them. 2 One day he was meditating in his apartment and he saw a Catholic nun standing in the apartment. So he thought, “Okay, I dedicate the merit of my meditation to you.” And she said, “I don’t want your Buddhist merit!” Which means, of course, that she’s still going to hang around. She won’t get any further than that. So the recipient has to know and approve, because that’s how the merit gets transferred. You can’t just give somebody merit. They have to see what you’ve done as a good thing. The other difference is that once you’ve dedicated the merit, there’s no further responsibility on your part. You get more merit because you wanted to dedicate it, but whether the other person actually receives it, that’s the other person’s responsibility.”
Merit is not a quantity or material thing that you can send out to people. It’s a quality of the mind: the sense of well-being that comes from appreciating a happiness that’s harmless, from doing things that lead to a happiness that’s harmless. Sometimes the texts talk about some activity making a lot of merit or a little bit of merit, but it’s not the kind of thing you can really measure.
Attitude of appreciation lubricates the dhamma practice.
So learn to appreciate generosity and virtue, both when other people dedicate it to you and when you’ve developed it for yourself. Because that multiplies the merit even more, multiplies the sense of well-being even more.
We can send the dead currents of the mind – refreshing energy that energizes us and them. If we can achieve happiness through virtue and good will, why would we wish harm on others?
puñña: merit; righteousness. (nt.)
Puñña (nt.) [cp. (late) Vedic puṇya favourable, good; etym. not clear, it may be dialectical. The word is expld by Dhammapāla as "santānaŋ punāti visodheti, i. e. cleaning the continuation (of life) VvA 19, thus taken to pu. The expln is of course fanciful] merit meritorious action, virtue. Always represented as foundation and condition of heavenly rebirth & a future blissful state, the enjoyment (& duration) of which depends on the amount of merit accumulated in a former existence. With ref. to this life there are esp. 3 qualities contributing to merit, viz., dāna, sīla & bhāvanā or liberality, good conduct & contemplation These are the puñña -- kiriya -- vatthūni (see below) Another set of ;ten consists of these 3 and apaciti, veyyāvacca patti -- anuppadāna, abbhanumodanā, desanā savana, diṭṭh' ujjuka -- kamma. The opp. of puñña is either apuñña (D iii.119; S i.114; ii.82; A i.154; iii.412 Sdhp 54, 75) or pāpa (Sn 520; Dh 39; Nett 96; PvA 5) The true Arahant is above both (Pv ii.615). See on term also Kvu trsl. 201. -- (a) Passages (selected): D iii.58, 120; M i.404; ii.191, 199; S i.72; ii.82 iv.190; iv.190; v.53; A i.151, 155 sq.; iii.412; Sn 427 sq., 547, 569, 790; Dh 18, 116 sq., 196, 220, 267, 331 412; Nd1 90; Pv 1.2; i.512; Pug 55; Vism 541 (puññānaŋ paccayo duvidhā); DhA iv.34; PvA 6, 8 30 69 sq.; Sdhp 4, 19 sq. -- (b) Var. phrases & characterisations:; Merit is represented as great (uḷāra DA i.110; PvA 5; anappaka Pv i.512) or little (paritta DA i.110; appa S ii.229); as adj. ( -- ˚) mahā˚ S i.191 opp. appa˚ M ii.5. puñña is defined at Nd1 90 as follows: "puññaŋ vuccati yaŋ kiñci tedhātukaŋ kusal' âbhisankhāraŋ; apuññaŋ vuccati sabbaŋ akusalaŋ " It is defined as "dāna -- sīl' -- ādi -- pabheda" "sucaritaŋ kusala -- kammaŋ" at VvA 19; considered as leading to future happiness: Vv 13; PvA 58; consisting mainly in dāna (dānamayaŋ p.) PvA 8, 51, 60 66, 73, but also in vandana PvA 1. To do good puññaŋ (puññāni) karoti D i.137; S iv.331; A v.177 Pv i.119; or pasavati S i.182, 213; A i.89; ii.3 sq. iii.244; v.249, 282; PvA 121, cp. puññaŋ pasutaŋ Pv i.512; VvA 289. Other phrases: ˚ŋ ākankhati S i.18, 20; pavaḍḍhati S i.33; corehi duharaŋ S i.36 puññānaŋ vipāko A iv.89; āgamo S iii.209 iv.349 opadhikaŋ S i.233; It 78; purāṇaŋ & navaŋ S ;i.92 sayaŋ katāni puññāni S i.37; puññassa dhārā S i.100 v.400.
-- atthika desirous of merit Sn 487 sq.
-- ânubhāva the majesty of merit PvA 58.
-- âbhisankhāra accumulation of merit D iii.217; S ii.82; Nd1 90, 206, 442 Vism 557 sq., 571; VbhA 142 sq., 166, 184.
-- âbhisanda (+kusalâbhisanda) meritorious results A ii.54 sq. iii.51, 337; iv.245.
-- assaya seat of merit DA i.67
-- iddhi the magic power of m. PvA 117.
-- kata one who has done a deed of m. A ii.32.
-- kamma good works righteousness, merit S i.97, 143; DA i.10; VvA 32 PvA 54, 87; Sdhp 32.
-- kāma (adj.) desirous of doing good works S v.462.
-- kiriyā a good or meritorious action S i.87 (˚kriyā), 101; PvA 54; usually as ˚kiriyavatthu item of m. action (of which 3 are usually enumd see above) D iii.218; A iv.241; It 51; Nett 50, 128
-- kkhandha mass of merit (only as mahā˚) S v.400 A iii.337.
-- kkhaya decay (or waning of the effect) of merit D i.18 (cp. āyukkhaya & DA ;i.110).
-- kkhetta field of m., Ep. of the Sangha or any holy personalities doing good (lit. planting seeds of merit) to whom is a source of future compensation to the benefactor Usually with adj. anuttara unsurpassed field of m. (see also sangha) D iii.5, 227; M i.446; iii.80; S i.167, 220 v.343, 363, 382; A i.244; ii.34 sq., 56, 113; iii.158, 248 279 sq., 387; iv.10 sq., 292; It 88; Sn 486; Vv 5031 (cp. VvA 216); Pv iv.133 (of a bhikkhu); Vism 220 VvA 286; PvA 1 (ariyasangha), 5 (Moggallāna), 6 (arahanto), 132, 140, 214 and passim. Cp. BSk puṇyakṣetra Divy 63, 395 (+udāra).
-- paṭipadā the meritorious path, path of m. A i.168; Nett 96.
-- pasavana creation of m. PvA 31.
-- pekkha looking for merit (i. e. reward), intent upon m. S i.167; Sn 463 sq. 487 sq.; Dh 108 (cp. DhA ii.234).
-- phala the fruit (or result) of m. action S i.217; Pug 51; DhA ii.4; PvA 8 50, 52.
-- bala the power of m. PvA 195.
-- bhāga taking part in meritorious action S i.154.
-- bhāgiya having share in m. M iii.72 sq.; Nett 48.
-- maya=puñña J iv.232 (˚iddhi); cp. BSk. puñyamaya AvŚ i.183.
From discussion and article commenters
Ven. Aggacitta has several anecdotes on his encounters with ghosts, spirits, and what worked best between chanting, metta, sharing of merits.