I first heard of Pure Land Buddhism more than 10 years ago. However, for most of my years as a Buddhist, I was more keen in Theravada Buddhism, with very little interest in Mahayana Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism, being part of Mahayana Buddhism, was even more remote for me. It was only in 2011 that my perspectives changed. And the catalyst is my Father.
My Father, who passed away more than a year ago, had been a Buddhist for 20 years. Before he became ill, he regularly did his morning chanting, participated actively in 结缘 (support-chanting at wakes) and occasionally volunteered during Buddhist events. However, he remained highly critical of people, was often bad-tempered and stingy, though he knew he had more than he ever needed.
After becoming ill, he became more bad-tempered and unhappy, but there was one positive change. He became very generous in donating to temples, monastics, chanting events and even overseas charities. Once, when a group of monks came over to our house to chant for him, he was not satisfied with the angbao (red packet with donation money) we had prepared. He struggled out of bed to get more money from another room, though he could already hardly sit up without help or even talk then. And for most of the time, he could not think clearly.
My Father was diagnosed with cancer in September 2010, and his condition deteriorated faster than what doctors had expected. The last stage of his illness was merely three months after the diagnosis. He was often in delirium, to the extent that he could be unaware of where he was.
However, whenever a Buddhist support-chanting group visited, he did not forget the Heart Sutra, knowing it by heart. Though the group was of Theravada background, they also chanted Mahayana chants that he was more familiar with. The first time they chanted Amituofo, he broke down. I was not sure if he was touched or overwhelmed by sadness of being reminded of impending death. I could often feel his preference for Medicine Buddha’s name over Amituofo’s too.
On another occasion, a long-time Buddhist friend visited to give him words of consolation and encouragement. She emphasised that nothing was more important during that period than chanting Amituofo’s name. In addition, she shared with me about the 往生被 (Rebirth Blanket) and even accompanied me to get one.
Last Few Days
My Father was not vegetarian, but when he became ill, he developed aversion towards meat, and this became increasingly obvious as he became more ill. Towards the last days, he hardly took any food, but his mind became clearer.
The night before his departure, he was choked with phlegm. When we asked if he would like to go to the hospital to clear it, he nodded. It was a mistake as the doctors could do nothing and only increased his suffering, as he screamed with pain when they could not draw any blood. We rushed him back home the next day as the doctors said that he would be leaving very soon. It had always been his wish to pass away at home.
The journey back was very stressful as the ambulance staff warned that he might depart on way. Nevertheless, he made it back and we spent the last hours chanting Amituofo’s name, and at times, playing Guanshiyin Bodhisattva’s name on the chanting player.
Coincidentally, on the night before, a Brother from the Buddhist support-chanting group called to ask if he could visit my Dad the following day. We fixed the time at 4 pm but kept the location open until my Dad reached home. At around 12 pm, a few from the group came, chanted for him and gave us some advice. A nun also came to give advice.
As it was my Father’s wish to hear the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra, after everyone left, we chanted it for him, though not the whole sutra in one go. Slightly before 4 pm, we returned to chanting of Amituofo. Around 4 pm, my Father gasped for about four breaths and departed. I quickly covered him with the Rebirth Blanket and put some 金光明沙 (Sand Of Bright Golden Light) on him. Within a few minutes, the Brother who called last night arrived with a group to chant Amituofo and Theravada chants. It was as if everyone had the timing right.
Following my Dad’s last breaths, my family members and I noted that his mouth and eyes were slightly open. We took turns to chant, while making arrangements for the funeral. We also tried to complete chanting the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra. I was not sure when the changes happened, but by the time we completed chanting the sutra, my Father looked different. His eyes were more closed and he was smiling. His face also looked clear and slightly rosy. We were truly amazed by these changes.
At around 8 pm, a few Theravada monks came to chant. They remarked that he looked if he was sleeping peacefully. At around 10 pm, a group of Pure Land Buddhists came to chant Amituofo until around 6 am the following morning. We tried to make sure there was at least a family member to chant together. A Buddhist friend also joined in the chanting, remarking that she had never felt so much spiritual joy, and was not tired despite chanting overnight, for about eight hours. In fact, she felt energised, seeing my Dad’s blissful smile and radiance throughout the chanting.
When morning came, my Brother helped to remove the tubes from my Father’s body, cleaned and changed him. Surprisingly, his body did not feel stiff, but was flexible and soft. (When we went over to the funeral parlour, in process of moving around, my Dad’s eyes and mouth became slightly open. We wondered if it was a sign of displeasure or a result of our physical movement.)
During the wake, we arranged for a number of chanting sessions to be conducted. The Buddhist friend who advised my Father to chant Amituofo also came to chant Amituofo’s name. I am grateful and touched that we had so much support from Buddhist friends during that critical period of time. Despite not being close to his siblings due to personal grudges, many people turned up at his funeral, most of whom were Buddhist friends and personal friends. When my Dad was alive, he often thought that few would come to bid him farewell. Perhaps this did not really matter to him anymore, but it was comforting to us as family members.
We later learnt from the 结缘 (support-chanting) group he was active in, that his support-chanting attendance was more than 90% of all sessions conducted by the group. It made me feel that it was the workings of karma that so many came to help, for if one helps others with support-chanting, one will also receive help when the time of departure comes.
After my Dad’s passing, I had a number of dreams. In one, which I cannot remember if it was before or after the 49th day, he came home, sat on the sofa and chatted with me as usual. Then, my Mum came and told him that he should go to Pure Land. Upon hearing this, he flew out of our house. I thought that this was a really strange dream as my Mum was the most attached to my Dad, but in that dream, she was the one who asked him to go. The subsequent dreams are all scenes of me bringing my Dad out on holidays and for meals.
I am not really sure what to make out of these dreams, and they could just be the making of my mind. Like my Mum, I too wonder where my Dad is now. But I should probably just do what I told my Mum, that if she wants to know where Dad is now, she would have to be pure like the Brahmin girl in the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra.
Since the day my Father left, I wondered how the unbelievable physical changes after his last breath were possible, given his usual personality. His blissful smile was amazing as he hardly smiled even when alive and well. And when he was sick, he looked really miserable and even tortured at times. I felt that his peaceful departure must be related to the Pure Land teachings.
Not long after his departure, I happened to see Brother’s Shi’an’s course on ‘Who Is Amituofo?’ (which later expanded to become the ‘Understanding Amituofo Via The Amitabha Sutra’ course: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/?s=Understanding+Amituofo+Via+The+Amitabha+Sutra+Run). Despite being a Buddhist for many years, I could not answer that question, and was curious to find out more, which I thought could also shed more light to my Father’s departure. I signed up for it and more related courses subsequently. Once again, it was as if everything happened at the right timing.
I know my Dad did not want to go to any heavenly plane, as he knew that after positive karma is used up there, the next rebirth due to remaining negative karma might be worse. Perhaps his smile was just so amazing that I could not help thinking that he had headed for the best rebirth. Even to date, my Mum wonders where my Dad is. However, when I recall how peaceful he looked when he left, I think he is probably in Amituofo’s Pure Land, or at least, had a good rebirth. Nevertheless, I will continue to chant Amituofo’s name and dedicate merits to him.
Jingxuan (May 2012)
The earlier preference for Medicine Buddha’s name might be due to attachment to be healed, coupled with some denial of impending death. However, reach of Amituofo’s Pure Land is where there is total healing too, transcending the cycle of birth and death.
There might have been too many different chants. Though the Heart Sutra was chanted, it was still not easy to realise the perfection of wisdom in it. Though the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra was chanted, it does not spell out clearly, a specific place to be born in. Although Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed to guide beings to Amituofo’s Pure Land too, one should have the Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice to reach it too. However, if there is request for it, and if there is time, it should be chanted. Though Theravada suttas were chanted when alive, he might not understand them due to language when alive. While guidance to Amituofo’s Pure Land through these chants is not clear, merits are created, which are useful for blessing purposes though.
It would have been better, to more swiftly and eventually, before passing, focus on just Nianfo (practice of mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’) as it is the easiest to follow. On the last group doing Amituofo chanting upon passing, great joy is possible to be experienced when there is sincere Nianfo, which connects to the blessings of Amituofo.
It would had been better to cover the dying with the Rebirth Blanket before, and not just after the passing, and to apply the blessed sand earlier too, as their presence help to protect from any potentially disturbing spirits. If the blanket ’causes’ the dying to be upset, you can cover with the blanket first, before using another blanket to cover it, so that it will not be seen.
Destination Of Rebirth
A blissful expression is an auspicious sign of most possibly having connected to Amituofo, especially if the smile became most obvious in the midst of Nianfo. As he wished to have the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra chanted, it could mean he became more at peace that it was completed too, which made it easier to settle, to Nianfo well. Another way to know the destination of rebirth is to check, after passing, and followed by ample support-chanting, to see if the crown of the head is warm, as departure for Pure Land is via there. However, rebirth might not take place so soon.
If there are absolutely no ‘hauntings’ within 49 days, which is the duration within which beings might still be around if not yet reborn, it is likely that he is reborn already. But in case not, there should be more Nianfo with all in the family as much as possible, following the steps listed at http://purelanders.com/2016/07/19/what-should-be-chanted-during-after-a-funeral
For the sofa dream, your Mum in the dream was probably you in action (as is manifested from your mind), as it was unlike her. This does not mean your Dad in the dream was definitely your real Dad, though he did go off swiftly, which is wonderful if true, or this could be your wish. The holiday dreams could be replaying of memories or what you wished was done more with him.
It might be good to ask your Mum to Nianfo sincerely for an auspicious sign, if she really wishes to know where he is. What can be done, before regular Nianfo, which mimics the Brahmin girl’s efforts, is to pray to Amituofo to give sign(s) of where your Father is. There might not be a visual sign, but an unmistakable sign nevertheless, in some way. However, when doing Nianfo, do so as sincerely as possible, without continual thinking about wanting any sign. Also, once we ourselves reach Pure Land, we can definitely know where loved ones are, and how to best help them if they are in a not so fortunate realm.