Question: At a teacher’s funeral, there was a period when many students were standing and sitting around, not doing anything in particular. Some might be meditating, but none were chanting, with many just gazing at the deceased, whose expression, compared to when alive, was very different. With a sullen and pained look, it did not seem peaceful or at ease. Some students even came to touch the hands and feet, perhaps to express affection. Are such ‘practices’ appropriate?
Answer: Summarising The Three Great Essentials When Approaching The End Of Life《临终三大要》, as taught by the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng (净土宗十三祖印光大师), together forming the best way to help the dying and recently deceased, the First Great Essential is to skilfully guide and console the person, to give rise to right Faith for reaching Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛: Amitābha Buddha) Pure Land. The Second Great Essential is that everyone takes shifts, with support-chanting of Āmítuófó’s name, to support pure mindfulness. The Third Great Essential is that all must avoid touching or moving the body, and before the person crying, so as to prevent bungling the matter of reaching Pure Land.
If we use these essentials as benchmarks, those present could have done much better. Even if there was some meditation for a while, this only creates little merits for dedicating to the deceased, thus being limited in helpfulness. This is in contrast with the great meritorious virtues created by direct mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s great name for direct dedication with each recitation. As there was no such chanting, it could be that there was no guidance of the deceased to practise mindfulness of Buddha either, thus missing the First Great Essential and the Second Great Essential. The students were probably not taught about the essentials by the teacher too.
Even if there was Pure Land practice offered by others at the wake (with guidance and support-chanting), if the deceased is unable or unwilling to give rise to the Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith, Aspiration and Practice (信愿行) in time (before taking rebirth), Pure Land cannot be reached. Even if reborn elsewhere, as long as yet to be well-practised enough, which is the case for most, memories of all the Dharma learnt in all past lives will be forgotten. This is in contrast with reaching Pure Land, where recollection of all memories in all past lives will be possible with blessings of the Buddha.
Touching, which goes against the Third Great Essential, should have been avoided. If the consciousness is still within the body, there will be magnified pain that spurs aversion, that can lead to a less fortunate rebirth. Touching the legs can condition the consciousness to depart from the soles for the lowest rebirth. Generally, the settled post-death facial expression does hint of the state of mind of the deceased. As one of many possible auspicious signs, many Pure Land practitioners who follow the essentials depart with distinctly relaxed and blissful smiles, that are more vividly peaceful than when alive. This is due to having connected to Āmítuófó’s great blessings for rebirth in his Pure Land, with their liberation assured.
Question: If one does not believe in the Pure Land teachings correctly, even having misinterpreted or slandered them (despite others offering corrections), where is one likely to be reborn?
Answer: Those who lack right Faith in the Pure Land teachings, especially if expressed via misinterpretation, surely cannot reach Pure Land, as having strong doubt and wrong views would mean that even the first provision of Faith is missing. If there was spiteful and unrepented slander of the Pure Land teachings, which are capable of guiding all to liberation in this lifetime, the negative karma created will be immense, as warned by the Pure Land Tradition’s 8th Patriarch Great Master Liánchí (净土宗八祖莲池大师), as this slanders the teachings mindfully protected by all Buddhas (一切诸佛所护念), and can create obstacles for many, obstructing them from reaching Pure Land. Thus, the destination of rebirth is likely to be unfortunate.
Generally, if one’s self-powered (自力) meditation skills are proficient for a good rebirth, one should depart with a pleasant expression too. If there was liberation from rebirth, this should be even more clear. However, as generally taught, in this Dharma-Ending Age (末法时期), unless manifested by the already enlightened, none can attain liberation in this lifetime without the Pure Land path. Those with truly good meditation skills would have departed peacefully before death too. In the Pure Land path, it is not uncommon that some depart earlier for Pure Land, upon connection to Āmítuófó’s great other-power (他力), before becoming very old or sick.
(Experience of the actual Pure Land created by Āmítuófó is not merely short-lived peace enjoyed here and now in our defiled world with our severely limited meritorious virtues. ‘Poetic’ or ‘romantic’ as it might seem to think there is no real death to ‘fret’ due to having rebirth, when dying with pain and suffering, and when with an unfortunate rebirth, these are moments ‘real’ enough then, with long-term ill consequences. As such, may all pay particular attention to the precious Pure Land teachings, which the Buddha clearly taught in the Immeasurable Life Sūtra《无量寿经》, to be the last viable path, as the Dharma-Ending Age deepens, as we speak.)
The Three Great Essentials When Approaching The End Of Life
Why Slander Of Pure Land Teachings Is Especially Grave
Immeasurable Life Sūtra