Required Preparations on the Eve of Death

67) Preparation of External Conditions

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.[78] 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.

68) Spiritual Preparations

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.[79] 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.

Overcoming the Three Doubts
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 practitioners 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.

Overcoming the Narrow Passes

These "passes" can be described as follows:

  • Slandering the Buddhas because of suffering and disease;
  • Binding and chaining oneself to family and friends through love-attachment.

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.[80] 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.[81]

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.