How to guide Buddhists to prepare for death?
End-of-Life Caregiving (Part Two)
How to guide Buddhists to prepare for death? There are 3 ways to it:
Firstly, ways of passing on by persons of small capacity (i.e persons who seek for better future lives) – Focus on taking refuge
The person who is facing death will be very distracted at that particular time. Ask and guide him on reciting any Buddha’s name to whom he can relate to, or the Four Refuge, Migtsema prayer, or even his favorite Insightful Praise. In addition, place the photo of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas or his teacher right before him. This is because teachers are the representation of the Three Jewels. To be able to remember the Three Jewels at this last moment, the chances of him getting reborn in the happy realms will be high.
Secondly, ways of passing on by persons of the medium capacity (I.e persons who seek to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death) – Focus on disenchantment and getting out of the cyclic existence
To guide the dying person to feel a strong need to get out of this samsara world and desire for nirvana, help him to truly understand the faults of the five aggregates [see Note 1 for definition].
Venerable quoted a phrase from Master Bo-do-wa when he was advising a disciple with leprosy, “As soon as we are born as any one of the six types of beings, we are faced with the sufferings of sickness, death, and so forth. When the cause of sickness is present, we are sick; when the cause of death is present, we die…” This phrase highlights that the five aggregates, which are formed as a result of afflictions, is a poisoned body. Hence, this body is not a place to stay for long; we should develop a strong desire to leave.
Thirdly, ways of passing on by persons of the great capacity (I.e persons who seek to become Buddha in order to benefit all living beings) – Focus on the Five Strengths
Strength of Virtuous Seeds – This is to assist the person facing death to accumulate merits through acts of offerings and generosity. At the same time, let him know so that he can rejoice in his own virtuous deeds. This is because, the root of creating karma is in the mind.
Strength of Remedies – To guide him in doing repentance nearing death. To carry out repentance based on the four powers as stated in the Lamrim, so that the person facing death will not have any regrets.
Strength of Guidance – Guide him to remember the compassionate aspirations of his teacher and the Three Jewels, continually vow never to leave them and finally be received by Buddha.
Strength of Aspiration – Other than taking refuge before death, the greatest aspiration is to generate the spirit of enlightenment, especially with the method of “Exchanging Self and Other”.
Venerable cited a personal experience of a surgery during which he put to test the validity of this method, which is based on the truth of suffering as a pathway. During the time of dying, when great suffering occurs, one can make an aspiration to shoulder the sufferings of all sentient beings, as well as give away all of one’s virtuous roots and personal benefits to sentient beings. This allows the person facing death to feel calm and aids his rebirth in the happy realms.
Strength of Habits – Those who are ill are usually lying down on their back. While one is sick in bed, learn to practice like the Buddha who is entering Nirvana; lie down on the right side of the body, with the right ring finger pressing down on the right nostril. Visualize transferring the pain of tomorrow to today, and transferring the comfort of today to tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. Such a practice can reduce the sufferings arising from the illness. In addition, contemplate the faults of attachment to self from different perspectives, the benefits of generosity, and the teachings on impartiality towards living beings, or other related teachings. Furthermore, we can place blessed items on the sick person’s body; all these will let him receive blessings.
If the person has already passed on and entered the Bardo (intermediate state), how then should we guide him?
Firstly, he needs to “rely on the strength of others”; people guiding him should do so according to the situation during the person’s death. Let him know that he has reached the time of death, and that he should not have any more attachment (greed). Let go, and make aspirations to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Secondly, encourage him to be “motivated”, remind him to give rise to intense virtuous thoughts.
Next, let him know that it is unavoidable for him to face the sufferings of the disintegration of the four bodily elements [see Note 2 for definition]; absolutely do not regret the virtuous acts he has done because of the pain that he is going through at that time. Continue to help him take refuge in the Three Jewels, as our Teacher, Bodhisattvas and Buddha will continue to accompany us through the death state (marana-bhava死有), intermediate state (antara-bhava中有), birth state (upapatti-bhara生有) and state of the prior time (purva-kala-bhava本有) [see Note 3 for definition of the four states].
During the disintegration of the four bodily elements, there will be signs of thirst, hunger or cold. At the point of death, if the person feels cold, he might be inclined to go to a place that is warm. At this juncture, he must change his thoughts and steer them towards going to Pure Land, as the fire crystal at the Pure Land is very warm and soothing; he should visualise going there to get some warmth. If he is hungry, he should think of going to Pure Land, as there are sumptuous meals made by the heavenly cooks; if thirsty, go to Pure Land too; when feeling cold, go to Pure Land; when feeling hot, go to Pure Land. Even when he is facing desirable or undesirable illusionary images, you need to guide him that all these are just illusions and non-existent. Or, he can see them as manifestations of Buddha, Bodhisattvas or his teacher. When his attachment to the self arises and he wants to change to a new body, guide him to change into a pure and majestic body in the Pure Land.
Venerable Ru De systematically and clearly explained the crucial points for guiding one during the Bardo state and the audience have benefited deeply from it.
Lastly, Venerable kindly exhorted everyone to conduct virtuous acts on behalf of their deceased family members, during the first 49 days of the deceased’s passing. He even pointed out the common practice of performing rituals every 7 days (until 49 days) for the deceased. He said that it is best to perform the ritual one or two days before each 7-day period, as this will aid in the deceased’s rebirth in the happy realms.
Venerable’s lecture on guidance for the deceased and people approaching death is both meticulous and filled with vital points. His explanation has lifted the mysterious veil of death and allowed us to understand with faith on how to walk down the final path ourselves, as well as accompany others to do so – facing death with tranquility and guiding others and ourselves towards a beautiful next life.
As Lamrim students, our starting point would be to earnestly learn the Lamrim. When confronted with situations, purify the karma being created by our body, speech and mind. Motivate ourselves to reach the state that a true practitioner should – death with joy at the highest level, death without fear at the median level, and death without regrets at the low level. With these, we will then have achieved what our Teacher has taught – soar to great heights during death instead of sinking our fingernails into our chest! Of course it will be best if we can learn from the examples set by the Bodhisattva Prince Sutasoma, Venerable Xuan Zang and other great practitioners – Repay Buddha’s great kindness by offering everything we have to all sentient beings, and offering to the propagation of Buddha’s teachings, which can free all sentient beings from suffering. With this, we will definitely be able to face death without fear and be glorious upon death!
1) The four states are:
i) Death state (marana-bhava死有) – the last moment of death
ii) Intermediate state (antara-bhava中有) – period from death until taking birth
iii) Birth state (upapatti-bhara生有) – the first moment of taking birth
iv) State of the prior time (purva-kala-bhava本有) – period from the second moment of life up to the last moment of death
2) Four bodily elements （四大）refer to the following:
i) Earth elements of the body，which have the basic quality of hardness, such as organs, tissues, and bones
ii) Water elements are the bodily fluids such as blood, urine
iii) Fire element has the nature of heat such as the body’s temperature
iv) Wind elements have the function of giving motion to all living things; motion produces and maintains life. An example will be one’s breathing.
3) Five aggregates refer to physical body (色); feeling （受）; perception （想）; impulse （行）which includes a person’s intentions; consciousness （识）.