The Last Rites
(Excerpted from Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith
by Dharma Master Thich Thien Tarn)
The ancients had a saying:
We see others die, and our hearts ache.
We ache not because others die, but because soon it will be our turn!
There is no greater sadness, no greater tragedy in the world than the separation of death. However, it is something no one in the world can escape. Therefore, those who aspire to be of benefit to themselves and others should be prepared and ready for it. In truth, the word "death" is a misnomer, because it is merely the end of a period of retribution. When we leave this body, because of the connecting undercurrent of karma, we will be reborn into another body. Those who do not know the Dharma are resigned to being under the sway of karma. Those who know the Pure Land method should practice Buddha Recitation with Faith and Vows and prepare their "personal provisions," so that they may be reborn in peace and harmony. Only in this way can they hope to achieve an early escape from the illusory suffering of Birth and Death and attain the true joy of ever-dwelling Nirvana.
Furthermore, the Pure Land practitioner should not be concerned about himself alone, but should be filial and compassionate toward parents, relatives and friends as well, enjoining them all to practice Buddha Recitation. He should also assist them when they are seriously ill -and at the time of death. These altruistic practices also create merits and good conditions for himself in the future.
There are many details connected with the last rites. I will first speak about external conditions. The Pure Land practitioner should, while still in good health, prepare himself and seek friends of like practice, particularly among neighbors, for mutual devotional help in cases of serious illness and at the time of death. Such preparations are crucial because we generally have heavy karma and even if we have striven to the utmost, it may be difficult to maintain right thought at such times. This is due to the emergence of karma accumulated from time immemorial, which weakens the body and perturbs the mind. Without the assistance of others, it is difficult to escape the cycle of Birth and Death. Is this not wasting an entire lifetime of cultivation? This is the first important point.
Secondly, when a Pure Land practitioner sees his strength ebbing, he should settle all his worldly affairs, so that he will not be preoccupied at the time of death. If he is a monk, he should turn over the affairs of the temple to his disciples and designate his successor. If he is a layman, he should divide his wealth and property in a suitable manner and make all other necessary arrangements. He should also instruct his family and relatives that should he be gravely ill or on the verge of death, they should not weep and lament or otherwise show their grief. Rather, if they care for him, they should calmly recite the Buddha’s name on his behalf, or assist him in other ways to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. This would be true concern and love.
In addition to the external preparations just described, the Pure Land practitioner should prepare himself spiritually. What do these preparations entail? On the way to liberation, the practitioner should have a transcendental bent of mind, realizing that wealth and property, as well as family, relatives and friends, are all illusory conditions. Relying in life on an illusory realm, he will die empty-handed. If he fails to understand this truth, family and possessions will certainly impede his liberation. In extreme cases, he may even be reborn in the animal realm - as a dog or a snake, for example, to watch over his former houses and properties. There are many instances of individuals unable to let go of family and possessions, who experience difficulty at the time of death. They cannot close their eyes and die peacefully.
When this author was still a novice, attending to his Master and serving him tea late at night, he overheard an elder monk relate an anecdote. The main lines of the story are as follows.
Once, in times past, there were two monks who cultivated together. One liked the high mountain scenery, while the other built himself a hut on the banks of a brook, near a forest. Years went by. The monk who resided by the brook passed away first. Learning the news, his friend went down to visit his grave. After reciting sutras and praying for his friend’s liberation, the visiting monk entered samadhi and attempted to see where his friend had gone - to no avail. The friend was nowhere to be found, neither in the heavens nor in the hells, nor in any of the realms in between. Emerging from samadhi, he asked the attending novice, "What was your Master busy with every day?" The novice replied, "In the last few months before his death, seeing that the sugar cane in front of his hut was tall and green, my Master would go out continually to apply manure and prune away the dead leaves. He kept close watch over the cane, and seemed so happy taking care of it."
Upon hearing this, the visiting monk entered samadhi again, and saw that his friend had been reborn as a worm inside one of the stalks of sugar cane. The monk immediately cut down that stalk, slit it open and extracted the worm. He preached the Dharma to it and recited the Buddha’s name, dedicating the merit to the worm’s salvation.
This story was transmitted by word of mouth; the author has not found it anywhere in sutras or commentaries. However, if we judge it in the light of the Dharma, it is not necessarily without foundation. Buddhist sutras actually contain several similar accounts.
For example, there is the story of a novice who was greedy for buttermilk and was reborn as a worm in the milk pot. There is also the anecdote of a layman who was a genuine cultivator, adhering strictly to the precepts, but, being overly attached to his wife, was reborn as a worm in his wife’s nostrils. As she cried her heart out by the side of the coffin, she tried to clear her nose, and the worm was expelled onto the floor. Greatly ashamed, she was on the verge of stamping it with her foot. Fortunately, the whole scene was witnessed by an enlightened monk, who stopped her and told her the causes and conditions of the worm. He then preached the Dharma to the worm, seeking its liberation.
There is also the story of a sea merchant’s wife so attached to her own beauty that upon her death, she was reborn as a worm crawling out of her nostrils and wandering all over her own pallid face.
Thus, the Pure Land cultivator should keep his mind empty and still and meditate day in and day out, severing the mind of greed rooted in attachment and lust. He should resolutely direct his thoughts to the Pure Land, so that at the time of death, he will not be hindered and led astray by his evil karma.
Elder Master Tzu Chao once said:
The Pure Land practitioner on the verge of death usually faces Three Points of Doubt and Four Narrow Passes which obstruct his rebirth in the Pure Land. He should be prepared, reflecting on them in advance to eliminate them.
The Three Points of Doubt are:
1) Fearing that his past karma is heavy and his period of cultivation short, and that therefore, he may not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land;
2) Fearing that he has not yet fulfilled his vows and obligations or severed greed, anger and delusion, and that therefore, he may not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land;
3) Fearing that even though he has recited the Buddha’s name, Buddha Amitabha may not come, and that therefore, he may not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
The [two main] Narrow Passes are:
1) Because of suffering due to illness, he may come to malign the Buddhas as ineffective and unresponsive;
2) Because of love-attachment, he may chain himself to his family, unable to let go.
Once aware of the doctrine of the Three Doubts and the Four Narrow Passes, the wise can ponder and find a solution. The author shall merely summarize a few points below. Fellow cultivators can expand on them according to their own backgrounds and understanding.
1. Previous heavy karma, present perfunctory practice.
Amitabha Buddha is renowned for his Eighteenth Vow: not to attain Buddhahood unless sentient beings who sincerely desire to be reborn in the Pure Land, and who singlemindedly recite His name, are reborn there. The Buddhas do not engage in false speech, and therefore the practitioner should believe in them. Ten utterances or thoughts represent a very short cultivation period, yet the practitioner can still achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. We who have recited the Buddha’s name many times over should, therefore, eliminate all doubts.
Moreover, no matter how heavy the karma of sentient beings is, if they sincerely repent and rely upon Amitabha Buddha, they will all be welcomed and guided back to the Pure Land. Do we not recall that the Meditation Sutra teaches:
If anyone who has committed the Five Grave Offenses or Ten Evil Deeds sees an evil omen appear as he is on the verge of death, he needs only recite the Buddha’s name one to ten times with all his heart, and Buddha Amitabha will descend to welcome and escort him back to the Pure Land.
In the commentary Accounts of Rebirth, there are cases of individuals who throughout their lives were slaughtering livestock, breaking the precepts and engaging in all manner of evil conduct. Nevertheless, on their deathbeds, when the "marks of hell" appeared and, desperate, they singlemindedly recited the Buddha’s name, they immediately saw Amitabha Buddha arriving to welcome them. Why should we, who are not that sinful or deluded, worry about not achieving rebirth in the Pure Land?
2. Unfulfilled vows; non-severance of greed, anger and delusion.
Cultivators’ vows can be divided into two categories: religious and mundane.
Religious vows: Some practitioners have vowed to build a temple, practice charity or recite various sutras or mantras a certain number of times, etc. However, they have not completely fulfilled their vows when it is time for them to die. These cultivators should think: reciting the Buddha’s name in all earnestness will earn them rebirth in the Pure Land, where they will have ample opportunity to achieve immeasurable merits and virtues. Their present vows to build temples and recite sutras are merely secondary matters. The fact that they may not have fulfilled them should be of no great concern.
Mundane vows: These include family obligations such as caring for sick, aging parents or helpless wives and young children, as well as business debts to be paid or certain other commitments to be fulfilled. Faced with these worries, the practioners should think: on our deathbed, there is nothing that can be done, whether we worry or not. It is better to concentrate on Buddha Recitation. Once we are reborn in the Pure Land and Buddhahood is achieved, all vows, wishes and debts can be taken care of, as we will be in a position to rescue everyone, family and foes alike.
The Questions of King Milinda Sutra contains the following parable:
A minute grain of sand, dropped on the surface of the water, will sink immediately. On the other hand, a block of stone, however large and heavy, can easily be moved from place to place by boat. The same is true of the Pure Land practitioner. However light his karma may be, if he is not rescued by Amitabha Buddha, he must revolve in the cycle of Birth and Death. With the help of Amitabha Buddha, his karma, however heavy, will not prevent his rebirth in the Pure Land.
We can see from this passage that thanks to "other- power," the Pure Land method can benefit the practitioner, however heavy his karma may be. The huge block of stone represents the weight of heavy karma, the boat symbolizes the power of Amitabha Buddha’s Vows. Therefore, the cultivator should not think that residual greed, anger and delusion will prevent him from achieving rebirth in the Pure Land. This example should also resolve doubts concerning past heavy karma, as in doubt number one above.
3. Despite recitation, Amitabha Buddha may not come, after all.
At the time of death, the Pure Land practitioner will see, depending on his virtues, Amitabha Buddha, the Bodhisattvas or the Ocean-Wide Assembly come to welcome him. Sometimes he may not see anything, but, thanks to the power of his vows and the "gathering in" power of Amitabha Buddha, he will be reborn in the Pure Land all the same. The difference lies in his level of cultivation, whether subtle or gross, transcendental or mundane. What is most important at the time of death is to recite the Buddha’s name in all earnestness and not worry about anything else. Any doubts at that time will give rise to obstructions and impediments.
In summary, at the time of death, the practitioner should not be concerned about whether or not he witnesses auspicious signs. He should just concentrate on reciting the Buddha’s name in all earnestness until the very end.
h) Overcoming the Narrow Passes
These "passes" can be described as follows:
Sincere practitioners who meet with accidents, disease and disaster should reflect that these are sometimes due to virtues accrued through cultivation. Either the heavy karma (which he should have endured) has been commuted to light karma (which he is now enduring), or else, future karma has been transformed into current karma, giving him the opportunity to repay karmic debts before achieving rebirth in the Pure Land. Should he doubt this and speak ill of the Dharma, he would lack faith and understanding, display ingratitude toward the Buddhas and bring evil karma upon himself,
Among the rebirth stories, we find instances where this "bunching and compressing of karma" has allowed cultivators to hasten their rebirth in the Pure Land. Therefore, when Pure Land cultivators encounter such instances, they should be aware and understand them thoroughly.
Furthermore, this body is illusory and provisional. Depending on his merit or bad karma, the practitioner’s life will be long or short, happy or filled with hardship. He should systematically rely on the Buddhas and firmly believe in the law of cause and effect.
When ill or in bad health, the practitioner should direct his thoughts toward Amitabha Buddha exclusively. He should not seek the help of externalist gurus, shamans or healers. Nor should he listen to those who do not yet understand the Dharma and revert to a non-vegetarian diet, drink alcoholic beverages, etc. Our bodies are truly full of filth; the sooner we return to the Pure Land, the better. It is like casting off a smelly, ragged garment and donning a beautiful, fragrant outfit. What is there to worry about?
Concerning the danger of love-attachment at the time of death, as indicated earlier, the practitioner should think thus: family members, including parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children, are temporarily gathered together in this life as a result of previous causes and conditions, such as karmic debts or love and hatred, accumulated from time immemorial. When these causes and conditions come to an end, we all part and go our separate ways. If we truly care for them, we should endeavor to be reborn in the Pure Land, so as to be able to save everyone, friend and foe alike. Although we may have attachments to family and friends, when death approaches, there is nothing we can bring along or do, as even our very body disintegrates and returns to dust. If we harbor thoughts of attachment and love, not only will we fail to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, we will not escape the endless cycle of Birth and Death.
The practitioner should ponder and clearly recall the Three Doubts and Four Narrow Passes to prepare himself. His mind will then be calm and undisturbed at the time of death.
Critical Importance of the Moment of Death
Seeking Guidance from Spiritual Advisors
The Pure Land practitioner should take medicine when he falls ill and his condition is not desperate, but he must persevere in reciting the Buddha’s name. When his condition is hopeless, he may refuse further medication. A well-known Elder Master, gravely ill, responded with the following gatha, when his disciples sought his approval to send for a physician:
The Honored Amitabha Buddha Is the foremost king of physicians. If we forget this and fail to heed Him, We are indeed deluded! One utterance of the Buddha’s name Is the wonderful panacea, If we forget this and fail to take it, We are truly and greatly mistaken!
We must remember that when death is impending, the practitioner should let go of everything around him, including his own body and mind, and concentrate single-mindedly on reciting the Buddha’s name, earnestly seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. By so doing, if his life span has come to an end, he will surely achieve rebirth there. On the other hand, if his life span is not yet over, even though he seeks rebirth, his condition will improve, thanks to his sincere and steadfast mind (as part of his bad karma will have been dissipated in the process). Acting otherwise, he will forfeit rebirth in the Pure Land if his lifespan has come to an end (as he was only seeking recovery, not rebirth). If his lifespan is not yet over, he will aggravate his illness through worry and fear.
When they fall gravely ill, some Pure Land practitioners are not encouraged to practice Buddha Recitation, as their family members lack understanding of Buddhism. On the other hand, their kin spare no time or effort seeking out all kinds of charlatans and quacks. Some families even go to such lengths as making offerings to various deities in the hope of obtaining a quick cure. Thus, the patient not only does not receive the benefit of "supportive recitation," his mind is divided and disturbed. He cannot, therefore, be reborn in the Pure Land. The entire process is sometimes motivated by a sense of filial obligation or the desire for a good name, aimed at neighbors and friends. Little do they know that the Buddhas and sages are not deceived, and that a filial, sincere mind does not depend on external factors! Such behavior only makes the wise smile in pity.
When the patient is gravely ill but still conscious, his close family members should invite good spiritual advisors to preach the Dharma and enlighten him. If no monk or nun can be found, a knowledgeable lay person should be invited over to comfort the patient and preach the Dharma to him. The spiritual advisor should remind and enjoin the patient’s relatives to be compassionate and ensure that everything is conducted according to the Way, so that the patient may enjoy the benefit of rebirth in the Pure Land.
In general, the spiritual advisor should follow the guidelines set out below.
1. Remind the patient of the sufferings of the Saha World and the joys of the Pure Land, so that he may develop a mind of devotion and attraction to the Pure Land. The good advisor should also enumerate and praise the patient’s good deeds, merits and virtues in cultivation. This will make him happy and free of doubts, certain that when the time comes to die, he will, thanks to his good deeds, be reborn in the Pure Land.
2. If the patient has any doubts, the advisor should, depending on the circumstances, explain the Three Points of Doubt and the Four Narrow Passes discussed earlier. A critical detail to bear in mind here: the dying person should be reminded to eliminate all regret over wealth and property, as well as attachment to close family and relatives.
3. If the patient has a will, so much the better, but if not, the advisor should counsel against all inquiries in this regard. He should also advise everyone to refrain from useless chitchat that could rekindle the patient’s love-attachment to the world, which is detrimental to rebirth in the Pure Land.
4. When relatives and friends come to visit, they should be discouraged from standing before the patient, inquiring about his health in a sad, piteous way. If they come out of true concern, they should merely stand on the side, reciting the Buddha’s name aloud for a moment. If, lacking understanding of the Dharma, the visitors act conventionally [crying, etc.], they are in effect pushing the dying person into the ocean of suffering - a most regrettable occurrence indeed!
5. The patient should be counseled to practice charity and give away his personal effects to the needy. Or, better still, in accordance with the Ksitigarhha (Earth Store Bodhisattva) Sutra, he should use the proceeds from the sale of his personal possessions to purchase Buddhist images or sutras for free distribution. All this helps the patient increase his stock of merits and eliminate bad karma, thus facilitating rebirth in the Pure Land.
The good advisor should keep these general guidelines in mind, but be ready to improvise according to the situation.
Conducting "Supportive Recitation"
Family members and relatives of a dying patient should remain calm, without weeping or lamenting, from the time he becomes gravely ill until his last moments. Some people, while not crying, still show sorrow and emotion on their faces. This, too, should be avoided, because, at this juncture, the dying person has reached the crossroads which separate the living from the dead, and the mundane from the transcendental. The critical importance and danger of this moment can be compared to standing under a sword - his fate is determined by a hair’s breadth!
At this time, the most important thing is to practice supportive recitation. Even though a person may have set his mind on rebirth in the Pure Land, if family members weep and lament, thus arousing deep-seated feelings of love-attachment, he will certainly sink into the cycle of Birth and Death, wasting all his efforts in cultivation!
When a patient on the verge of death wishes to bathe, dress in different garments, or change his position or sleeping quarters, we may comply, while exercising caution and acting in a gentle, careful manner at all times. If the patient refuses, or cannot give his consent because he has become mute, we certainly should not go against his wishes. This is because the patient on the verge of death is generally in great physical pain. If he is forced to move, bathe or change clothing, he may experience even greater pain. There are numerous cases of cultivators who had sought rebirth in the Pure Land but failed to achieve this goal because their relatives moved them around, disturbing them and destroying their right thought. This unfortunate development occurs very often.
There are also cases of individuals who might have achieved rebirth in the higher realms. However, out of ignorance, others made them suffer physically (by rearranging the positions of their hands and feet, for instance), making them irritated and angry. Because of this one thought of anger, they immediately sank into the evil realms. As an extreme example, King Ajatasatru had earned numerous merits and blessings through cultivation. However, at the time of death, one of his attendants dozed off and inadvertently dropped a paper fan onto the king’s face. He became so furious that he expired on the spot - to be reborn, it is said, as a python! This example should serve as a warning to us all.
At the time of death, the cultivator himself should either lie down or sit up, according to what comes naturally, without forcing himself. If he feels weak and can only lie down, forcing himself to sit up, for appearances’ sake, is dangerous and should be discouraged. Likewise, even though, according to Pure Land tradition, he should lie on his right side facing west, if, because of pain, he can only lie on his back or on his left side facing east, he should act naturally and not force himself. The patient and his family should understand all this and act accordingly.
Supportive recitation by family members or Dharma friends is most necessary when a patient is on the verge of death. This is because, at that time, he is weak in body and mind and no longer master of himself. In such trying circumstances, not only is it difficult for those who have not cultivated in daily life to focus on Amitabha Buddha, even individuals who have regularly recited the Buddha’s name may find it difficult to do so in all earnestness - unless there is supportive recitation.
Such recitation should closely follow the guidelines set out below.
1. Respectfully place standing Amitabha Buddha statue in front of the patient, so that he can see it clearly. Place some fresh flowers in a vase and burn light incense with a soft fragrance. This will help the patient develop right thought. A reminder: the incense should not be overpowering, to avoid choking the patient and everyone around.
2. Those who come to practice supportive recitation should take turns ... It should be remembered that the patient, in his weakened state, requires a lot of fresh air to breathe. If too many persons come and go or participate in the recitation session, the patient may have difficulty breathing and become agitated, resulting in more harm than benefit. Therefore, participants should consult their watches and silently take turns reciting, so that recitation can continue uninterrupted. They should not call to one another aloud. Each session should last about an hour.
3. According to Elder Master Yin Kuang, the short recitation form (Amitabha Buddha) should be used, so that the patient can easily register the name in his Alaya consciousness, at a time when both his mind and body are very weak. However, according to another Elder Master, we should ask the patient and use the form he prefers (short or long), to conform to his everyday practice. In this way, the patient can silently recite along with the supportive recitation party. To go counter to his likes and habits may destroy his right thought and create an offense on our part. Furthermore, we should not practice supportive recitation in too loud a voice, as we will expend too much energy and be unable to keep on for very long. On the other hand, neither should we recite in too low a voice, lest the patient, in his weakened state, be unable to register the words.
Generally speaking, recitation should not be too loud or too low, too slow or too fast. Each utterance should be clear and distinct so that it can pass through the ear and penetrate deep into the patient’s Alaya consciousness. One caveat: if the patient is too weak [or is in a coma], he will not be able to hear "external" recitation. In such a case, we should recite into the patient’s ear. This helps the patient keep his mind clear and steady.
4. With regard to percussion instruments, it is generally better to use the small hand bell, instead of the wooden fish gong with its bass tone. The hand bell, with its clear, limpid sound, can help the patient develop a pure and calm mind. However, this may not apply in all cases. For instance, an Elder Master once taught, "It is best to recite the Buddha’s name by itself without musical accompaniment, but since each person’s preferences are different, it is better to ask the patient in advance. If some details do not suit him, we should adapt to the circumstances and not be inflexible."
The above are some pointers to keep in mind with regard to supportive recitation.
Between Death and Burial
When a person has just died, the most important thing is not to rush to move him. Even if his body is soiled with excrement and urine, we should not hasten to clean it. We should wait about eight hours - or a minimum of three hours - before cleaning the body and changing its clothes. Relatives should not weep and wail immediately before and after the actual death. Doing so is not only useless, it can be harmful, as this can cause the deceased to develop thoughts of attachment, which may prevent him from achieving liberation. To be of true benefit to the patient, we should concentrate on reciting the Buddha’s name in all earnestness, without crying until at least eight hours have passed. Why is this necessary? It is because although the patient has stopped breathing, his Alaya consciousness has not yet left his body. If, during this period, we move the body, clean it, change its clothes, or weep and lament, the deceased may still experience feelings of pain, sadness, anger or self-pity, and descend upon the Evil Paths. This is a crucial point - a critical one - that relatives should note and remember well.
The practice of touching the body of the deceased to locate the last warm spot and deduce his place of rebirth is grounded in the sutras and commentaries. However, we should not be inflexible. If the patient had sincere, earnest faith and vows in normal times and clearly exhibits right thought at the time of death, this is sufficient evidence of rebirth in the Pure Land. Some persons who are not careful keep "feeling" the body, touching one spot after another, disturbing the deceased. This can cause great harm.
After the patient has expired, the persons who came to recite the Buddha’s name should continue doing so for another three hours. After that, the body should be left alone, free of all disturbances, for another five hours (or a total of eight hours), at which time it can be bathed and given a change of clothing. If, during the entire eight- hour period, someone, or a group of persons, can remain near the deceased reciting the Buddha’s name, so much the better. Except for recitation, nothing should be done. A reminder and caveat: during this period, the "deceased" may still have consciousness and feelings.
After the eight-hour period, if the limbs have grown stiff and cannot move, we should put a towel soaked in hot water around the joints. After a while, the body can be repositioned.
Funeral arrangements should be kept simple, not accompanied by superfluous ceremonies occasioning unnecessary expenses. Another caveat: only vegetarian food should be served. No non-vegetarian food should be provided as offerings or to entertain guests - for to take life is to sadden the departed with more karmic obstructions and "heavy baggage," making his liberation that much more difficult. Even if he has already been reborn in the Pure Land, his grade of rebirth may be lowered as a result.
Some time ago, this author, along with other monks and nuns, attended an elaborate funeral for the stepmother of one of his friends, a high-ranking Master in Long An province, southern Vietnam. Throughout the funeral, only vegetarian food was served. After congratulating his friend, the author inquired about this and was told, "the serving of vegetarian food is due partly to my recommendation; however, the major impetus was anevent which took place not long ago in a nearby village:
"After a prosperous elder had passed away, his son ordered a huge quantity of livestock slaughtered to feed relatives and friends for several days. (In his lifetime, the elder, a good-natured, benevolent man who practiced Buddha Recitation and was vegetarian several days a month, had had many friends and associates.) The very evening after the funeral, his eldest grandson suddenly had a fit in front of everyone. His face all red, he suddenly jumped onto the wooden plank bed in the living room, sat squarely upon it, and slapped his hand against a nearby desk. Calling his father by his given name, he scolded him loudly: ‘Right up until my death, I practiced charity and accumulated merits; without any heavy transgressions, I should have been reborn wealthy and into a good family. Instead, because of you and the heavy karma of killing you created on my behalf, I, as your father, am now confined and forced to look after a herd of cows, as well as pigs, chickens and ducks. I have to run back and forth barefoot through mud and thorns. My sufferings are truly beyond description!’"
After recounting the story, the Master smiled and said, "This event, which occurred only a few months ago, is known to the entire village and is believed and dreaded by my relatives. For precisely this reason, when I suggested vegetarian food, the idea was immediately accepted."
The Ksitigarhha Sutra [ch. VII] goes into detail about the harm associated with slaughtering animals to serve guests at funerals. Buddhist followers should take heed and bear this in mind.
When performing follow-up good deeds on behalf of the deceased, we should dedicate the merit and virtue to all sentient beings in the Dharma Realm. In this way, these merits and virtues will be multiplied many times over, and so will the benefits accrued to the deceased.
These preparations for the time of death have been taken from the teachings of Elder Masters of the past. The last moments of life are the most crucial ones. If the "provisions for rebirth" are not ready and adequate, the patient cannot avoid extreme fright and bewilderment. At that time, too late to seek help and faced with the simultaneous appearance of all kinds of bad karma accumulated over countless lifetimes, how can he achieve liberation? Therefore, while we may rely on others for support and assistance at the time of death, we ourselves should strive to cultivate during normal times. Only then will we feel free and at peace.
I beg you all, fellow Pure Land practitioners, to take heed and be prepared, so that we may all be reborn in the ocean-wide Lotus Assembly!
Success and Failure in Supportive Recitation
1. Story of LCL
The layman LCL was a legislator and an official early in life. As he had affinities with Buddhism, he contributed to such good works as restoring a localtemple, donating land to it and inviting an Elder Masterto head it. He was also diligent in raising funds to builda statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which wasabout one hundred feet high.
In 1933 he took refuge with the Triple Jewel under the Patriarch Yin Kuang. He resolved to be a vegetarian six days a month and took up the practice of Buddha Recitation. In the years that followed, however, because of his heavy schedule, his practice, while sincere, was irregular.
In 1938, he fell gravely ill. As time went by and his condition did not improve, he made large donations to worthwhile activities, in the hope of expunging some of his bad karma. He also became a full time vegetarian. The following year, as his illness took a turn for the worse, his wife and sons, realizing the importance of the last moments, hurriedly invited monks from the local temple to recite the Buddha’s name at his bedside.
On the 19th of January of that year, LCL, sensing that his end was near, asked to be taken out to the courtyard to breathe fresh air. After speaking to his brothers and sisters, he requested his son to kneel down to hear his will. As he was speaking, LCL’s countenance suddenly changed. Seeing this, his wife and son helped him back into the house and placed a statue of a standing Amitabha Buddha before him. They then began to recite aloud, together with the monks. For several months, LCL’s left arm had been paralyzed, but when he saw the statue, he managed to regain the use of his arm. With palms joined, he began to recite the Buddha’s name, his face radiant and beaming with joy. At that moment, he seemed to have forgotten all pain and suffering, as he recited along with the others for a while, before dying peacefully, at the age of sixty-one.
The layman LCL had practiced Buddha Recitation sincerely during the last part of his life. At his deathbed, thanks to supportive recitation, a number of auspicious signs appeared. These included stable faculties, right thought and a peaceful death, as though in samadhi. We can therefore deduce that he certainly achieved rebirth in the Pure Land.
While the layman’s rebirth was due to his maturing good roots, it was also helped by the supportive recitation he received when on his deathbed. Thus, Pure Land practitioners should recognize the particular importance and urgency of supportive recitation just before death.
2. Story of DH
The laywoman DH was the wife of a certain man in the city of Yangchow. As she could not bear children, her husband took a concubine, which made it difficult for her to remain in the conjugal home. Therefore, she went to live with her stepmother, another lay Buddhist, who loved her as her own daughter. They supported and relied on one another, and two years passed as though they were but one day.
The laywoman DH was a vegetarian who earnestly practiced Buddha Recitation day and night. She and her stepmother realized that they had scant merits and few good conditions in this life, and no one else to rely on in case of need, as their relatives were dead or far away. They therefore wholeheartedly helped one another, as Dharma friends along the Way. From the point of view of faith and daily cultivation, DH far surpassed LCL of our previous story. Unfortunately, however, because of heavy residual karma and unfavorable conditions, she always met with adverse circumstances and her mind was never at peace.
In 1938, sensing that a major upheaval was impending, mother and daughter immediately left Hong Kong, where they had been staying, to seek refuge back on the mainland. At that time, the cost of living was skyrocketing. Renting a place to live was dificult, while staying in hotels for any length of time was both costly and inconvenient. Fortunately, a local abbot took pity on the women and set aside a small area of his temple for them and three other refugees.
Around March of the following year, DH suddenly contracted typhoid fever. The illness lasted for over a month, with no signs of recovery. At that time, the temple was very busy and space was at a premium. If she were to die there, it would cause a great deal of inconvenience. Therefore, with great reluctance, her stepmother decided to bring her to the local hospital.
The hospital followed Western medical practice, making it difficult to engage in supportive recitation freely and in an appropriate manner. On the 18th of August, after two or three days in the hospital, with no one practicing supportive recitation at her bedside and in a confused state of mind, the laywoman DH died. She was fifty-one years of age at the time.
We can see that the laywoman DH was truly a woman of faith, who had practiced in earnest. If, at the time of death, she had had the benefit of adequate supportive recitation, auspicious signs of rebirth in the Pure Land should have appeared, no fewer than in the case of LCL. Such was not, unfortunately, the case. Because of adverse circumstances, she died in a coma, unattended by Dharma friends. She probably did not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, but merely managed to sow the seeds of Enlightenment for future lives. What happened to her was regrettable, but demonstrates that supportive recitation at the time of death is truly of crucial importance.
3. Story of DLH
The layman DLH was from a poor merchant family. Well-mannered and courteous, he had a good grasp of worldly affairs. In 1922, following the example of a friend, he took refuge with the Triple Jewel, and along with others, vowed to develop the Bodhi Mind, to rescue him and others.
A few years later, because of a serious illness, he abandoned vegetarianism and began to drift away from his Buddhist friends. In July of that year, his illness grew more severe, and everyone feared the worst. Realizing that his end was near, DLH sincerely repented his past transgressions, let go of everything and concentrated all his time and effort on Buddha Recitation. Fellow cultivators, fearing that his practice was still shallow, were continuously at his bedside.
Supportive recitation itself began on the 12th of July. Three days later, the layman DLH suddenly experienced a surge of strength, feeling fresh and well. On the 17th, he told everyone that in a dream, he had seen an aura of light as bright as five or six electric bulbs. That evening, his complexion appeared to be normal. His fellow cultivators continued their recitation until the wee hours and were preparing to leave, when DLH suddenly said, "I have not yet reached the Pure Land. Please continue reciting all day."
The group gladly complied, and recitation went on, with DLH mostly remaining silent. He was smiling calmly, his face radiant, as though he had received some news that was good beyond expectation. This continued for some time, until he became still and immobile, his gaze fixed on the standing Amitabha statue facing him. His eyes then began to cloud over and his breathing subsided. He passed away at five o’clock that morning.
The cultivators took turns reciting, interspersing recitation with words of encouragement and exhortation, until his body was completely cold. His next of kin had been warned not to weep or wail. At ten a.m., one of the practitioners touched DLH’s body and discovered that it was cold all over except for the crown, which was as hot as boiling water.
The sutras contain a stanza:
The crown stands for sainthood, the eyes rebirth in a celestial realm,
The heart indicates the human realm, the belly stands for the ghostly,
The knees are tantamount to animality, the soles of the feet stand for the hells.
When the cultivator’s body is completely cold except for the crown, that person has been reborn in the realm of the saints, or of the Buddhas. When his eyes are the last to remain warm, he has been reborn in the celestial realms; warmth in the area of the heart means rebirth among human beings. If the abdominal area retains warmth after the body has grown cold, he has been reborn among hungry ghosts. The knees represent rebirth among animals, while the soles of the feet indicate the hellish realms. Thus, the last warm spot represents the place where the consciousness of the deceased escaped the mortal body.
The fact that DLH’s crown was the last warm spot shows that he achieved rebirth in the Pure Land - his very goal in the last years of his life.
The layman DLH was not above violating the precepts. His cultivation was shallow and wanting as well. His rebirth in the Pure Land, therefore, was largely due to the supportive recitation of his fellow cultivators. Here again, we can see the importance of supportive recitation at the time of death. That time was the 18th of July 1924 - and DLH was thirty years old!