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Mindfulness Of Buddha As A Universal Deathbed Practice In The Theravāda, Mahāyāna And Vajrayāna Buddhist Traditions

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Plan for the last first,
as the last will come,
and it can come fast.

— Shilashanti

A meditator asked, ‘When approaching the end of life, how should I abide, as the body will be deteriorating and its breath will be fading away?‘ This was asked in the context of many Theravāda meditators, who practise mindfulness of the body’s sensations and its breathing, in terms of Vipassanā (Vipaśyanā) and Ānāpānasati (Ānāpānasmṛti) meditation respectively. Without adequate reflection, someone once remarked that one can just be mindful of whatever is going on. Perhaps… but if having excruciating bodily pain, coupled with erratically gasping breathing, both of which can prove increasingly disturbing, how can the average practitioner not be distracted and still practise ‘as usual’?

With these considerations, especially in the Mahāyāna tradition, mindfulness of the most powerful subject is advisable — a Buddha, such as Amitābha Buddha, using his name ‘Āmítuófó’ (阿弥陀佛), for facilitating the best rebirth and expediting spiritual progress. (For more details, see https://purelanders.com/now.) This practice is encouraged as mindfulness of the Buddha (Niànfó: 念佛) will connect one to the Buddha’s blessings, with which pain will dissolve, to be replaced by bliss. Although mindfulness can be expressed by verbal recitation, such mindfulness will not be dependent on the breath, as it can be done mentally too. Even sincerely listening to it is mindfulness practice: https://purelanders.com/mp3.

There should not be the false dichotomy, thinking that mindfulness of Buddha is mere chanting, that is not mediation, (or is lesser meditation). As the Buddha taught in the Great Collection Sūtra《大集经》, ‘If a person is only mindful of Āmítuófó [by name or image], this is named as unsurpassable profound and wonderful Chán [meditation].‘ (若人但念阿弥陀,是名无上深妙禅。) This is because the subject of mindfulness is supreme — the name of a Buddha, who is interconnected to all other Buddhas, representing all ‘Immeasurable Buddhas’ (无量佛). It is also supreme because this Buddha will guide one to his Pure Land, through which Buddhahood is most swiftly attained, for the sake of one and all.

A Theravāda monk was once assigned to look after a monk dying with cancer. As he was on a ventilator with morphine (as a painkiller, which also causes drowsiness), he could not watch his breath well (if at all), even though he could sit upright to meditate for more than three hours when well before. The other monks could only encourage him to recite ‘Buddho’ mentally, until he departed. (‘Buddho’ is a variation of the word ‘Buddha’.) This Practice (行) is also a form of mindfulness of Buddha, usually of Śākyamuni Buddha, but without Faith (信) and Aspiration (愿) to reach any Pure Land. Riding on the meritorious virtues of this, it can lead to a good or better rebirth, though not the best birth in Pure Land, where liberation is assured. Another monk shared that he once ‘woke up’ a dying person who was delirious, by repeatedly shouting ‘Buddho’ to him. This is a ‘rough’ form of support-chanting (助念) too.

There is also the practice of reminding the dying to recollect their meritorious virtues, so as to depart in a wholesome state of mind for a good or better realm. This practice is paired with repentance of past transgressions, ideally to those wronged, in person. These practices are wonderful. However, what if there are few meritorious virtues to recollect, and many transgressions, that are hard to repent in time? There is the potential danger of thus departing in a regretful and fearful state of mind for an evil realm. Having accomplished all that is good, and having abandoned all that is evil, the immeasurably meritorious Āmítuófó has transcended both good and evil to be pure. Thus, direct mindfulness of him is the best.

In the Vajrayāna tradition, the simplest way to secure the best rebirth is also by mindfulness of Buddha. This is often done with mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s mantra – ‘Oṃ Amitābha (or “Amideva”) Hrīḥ’. According to the Buddha in the Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Amitābha Buddha’s Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra《佛说阿弥陀佛根本秘密神咒经》, ‘That Buddha’s name, is the same as the unsurpassable true and most ultimate Dharma of the Great Vehicle [i.e. Mahāyāna], the same as the unsurpassable excellent, pure, definitive and wonderful practice, the same as the unsurpassable most supreme, subtle and wonderful dhāraṇī. (彼佛名号,即是为无上真实至极大乘之法,即是为无上殊胜清净了义妙行,即是为无上最胜微妙陀罗尼。) Thus, ‘Āmítuófó’ is also a mantra, with this as the shortest version, for the greatest ease of practice, that is still connected to him.

As can be seen, Niànfó practice plays a central role in each of the three major Buddhist traditions, though how it is practised and its results might differ accordingly. It is easy yet effective, for those well and alive, and for those sick and dying. It should always be remembered, lest it be forgotten during urgent final moments – be they those of oneself or others. Although more complex and demanding practices might be doable when strong and healthy (physically and mentally), conditions can change drastically when we weaken with sickness. If we are not masterful of the simple yet profound Niànfó practice now, will we be able to practise it with utmost sincerity and confidence when departing? Remember – the consequences will spill over to the next life – for better or worse…

Be mindful of now,
while preparing for later,
which can be very different.

— Shilashanti

Related Articles:

How To Handle Pain With Niànfó
https://purelanders.com/2016/01/13/how-to-handle-pain-with-nianfo 

Buddha Mindfulness In The Dhammapada
https://purelanders.com/2010/04/01/buddha-mindfulness-in-the-dhammapada

Pure Land Practice ‘Vs’ Samatha And Vipassanā Meditation
https://purelanders.com/2009/09/14/pure-land-practice-with-samatha-vipassana-meditation

古今净土修行感应录
Ancient And Modern Pure Land Practice Testimonies
https://purelanders.com/2021/12/08/ancient-and-modern-pure-land-practice-testimonies

Why Buddha Mindfulness Is Supreme Meditation
https://purelanders.com/2012/01/16/buddha-mindfulness-is-supreme-meditation

信愿行三资粮
The Three Provisions Of Faith, Aspiration And Practice
https://purelanders.com/2018/02/08/the-three-provisions

《佛说阿弥陀佛根本秘密神咒经》
Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Amitābha Buddha’s Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra
https://purelanders.com/shenzhou

《临终三大要》
The Three Great Essentials When Approaching Death
https://purelanders.com/now

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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