Question: Someone I know is constantly worried of untimely death (e.g. by disaster or accident). Any advice to share?
Answer: There is a way to ensure that one does not have an untimely death. That way is via creating enough merits in time, which will buffer away or dilute any negative karma that might result in unfortunate deaths. A relatively easy way to prevent sudden death is to create the opposite karma – by preventing other beings from having sudden deaths – by practising animal liberation for animals who might otherwise face the knife.
And perhaps the easiest way to keep creating merits is to practise mindfulness of Buddha (nianfo) as much as possible. As stated in the Amitabha Sutra, all Buddhas are mindful of those who are mindful of Amituofo. In other words, they (and Amituofo) share their merits with those who are mindful of Amituofo. This is a reason why nianfo can ‘create’ so much merits. These merits create protection from untimely deaths too. But what happens when merits are not accumulated enough?
Below is a sutra excerpt (Samyukta Agama Sutra 93) that mentions how those who habitually practise mindfulness of Buddha (and/or Dharma and/or Sangha) will have generally fortunate rebirths (e.g. in a heavenly plane) – even if they die suddenly without mindfulness of the above before dying. Sudden death can happen when their accumulated merits are not enough to counter particularly strong death-related karma. The criteria for ensuring the most fortunate rebirth (specifically in Amituofo’s Pure Land) is more – there must be sufficient Faith (in Amituofo’s vows to guide one to Pure Land), Aspiration (to be born in Pure Land) and Practice of mindfulness of Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) – including during one’s last thoughts before rebirth.
The analogy the Buddha gave in the sutra is that if a big tree, when alive, grows ever inclined in a certain direction, it will fall in that direction upon its death. Likewise, one who habitually practises mindfulness of Buddha (and/or Dharma and/or Sangha) will be inclined towards a fortunate rebirth upon death. If it is usually Amituofo that one practises mindfulness of, the chances of this good rebirth being his Pure Land are higher – even if the thoughts just before one’s physical passing are not of Amituofo. This is so as sudden death might not mean immediate rebirth. That is, if one’s consciousness is still present, one can still practise nianfo to ensure birth in Pure Land. As such, one’s last thoughts (just before rebirth) might not be the last thoughts before physical death.