Question: When instant death occurs (e.g. by ‘accident’), with ‘no time’ to practise mindfulness of Buddha (nianfo), what will happen?
Answer: The general answer is that such a person will be reborn wherever the person’s karma directs.
The specifics are more complex. Instant death does not always equate to ‘instant’ or speedy rebirth. Death-proximate karma, which is the final karma created before rebirth, can be created even after physical death, before the consciousness takes actual rebirth. This last karma is crucial for linking to a corresponding future plane of existence. Thus, nianfo for reaching Pure Land can still work as long as death-proximate karma connected to Pure Land has not been created yet. (This applies to us too, as we have not created death-proximate karma in this life yet.)
Generally, four kinds of beings can have near instant rebirths upon passing:
1. Those with great negative karma, which propels them swiftly to lower realms.
2. Those with great positive karma, which propels them swiftly to higher realms.
3. Those who practise mindfulness of Buddha well, which propels them swiftly to Pure Land.
4. Those who are already enlightened, who swiftly choose where to re-manifest.
The average person (as excluded from the above) can take between hours to 49 days to be reborn after physical death, as the consciousness might linger due to attachment to the body or worldly life. This means that for average persons, even when there is sudden death, as in death without expectation or readiness, there can still be time for the consciousness to practise nianfo. How much time there is before the force of outstanding karma pushes them to rebirth differs from case to case. Beyond the suddenly deceased’s personal practice, support-chanting to guide them is crucial, as they are often ill-prepared.
The fact that there is sudden death is a sign that there is strong negative karma, which can be precariously close to the beings of the first category above. However, we should never judge or condemn anyone to be of the first category, and not practise support-chanting for the person when he or she dying or just deceased. In short, one should never assume there is no time or no point to nianfo for oneself or others. Even if the person is already reborn in a lower realm, the merits dedicated can help alleviate suffering there, and for having a swifter rebirth to a realm with less suffering.
If one suspects oneself to be of the first or second categories (to have much negative or positive karma) while alive, or even when newly deceased, one should all the more practise nianfo sincerely and diligently now, to ensure one will not descend or ascend to other realms. Even the higher realms in Samsara (other than the Pure Abodes) are dangerous as they might lead to spiritual complacency, leading to eventual downfall. It is worth noting that nianfo practice helps to reduce the possibility of sudden death as it connects us to the bountiful blessings of Amituofo even before reaching Pure Land. The Buddha also taught in the Amitabha Sutra that all Buddhas are mindfully protective of those who practise nianfo.
What If I Cannot Nianfo In Time Due To Negative Karma & Sudden Death?