Question: If loved ones see deceased relatives beckoning them on their deathbed, while blissfully saying that their beloved ones have come to receive them, should we ‘play along’, so that they will have a peaceful death? [If the deceased are gone already (e.g. are not wandering spirits), why should we share merits with them?]
Answer: When visions of deceased relatives appear, they are very likely to be hallucinations due to attachment, or manifestations of evil wandering spirits tempting one towards a negative rebirth. This is because most of the deceased would have been reborn already, within 49 days of their passing. The only reason how the deceased can retain their previous forms after 49 days is if they have become wandering spirits. Visions of them when one is dying are unlikely – especially if they are long deceased and if one has not experienced any hauntings from them beforehand. Also, wandering spirits, being unfortunate beings, are unable to lead beings to better rebirths. Thus, these ‘deceased folks’ might be either of the suggested above.
It is important to tell the dying not to pay attention to such visions, and to practise mindfulness of the safest subject instead – Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo). Single-minded mindfulness of Amituofo’s name by chanting it aloud or silently with faith in his compassionate vows and aspiration to be born in his Pure Land will connect one to him, such that a vision of Amituofo appears. This is the safest person to follow then! Sharing of merits with the deceased can help those who are not yet reborn (e.g. wandering spirits) to have a better rebirth, and aid those who have a negative rebirth to have their suffering lessened. Great merits shared can even help them to have a swifter and better rebirth.
Q: If one sees Guanyin Bodhisattva when dying, how does one know if it is not a wandering spirit in disguise? How does one know who is the right one to follow to reach Pure Land?
A: According to the Infinite Life Sutra and Contemplation Sutra, Amituofo will manifest before the dying (with or without an assembly of Pure Land Bodhisattvas and/or other beings, as dependent on one’s merits) when one is properly mindful of him with right faith and aspiration. According to the Surangama Sutra (The Perfect Penetration of Mahastamaprapta Bodhisattva by Buddha Mindfulness), ‘If living beings remember the Buddha, and are mindful of the Buddha, they certainly will see the Buddha, now and/or in the future.’
If one is mindful of Guanyin or any other Bodhisattva instead, that particular Bodhisattva should correspondingly appear due to the law of cause and effect. That is also to say, if one was practising mindfulness of Amituofo but someone else appears instead, this is not proper cause and effect. That might be a wandering spirit with ill intentions in disguise, trying to lure one away from a good rebirth. One should simply continue with mindfulness of Amituofo, till Amituofo appears. If the earlier ‘Bodhisattva’ is truly a wandering spirit in disguise, s/he will leave or fade away – as mindfulness of Amituofo creates protection against evil. As above, one should only follow Amituofo.
Q: If I practise mindfulness of Guanyin Bodhisattva, while aspiring to be born in Pure Land, should I follow Guanyin Bodhisattva when she appears?
A: This is alright, but as above, one should continue with mindfulness of Guanyin Bodhisattva when she appears – to ensure that the Bodhisattva is real, and that mindfulness is uninterrupted, to ensure successful birth in Pure Land. With further mindfulness, along with the Bodhisattva, Amituofo could appear too. However, the one you are faithfully mindful of should be taken as the main guide, while maintaining the aspiration to be born in Pure Land.
Master Yinguang (the 13th Patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism) taught that if one usually practises mindfulness of other enlightened beings (not Amituofo) in everyday life while aspiring to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land, it is good to end each practice session with at least ten chants of Amituofo. (Doing so helps to direct our intentions and merits to have stronger affinities with birth in Amituofo’s Pure Land. For beginners who wish to connect to Amituofo, it would be best to practise mindfulness of him directly.)
Q: Is it not so that mindfulness of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can also help to direct us to Pure Land?
A: Yes. Here is an example from the Medicine Buddha Sutra, ‘… there may be those among the fourfold assembly of Bhikshus [monks], Bhikshunis [nuns], Upasakas [laymen] and Upasikas [laywomen], as well as other good men and women of pure faith, who accept and uphold the eight precepts either for one year or for three months, practicing and studying them. With these good roots, they may vow to be born in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss where the Buddha of Limitless Life [Amitabha Buddha] dwells, to hear the Proper Dharma, but their resolve may not be firm.
‘However, if they hear the name of the World Honored One, Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata [Medicine Buddha: Yaoshi Liuliguang Rulai], then as the end of their lives draws near, before them will appear eight great Bodhisattvas, whose names are: Manjusri Bodhisattva, The Bodhisattva Who Observes the Sounds of the World [Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva], Great Strength Bodhisattva [Dashizhi or Mahastamaprapta Bodhisattva], Inexhaustible Intention Bodhisattva, Jewelled Udumbara Flower Bodhisattva, Medicine King Bodhisattva, Medicine Superior Bodhisattva, and Maitreya Bodhisattva. Those eight great Bodhisattvas will appear in space to show them the way, and they will naturally be born by transformation in that land [Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land], amid precious [lotus] flowers of a myriad colors [green, yellow, red and white].’
However, the above refers to cases where one is not properly mindful of Amituofo – which is when another Buddha and other Bodhisattva might help when conditions are available. If one thus becomes awakened to right faith and aspiration, it is best to immediately be mindful of Amituofo to further guarantee successful birth in Pure Land. As such, it is best to practise mindfulness using Amituofo’s name directly in everyday life, so as to further increase our affinity with him and the ease of being naturally mindful of him on one’s deathbed. Mindfulness of Amituofo also helps us to receive abundant general blessings from him and those in accordance with his vows in our everyday life.