Does offering water to a Buddha statue increase merits? Can I get more merits from offering food or drinks to a buddha statue than from giving money to beggars?
It's important to notice the purpose of practicing Dana, or the virtue of charity. It is to let go of stinginess, of clinging, and of attachment. So while it's true that there're wholesome resultant merits, as long as one keeps in mind the true purpose of the practice, one won't fall into that common mistake of treating Dana as a transaction which leads to differentiating/calculating who/where/when to donate to maximize the "returns". With the right intent, whether offering water to Buddha statue or donating to the poor or helping the sick, or whatever, every single act adds up and help one to be able to let go (as opposed to pick up more) all clinging and attachments.
Offering food to animals and other puthujjanas who do not exercise sense restrain is already ''not of great fruits'' like the buddha phrase it (because the recipient precisely will delight and crave more delight which leads to more afflictions and suffering, whereas the human who at least train to see the danger of the 5 aggregates and of lust for them will train to not delight in the food), so offering food to a rock is going only to waste food. Keep food for people and animals, instead of rocks.
The puthujjanas who give and pray to rocks are turning some activities into rituals and cling to them while claiming they are good people for creating those rituals. THose puthujjanas completely fail to understand karma.
As you know, there are sankharas and karmas and there are puthujjanas who claim that:
only actions [thoughts, talks, movements of the body] matters to be a good human, intentions do not matter. Those puthujjanas love to turn their activities into rituals. For instance, if their ritual is to put a fork on the left of a plate, they claim that they can think of, let's say, the favorite singer and songs while they put the fork on the left of the plate and they claim since the forkis at the proper place, the ritual is complete and they have generated ''merit'' (even thought they thought of something else than putting the fork on the left of the plate) or a good action and therefore they are good people.
only intentions matter. A human can do any action, as long as the human has right intentions behind those actions, this human is a good person. Those puthujjanas love to claim that caring about the outcome of an action is useless or even detrimental to the fruit of the action. Those puthujjanas claim that as long as they have a good intention, like compassion, while they do an action, no matter what this action is , since they feel sad and delude themselves that they are compassionate and detached from the outcome of the action, they are good people. Those puthujjanas are the most dangerous since they can do horrible actions like euthanizing animals or humans and they delude themselves into being righteous. They are so messed up in their heads that they believe that as long as they feel sad and act only to alleviate the suffering of people by killing them, they do right actions. SOme of those puthujjanas claim that they are good people, because they feel detached from the outcome of their actions: you can do whatever you want as long as you are detached from the outcome.
Now the claim of the buddha is precisely that you cannot separate the intention from the karma of an action. The buddha claimed famously that
'"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect."'' "Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect."
some puthujjanas like the ones who claim that ''only intentions matter, any actions are permitted as long as the right intentions are behind the actions'' love to cut the quote at "Intention, I tell you, is kamma.'' to justify their horrible ways and their horrible doctrine which never stops the suffering.
Karma is a stuff that is done and the source of that karma is the ''intending'' according to the buddha. There are sankharas, which are typically called intentions today, and the output of the sankharas are actions which are tainted by karmas, which means that they are colored by karma. There are 3 color of karmas which are useless to stop the suffering of puthujjanas:
"And what is kamma that is dark with dark result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates an injurious bodily fabrication, fabricates an injurious verbal fabrication, fabricates an injurious mental fabrication. Having fabricated an injurious bodily fabrication, having fabricated an injurious verbal fabrication, having fabricated an injurious mental fabrication, he rearises in an injurious world. On rearising in an injurious world, he is there touched by injurious contacts. Touched by injurious contacts, he experiences feelings that are exclusively painful, like those of the beings in hell. This is called kamma that is dark with dark result.
"And what is kamma that is bright with bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a non-injurious bodily fabrication... a non-injurious verbal fabrication... a non-injurious mental fabrication... He rearises in a non-injurious world... There he is touched by non-injurious contacts... He experiences feelings that are exclusively pleasant, like those of the Ever-radiant Devas. This is called kamma that is bright with bright result.
"And what is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a bodily fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious... a verbal fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious... a mental fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious... He rearises in an injurious & non-injurious world... There he is touched by injurious & non-injurious contacts... He experiences injurious & non-injurious feelings, pleasure mingled with pain, like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is called kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result.
Now the claim of the buddha is that karma and sankharas are a bad thing, since they are conditioned. And whatever is conditioned leads to suffering sooner or later. So as long as you perform actions which are of those 3 karmic colors, you will suffer and the people who crave delights that you try to help by karmic deeds will suffer too.
Fortunately, the buddha claims he found the way to stop this horrible karma and sankharas and he claims that There is only one color of actions which leads to the cessation of suffering:
"And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.
"And what is the cessation of kamma? From the cessation of contact is the cessation of kamma; and just this noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.
"Now when a disciple of the noble ones discerns kamma in this way, the cause by which kamma comes into play in this way, the diversity of kamma in this way, the result of kamma in this way, the cessation of kamma in this way, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma in this way, then he discerns this penetrative holy life as the cessation of kamma.
Now giving some stuff to a human is an action, sometimes it is a karmic action which will therefore lead to suffering for somebody, but a few times the human who gives stuff to another human will color this action by the right karma, the ''kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result'' and that stuff leads to less suffering.
now ''human gives stuff to another human'' is an action that involves two human and the the fruit of the action involves the two humans. First the human who gives must have the right citta and mano during the offering. It is not easy for a puthujjana to use rightfully the citta and mano during the offering, because puthujjanas have created so many mistakenviews tied to giving.
As usual with the phutjjanas their views stems from their idiotic dichotomies, the most famous one being the egotistical-selfless dichotomy. Some puthujjanas claim that being egotistical is good and selfless is bad, some puthujjanas claim the opposite. But both managed to tie their mistaken view of egotism and selflessness to giving. THe buddha listed a few of their mistaken ways here https://suttacentral.net/an7.52/en/thanissaro THe giving of great fruit is always the giving that leads to the cessation of suffering for the human who gives. It turns out that this giving is not even about the view that giving is right because it calms the citta, but because ''it is an ornament of the citta'' which just means that giving to people who have sense restrain is the right thing to do.
But the fruit also depends on the human who receives the offering:
"I tell you, Vaccha, even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings. But I do say that what is given to a virtuous person is of great fruit, and not so much what is given to an unvirtuous person. And the virtuous person has abandoned five factors and is endowed with five. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.057.than.html
THe human who receives the offering matters a lot. When you give to puthujjanas who crave to delight in sensuality, you may only make things worse for them, even though you may improve your own situation. but when you give to any human who strives for ''sense restrain'', you can go blindly and not even care about what this human will do with your offering, precisely because this human will not delight in your offering and will not generate more craving and more afflictions. The times where you can stop caring about the outcome of your offering are the times when give stuff to THe humans who do not delight in sensuality.
The buddha rephrased all that here:
"And how is a donation endowed with six factors? There is the case where there are the three factors of the donor, the three factors of the recipients.
"And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor.
"And which are the three factors of the recipients? There is the case where the recipients are free of passion or are practicing for the subduing of passion; free of aversion or practicing for the subduing of aversion; and free of delusion or practicing for the subduing of delusion. These are the three factors of the recipients.
"Such are the three factors of the donor, the three factors of the recipients. And this is how a donation is endowed with six factors.
On the contrary, when you give stuff to puthujjanas who do not strive to avoid delight in sensuality, you must be super careful about what you do and say, because you can make things worse for them very easily by making delight and making them crave more.
So when you give to humans who crave delights, you always must use your mano and citta like this:
‘Does this act with the body that I am doing lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? https://suttacentral.net/mn61/en/sujato
It is hard for a puthujjana to help other puthujjanas, because in the dhamma, helping others is about calming the citta, the mano and the kaya, the opposite of making other puthujjanas excited, so the puthujjana who wants ''helping others'' like they say, who struggles a lot with that already, will not have much actions left besides giving stuff to humans who are good at senses restrain.