Methods of Doing Good Works

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Daoist Beliefs
The Great Dao
Original Meaning of Dao
Laozi's Creative Use of The Concept of Dao
The Main Meaning of the Concept of Dao
The Major Functions of Dao
Virtue
The Significance of Virtue
Expression of the Unity of Dao and Virtue
Becoming an Immortal by Attaining
Dao is ruled by Spontaneity
The Significance of Spontaneity
Observing the Way of Heaven and Following its Motions
Cosmogony
Cosmogony
The Creation of the World
Formation of the Daoist Theory of Universal Evolution
The Process of The Creation of the World
The Thirty-six Heavens
The Netherworld
Yin-Yang and the Supreme Ultimate
Yin-Yang and the Supreme Ultimate
Vital Breath
The Infinite and the Supreme Ultimate
The Infinite
The Supreme Ultimate and the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate
Yin-Yang and the Five Agents
Social Ideals
Social Ideals
The Ideal of Supreme Peace
Purity, Tranquility and Non-interference
Salvation of Humanity
Philosophy of Life
Understanding Dao and Establishing Virtue
Education by Daoist Enlightenment
Ethical Education and Practise
Ethical Education and Practise
Accumulation of Hidden Merits
The Secret Meaning of Karma
Norms for Doing Good Works
Methods of Doing Good Works

Man is at the centre of doing good and abandoning evil

It is possible for one not to do good works although one knows what is good. Knowledge and practice can be either united or divided. We say a person has real knowledge and actual practice and is really virtuous only if he both knows what is good and practices it. So what is called Accumulation of Hidden Merits in Daoism is a continuous process of practice. The cultivation of virtues depends chiefly on practice. To gradually understand the true essence of the norms of doing good works, and become a morally noble person through Accumulation of Hidden Merits by putting moral norms into practice requires that:

Firstly, one should often exhort and examine oneself

One can only cultivate one's virtues all by oneself, and no one else can take one's place. It is determined by one's own consciousness whether to cultivate virtues or not. One cannot cultivate virtues if one is not conscious and depends on the earnest exhortations of others. Even if he cultivates virtues occasionally, he cannot persevere and cannot avoid giving up halfway when encountering difficulties and obstacles. The Daoist priests of successive generations are respected for their great aspiration, firm belief in Dao, and sustained observance of commandments. The eminent Daoist priest Sima Chengzhen of the Tang dynasty enjoys high prestige and was of noble character. The emperor appointed him to high official positions, but regarding wealth and rank as floating clouds, he firmly declined and returned to the mountain. Another Daoist priest, Lu Cangyong, had formerly lived in seclusion to cultivate Dao. Having made a name for himself, he came out to be an official by imperial order. When he saw Chengzhen going back to the mountain, he pointed to Mt. Zhongnan near the capital, and said, "here is a nice place. Why go so far as Mt Tiantai?" Sima Chengzhen answered tauntingly, "It is nothing but a shortcut to high office in my eyes." Later generations have summarized the proverb "the shortcut of Mt Zhongnan" to ridicule the actions of having no firm will and expecting to take a shortcut and get good. Lu Cangyong left a butt and lesson for he gave up halfway. Cultivation of virtues must stand the test of time, as well as outside disturbance and enticement. What counts is that one must often warn and exhort oneself to do good works, evade evil right after seeing it, and right every wrong immediately.

Secondly, one should reduce one's selfish ideas and desires

We have mentioned that Lu Cangyong did not keep to Dao till the end. This is because he had selfish ideas and the motive of pursuing high position and great wealth. Maybe he was not like this at the very beginning, but once he became famous, he changed his original intention. All the good deeds mentioned previously require one to give without compensation. If one does good works with selfish motives, one is only able to do so temporarily, but can never persist. Laozi's saying "To reduce selfish ideas and desires" is the principal guideline for the Accumulation of Hidden Merits. If a person always proceeds from the consideration of himself and regards himself as the center, he will not be kind to human beings and all things, and he will even be apathetic to the sufferings of his compatriots, so how can he talk about helping others in an emergency? How will he engage himself in philanthropy for humans, especially for the impoverished? To take oneself as the center of consideration in modern society is always manifested in the pursuit of material benefits for one's own ease and comfort. When one is entangled with material desires for a long time, one cannot realize one's errors and mend one's ways, and one goes farther and farther away from simple virtues. Therefore, to reduce desires seems especially important for modern people.

Thirdly, one should find a specific way to help with the cultivation of moral character

This method quantifies both merits and demerits so that everyone can judge from his own conduct whether he has more merits or more demerits, and can correct his errors when he becomes aware of them. After repeated practice, researches and improvement, the successive generations of lofty Daoist masters have composed a variety of Ledgers of Merits and Demerits ( 功過格 Gongguoge ). They include the use of quantification and provide people with effective means of cultivation the moral character.

Methods of Ledgers of Merits and Demerits

The Ledger of Merits and Demerits of the Immortal Sovereign of Supreme Subtlety ( 太微帝君功過格 Taiwei Dijun Gonguoge ) introduces the following method. Everyone who receives and observes the method should place a writing brush, an inkstone and a register at the bedside, write down the months and dates, and make two lines of merits and demerits under the date. At bedtime, one should register all the merits and demerits one has earned in the whole day, recording good works under the merit heading while recording evil under the demerit heading. Each deed is attributed a specific number of points acording to a detailed table of rules. At the end of each month, one should calculate the merits and demerits, subtracting demerits from merits or converting demerits into merits. The number of merits and demerits would become obvious after the subtraction and conversion. One should make an overall estimate so as to know one's crime and good fortune by oneself, and not to have to ask about one's good or bad luck.

The Ledger of Merits and Demerits should have concrete detailed rules in order to be easy to practice. For example

To give 100 cash to widowers, widows, orphans, the childless or the poor is one merit, and to give a string of 1,000 cash is ten merits. Accumulation of one cash's alms to 100 cash is one merit. The merit is calculated by cash for rice, wheat, money and silks. The merit of paying off the debt of the impoverished by giving them alms is calculated in the same way. To give drink or food to the hungry or thirsty is one merit. To provide a warm room for those freezing to live in for a night is one merit. To save the lives of animals who are able to repay human beings (i.e. domestic animals such as camels, mules, cattle, horses, donkeys and the like) is ten merits, to save the lives of animals unable to repay human beings (i.e. wild birds and beasts) is eight merits, and to save the lives of worms, ants, moths, aquatic organisms, etc. is one merit.

The quantification of merits is very concrete, so is that of demerits

Not to relieve the poor people is one demerit, and to humiliate one person is three demerits. To steal others' property or to instigate others to steal 100 cash is one demerit, and to steal a string of 1,000 cash is ten demerits. Not to stop someone from stealing when witnessing it is one demerit. To help with stealing is five demerits. To illegitimately obtain someone else's property worth 100 cash is one demerit, and a string of 1,000 cash is ten demerits. The demerit is doubled if one plots to murder others to get their property.


What is actually contained in each ledger of merit and demerit is quite concrete, and there are many items in the ledger. But here just some examples are presented. By comparing the number of merits and demerits according to specific items, one can decide how one has done on earth. Simultaneously, one can decide whether one has made progress in one's moral cultivation through comparison month by month and year by year.

To use the Ledger of Merit and Demerit is still based on one's own initiative

The Ledger of Merit and Demerit provides one with methods to help with the cultivation, but the correct use of it is still determined by oneself. If a person records every merit and conceals every demerit, not only does the Ledger of Merit and Demerit perform no practical function, but also he deceives others, himself and the heaven, and earns double demerits.

Daoist priests should observe Daoist commandments, and they should set higher moral demands on themselves than on lay believers

Daoist priests are professional clergymen of Daoism, or persons who renounce their family of their own accord in order to seek immortality and obtain religious liberation. Devoted to Daoism and subject to strict demands, they are closer to Immortality ( 神仙shenxian ) than common people, and apart from their own Cultivation and Refinement ( 修煉 Xiulian ), they should also give instructions to lay believers. Therefore they must have fairly high qualities, including at the moral level. Among the Daoist priests themselves, it is through the observance of Daoist commandments that they control their behaviour and apply moral standards. The Celestial Master ( 天師 Tianshi ) of the 43rd generation Zhang Yuchu emphasized repeatedly that observance of commandments concerning behaviour is the leading requirement for those practicing the laws ( See the Ten Daoist Commandments ( 道門十規 Daomen Shigui )). Daoist priests have to observe commandments of different degrees of strictness according to their Daoist rank. The higher the Daoist rank is, the stricter the commandments are. For example, for the Daoist priest of the Complete Perfection sect ( 全真 Quanzhen ), there are from several dozens to 300 various commandments during the stages of Primary Perfection ( 初真 Chuzhen ) (the second stage of Acceptance of Commandments ( 受戒 Shoujie )). In Daoist scriptures, the commandments are the basis of an important classification, and every group of commandments consists of five to several hundred commandments. Moreover, a number of specific regulations are complied to in each temple according to Daoist commandments and local concrete conditions. Commandments and regulations are the restraint and instruction of Daoist priests' words, actions and ideas. They prescribe the essential orientation of the moral cultivation of Daoist priests.