Question: Do we go to Pure Land only after death? How do we know it is possible if we can’t go now?
Answer: There are two ways to reach the actual Pure Land of Amituofo (in contrast to having only occasional ‘glimpses’ of the Pure Land of our self-nature) – before death, and after death. For Pure Land practitioners, many depart for Pure Land when ‘in between’ the above – on the brink of death, when old, sick and/or dying. This is the case for most due to ‘natural’ attachment to samsaric life, thus unwilling to leave when one can still stay. However, when their bodies are clearly beyond repair due to old age and disease, they will realise that it is indeed time to let go. This is when their Three Provisions of Faith (in Amituofo and reaching his Pure Land), Aspiration (to go Pure Land) and Practice (of mindfulness of Amituofo) become focused and magnified in strength adequately, thus enabling them to reach Pure Land. An intense sense of final existential desperation can thus be transformed into great hope when one takes refuge in Amituofo fully on the deathbed.
This implies that when we practise mindfulness of Amituofo in everyday life, as long as we have not reached Pure Land, our Three Provisions are yet to be charged up sufficiently. This does not necessarily mean there is no Faith, Aspiration or Practice at all, but simply that they are not yet synergised all the way, powered by the crucial additional Faithful Aspiration that drives diligent enough Practice for reaching Pure Land. As the Amitabha Sutra states, ‘If there are those who have already aspired, now aspire, or in the future aspire, to be born in Amita[bha] Buddha’s land… they have already been born, are now being born, or will be born in that land.’ Note that true Aspiration is based on true Faith, and expressed by true Practice. When the Three Provisions are sufficient, connection to Amituofo and being guided to his Pure Land is inevitable.
The difference between everyday practice of mindfulness of Amituofo versus the practice done just before departing for Pure Land (which can be when medically dying, or any time way prior to natural death), is that the latter is much more determined – with a ‘do or die’ attitude, with no other alternative in mind. This is the truest meaning of being single-minded (and wholehearted), of being without a confused or scattered mind, that entertains doubts and other desires. This also means we can reach Pure Land any time, as long as we are similarly determined, willing to let go of this samsaric life right here and right now. For those are are less willing when alive, they can still reach Pure Land after death, before being reborn, when there is extended support-chanting, that guides and encourages their consciousnesses to give rise to the Three Provisions adequately in time.
Those who practise very well can depart for Pure Land before being old, sick and/or dying; when healthy, young and thus very much alive instead. In history and even today, there are countless recorded cases of people who have done so. They manifest the classic auspicious signs of birth in Pure Land while departing very blissfully. Such passing must karmically lead to the most blissful realm they aspire to reach – Pure Land. Some give way ahead yet accurate announcements of their departure dates and times too. This is very powerful evidence for the efficacy of Pure Land practice because for ordinary beings, with the Three Poisons of strong Attachment (to samsaric life), Aversion (to dying) and Delusion (of the afterlife), it is impossible to calmly and clearly know and say when one will depart, if not, as testified by them, having been informed by Amituofo of when he will arrive to guide them to his Pure Land. These advance notices are also Amituofo’s skilful means to inspire us to have greater Faith in him!