Q&A

Karma Dynamics in Pure Land Practice When Dying/Sleeping

Question: How does mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha work for those who die in their sleep?

Answer: Though one might appear to have passed away during sleep, it does not mean that one had passed away unconsciously. One might only be too weak to appear physically awake. (Such can be the case for those in coma too.) It is actually impossible to die unconsciously – because death is the process of the consciousness actively (and thus consciously) departing from the body – even if in an abrupt or unprepared manner. The primary function of the consciousness in action is to be conscious of what is happening – though the extent of which one is conscious varies with one’s amount of mindfulness. While it is possible to sleepwalk, it is not possible to “sleep-die”. (Even sleepwalking involves relatively unmindful functioning of the consciousness.)

From ‘Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama’ (p.42) (http://tinyurl.com/UXLRzqrkrQC) – ‘According to Tibetan Buddhism, to be in the sleeping state presupposes that the mental factor of sleep has manifested, and sleep can occur with or without dreaming. But if dreaming occurs, the mental factor of sleep must be present. The mental factor of sleep is the basis for dreaming as well as dreamless sleep. In one text, a Tibetan scholar makes the almost contradictory [or paradoxical] statement that in deep sleep, there is no sleep, because there is no awareness or consciousness. Thus, sleep, as one of the mental factors, is not present in deep sleep.’

From the ‘Ten Stages Discourse’ of the Avatamsaka Sutra – ‘No matter how deep his sleep, his mind is still as clear as if he were wide awake. If one can keep this mental state of clarity all the time, through waking and sleeping, then one has reached the level of complete freedom which is beyond the eighth level of sainthood [eighth bhumi of Bodhisattvahood].’ Only such advanced Bodhisattvas do not enter deep sleep. Eighth Bhumi Bodhisattvas are ‘immovable’ and ‘irreversible’ as there is no longer any possibility that they might backslide or waver on the path to Buddhahood. Such a state (similar to being an Avaivartika) can be realised in Pure Land, where beings are constantly mindful of the Buddha(s), Dharma and (Arya) Sangha. There, they are bound for the highest awakening (thus never described to need sleep).

Not that it is possible, but if an ordinary being dies while totally asleep, it implies that one dies with no mindfulness at all. As such, one cannot practise mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha while in this state. If one is dreaming, one can be considered conscious (though not completely, especially if uncertain that one is in a dream), as the state of active dreaming requires consciousness at work. It is possible to be mindful of Buddha while in a dream. As rebirth occurs as according to one’s past and/or present (last-minute) karma, Pure Land practitioners should practise mindfulness of Buddha once they are mindful that they are dying. (So long as we do not have infinite life yet, we are somewhat “always” dying.) Mindfulness should thus be fostered and focused, even if it is weak or drowsy (sleepy).

When dying, the destination of birth is determined by karma (Pali: kamma) in this sequence of priority –

  1. Weighty or Serious Kamma (Garuka Kamma), which can be very positive or negative –
    which links one to a corresponding rebirth.
  2. Proximate Kamma (Asanna Kamma), which is near-death karma –
    which one creates, or is being mindful of shortly before death.
    The nature of one’s Proximate Kamma is greatly conditioned by one’s general conduct.
  3. Habitual Kamma (Acinna Kamma), which one habitually creates and recollects –
    which shapes one’s general conduct.
  4. Reserve Kamma (Katatta Kamma), which is one’s cumulative or remainder karma –
    which results from that done but forgotten (that one is not mindful of now).

Let us link the above to mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha while dying –

  1. 1. If one practised such mindfulness diligently while alive,
    this relatively pure Weighty Kamma will direct one to Pure Land.
  2. If one practises such mindfulness well in one’s last moments,
    the relatively pure Proximate Kamma will direct one to Pure Land.
  3. If one practised such mindfulness habitually before dying,
    the relatively pure Habitual Kamma will direct one to Pure Land.
  4. If one practised such mindfulness in much of one’s spare time,
    the relatively pure Reserve Kamma will direct one to Pure Land.

It is interesting to note that the cycle of falling sleep (and awaking) resembles the cycle of death (and rebirth) to some extent. But when dying while “sleeping”, the dynamics of dying take over. Even if one was asleep, one’s consciousness would awake to experience the dying process. Whether unconscious death (while sleeping) is possible or not, diligently creating all the above forms of karma for increasing the possibility of birth in Pure Land is important. Whether one is confused during dying (about the process) or not, Pure Land practitioners should simply be mindful of Buddha and nothing else – not even the confusion – which would be a distraction. When karma is well taken care of, there will be successful birth in Pure Land. With mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha as the karmic cause, meeting Amitabha Buddha would be the effect.

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