Question: If I am mindful of Amituofo on the deathbed, I will be born in his Pure Land. Where will I be reborn if I am mindful of Shakyamuni Buddha?
Answer: If you aspire to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land, that is where you will go, as guided by Shakyamuni Buddha. This is so as all Buddhas (and great Bodhisattvas), having perfect compassion, will surely direct one to the Pure Land of one’s choice. In this sense, you can never call for the ‘wrong’ Buddha or Bodhisattva if your Aspiration is right – to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land. It is easier to simply practise mindfulness of Amituofo directly if one wishes to be born in his Pure Land.
If you do not aspire to go to any Pure Land, while being mindful of Shakyamuni Buddha or any other Buddha or Bodhisattva, the results should be similar to the Brahmin’s son in the Dhammapada story at http://purelanders.com/2010/04/01/buddha-mindfulness-in-the-dhammapada. That is, one will be lifted by the merits created via mindfulness of the Buddha and probably be reborn in a better or heavenly realm, but not any Pure Land. This is so as Faith and Aspiration in the Pure Land of choice is needed for right mindfulness and birth into it.
Question: To double-confirm, mindfulness of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can also help to direct us to Amituofo’s Pure Land?
Answer: Yes, provided that there is the corresponding Aspiration our part. Here is an example from the Medicine Buddha Sutra (http://moonpointer.com/pureland/2009/11/11/the-two-popular-pure-lands-how-east-meets-west), ‘… 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 [have the Aspiration] to be born in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss where the Buddha of Limitless Life [Amituofo] 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 Pusa or Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva], Great Strength Bodhisattva [Dashizhi Pusa 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 [Amituofo’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 the 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.
Question: ‘When Amituofo appears to Pure Land practitioners on the brink of death, how can they be sure it is not a demon?
Answer: If a Zen (Chan) follower is not meditating on the Buddha, and yet Buddha suddenly appears unexpectedly, this is called a demon (delusion). A Pure Land practitioner sees the Buddha while focusing on the Buddha. Thus in his case, cause and effect coincide and his mind is in unison with that of the Buddhas. The appearance of the Buddha is therefore not a demon. There is no need to worry about this.’ (From p.94 of ‘Mind-Seal of the Buddhas’ by Master Ouyi, the 9th Patriarch of the Chinese Pure Land tradition)
If one was practising mindfulness of Amituofo but someone else appears instead, this is not proper cause and effect. If we are sincerely mindful of Amitabha Buddha with right Faith, Aspiration and understanding, the one who appears cannot be a demon, especially since the mindfulness of Buddha itself protects one from demons, while all Buddhas of the six directions bless the practitioner. This is recorded in the Amitabha Sutra, as taught by the Buddha –
‘… why do you think this teaching is called ‘the Sutra of Protection by All Buddhas’? Shariputra, all good men and women who hear this sutra and hold fast to it and also those who hear the names of those Buddhas are protected by all the Buddhas…’
If we are uncertain if we are mindful enough, we should continue to, and increase our mindfulness of Amituofo. If it is a demon, he will disappear. According to the Infinite Life Sutra and Contemplation Sutra (http://purelanders.com/2010/03/16/the-three-grades-of-aspirants-nine-grades-of-birth), 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 [Dashizhi Pusa] 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.’
Question: Regarding those who see visions of Amituofo coming to welcome them in their last moments, could they be manifestations of compassionate devas instead, who appeared in the form of Amituofo to give the dying peace of mind? Perhaps there is no Amituofo?
Answer: Countless in history till our present day have spoken of witnessing the manifestations of Amituofo. These include not just the dying but in some cases, those who are doing support-chanting and those doing serious Buddha mindfulness (nianfo) practice. As the minds of those chanting are with right mindfulness, calmness and concentration, what they see cannot be hallucinations. As their minds are filled with purity of thought, what they see cannot be manifestations of demons, who would not be able to confuse them. What they see cannot be manifestations of devas too, as proper Buddha mindfulness blesses the practitioner and prevents other beings from tricking the person practising.
There are some who report visions of devas, and the contrasts of their magnificence with Amituofo are too great for devas to pretend to be Amituofo. If there are such compassionate devas, it is all the more so that there are much more compassionate Buddhas like Amituofo, as Buddhas have perfect compassion. It is thus perfectly natural that Buddhas vow to receive beings in their gravest moments of need, so as to assure and guide them to safe rebirths.
Question: How do I recognise Amituofo?
Answer: Traditionally, Amituofo is depicted to be with golden light, standing on a lotus while holding another lotus with one hand, with his other hand ready to receive. (E.g. picture above: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/pics/734.jpg) If you have been mindful of Amituofo faithfully, you will definitely recognise him in your mind. He will make his identity be known too, out of compassion to connect to you.
Question: If loved ones on their deathbeds see deceased relatives beckoning them, while they blissfully say that their beloved ones have come to receive them, should we ‘play along’, so that they can have a peaceful death? If the deceased are gone already, 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 in disguise luring 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 had 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 – Amituofo. Single-minded mindfulness of Amituofo’s name by chanting it aloud or silently with Faith in his compassionate vows and with strong Aspiration to be born in his Pure Land will connect one to him, such that a manifestation of Amituofo appears. This is the safest person to follow then!
The dying should be urged to be mindful of Amituofo till Amituofo appears to guide oneself and those ‘relatives’ to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land too, since it is the best place for all. They will leave if they are not real relatives or have no intention to go Pure Land. 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.
Question: If I practise mindfulness of Guanyin Pusa, while aspiring to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land, should I follow Guanyin Pusa when she appears?
Answer: This is alright, but as above, one should continue with mindfulness of Guanyin Pusa 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 the Chinese Pure Land tradition) taught that if one usually practises mindfulness of other enlightened beings (other than Amituofo) in everyday life while actually 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 and his Pure Land. For beginners who wish to connect to Amituofo, it would be best to practise mindfulness of him directly.)
Question: If I already pray to Guanyin Pusa at home shrine, should I be mindful of Guanyin Pusa or Amituofo, if I aspire to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land?
Answer: What is on the shrine does not have to be the deciding factor of who to be mindful of. As Guanyin Pusa is a disciple and assistant Bodhisattva of Amituofo, it’s alright to be mindful of Amituofo. As Guanyin Pusa guides beings to Pure Land too, it’s alright to be mindful of her too – as long as the Faith in Amituofo and Aspiration to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land is there.
However, it is good to note that there are more practice groups focusing on practising mindfulness of Amituofo’s name and less on Guanyin Pusa’s name. As such, it might be a more ‘lonely’ practice if human support along this line is wanted when alive, and when on the deathbed in terms of preferred style of support-chanting (zhunian).
Question: Is it possible to place Amituofo and Guanyin Pusa’s images together on the same shrine? How should they be positioned?
Answer: Yes, it’s alright to place them together. Since there are only two images, you can just place them side by side. However, when it comes to practice of mindfulness, it is good to have one of them as the main focus. (You might also wish to consider adding an image of Dashizhi Pusa to complete the ‘set’ of the Three Saints of Western Paradise.)
Question: If I have an image of Amituofo and Guanyin Pusa and have been praying and prostrating to them separately, should I now just pray and prostrate to Amituofo if I choose mindfulness of him as my main practice?
Answer: There is no need to pay respects separately, especially if they are on the same shrine. But it’s alright if you wish to too.
Question: In my daily practice, I pay homage to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This is because each Buddha or Bodhisattva reminds me of their most significant quality, which inspires me to emulate them. Is this alright, or might it result in confusion?
Answer: Paying homage to various enlightened beings to remind ourselves of their outstanding virtues is excellent. However, it is also important to have a main practice too. E.g. by focusing more on one of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, while mindful that though each exemplifies a certain virtue greatly, their virtues are really interconnected (in an all-in-one and one-in-all way). This is because all the great Bodhisattvas worthy of respect are re-manifested ancient Buddhas, and all Buddhas embody all Bodhisattvas’ qualities perfectly. If not, they wouldn’t be Buddhas.
It is good to have a key Bodhisattva or Buddha for main focus because this helps to keep us single-minded, which develops concentration and stronger connection to that particular Bodhisattva or Buddha. This is all the more important if we wish to be born in a specific Buddha’s Pure Land.
This is why the Pure Land masters (e.g. see http://purelanders.com/2009/12/03/10-doubts-about-pure-land-question-4/) advocate exclusive focus on Amituofo (or more clearly related Bodhisattvas) because he represents the collective virtues of all enlightened beings in the clearest way. Mindfulness of Amituofo is also universally recommended by the Buddhas in all directions, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra. This is the perspective from the Pure Land tradition. (In other Buddhist traditions, there might be focus on other enlightened beings.)
Question: Do I need to 开光 (consecrate) Buddha/Bodhisattva images for veneration on a shrine?
Answer: I recommend you to consecrate it every day with your Dharma practices such as chanting, meditating, making of offerings, bowing, circumambulation, sharing of merits…
Question: Yes, I will do that. But is a formal consecration necessary?
Answer: It is not necessary for some, and is necessary for the less spiritually confident. As there’s no way to know for sure if another consecrator is as virtuous and sincere as yourself, as connected to the Buddha/Bodhisattva as yourself, which is why it might be better to do it yourself regularly. Perhaps the easiest way is to do so is to practise mindfulness of Amituofo before the shrine every day as part of spiritual practice.