The transference of merit is the belief that it is possible to do good and then `transfer' the kammic result (vipàka) of that good to a person who has passed away. This belief is one of several distortions of the Buddha's teachings currant in Theravàda Buddhism. It contradicts the doctrine of kamma, which teaches that it is our intentional actions that have an effect on us and that each of us is responsible for what we do. It also negates moral causation. For if it were possible to transfer the result of the good we do to others, it must likewise be possible to transfer the result of the evil we do to others, and thereby avoid its consequences.
What the early Buddhists did teach was the idea of doing good on behalf of, or in the name of, another and then giving them the opportunity of rejoicing in that act of goodness (pu¤¤ànumodanà). The theory behind this practise works something like this. If I send a friend a birthday card, when she receives it and reads of my blessings and best wishes to her she will probably feel happy. I have not `transferred' anything to her. Rather, knowing that I am thinking fondly of her on her birthday fills her with delight and happiness. Likewise, if we do something good and then tell someone that we have done it on their behalf, we create for them the opportunity to rejoice.
The early Buddhists even taught that it is possible to do this to a person who has died. If a recently deceased person has not yet been reborn, he or she may still be aware of their loved ones and what they are doing. If we do some charitable or noble deed and then announce that we have done it in the name of the deceased, they may come to know this and be filled with joy. Although the practice of dedicating good to a deceased person was not taught by the Buddha, it is not contrary to his teachings.