Question: Why is it that one’s last thought before rebirth can affect the realm of rebirth so much?
Answer: This last thought creates death-proximate karma – it is the very last ‘set’ of karma created, that links one across to a corresponding plane of existence. It is logical that this last thought connects to the realm of rebirth because it is causally (in terms of cause and effect) impossible for someone who is feeling, for example, great fear and suffering in this moment to be able to suddenly reach a place to experience something else in the immediate moment that follows.
We know this is true when we observe ourselves in everyday life, when we are well and alive. For example, if you are angry now, there is no reason for you to suddenly become happy in the next moment. Unless there is at least a mitigating factor in between, that changes your angry mind to a peaceful state of mind, the next moment will be unpleasant in nature too.
In the dying process, as the very last thought is already what it is – the last thought before rebirth, there is then no more time for mitigating factors to change the state of mind. Thus, the destination of rebirth is of a quality similar to the quality of the last thought. However, it should be noted that rebirth is not immediate upon physical expiry for the average person, due to habitual attachment to the transpired life (and body), and lack of particularly strong karma that will pull one to a higher or lower realm swiftly. Even if the consciousness has already left the body, the last thought has not occurred yet – as long as actual rebirth (which is the consciousness entering the vehicle of birth) has yet to take place. In this sense, the consciousness still has time to change the state of mind, to create the actual death-proximate karma.
This is why support-chanting (Zhunian) is important – not just for the dying but for the recently deceased too – to encourage and guide the consciousness to Nianfo (be mindful of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’), to change their state of mind for aligning to Amituofo’s blessings to reach his Pure Land. This intermediate state before actual rebirth can last (between an instant and) up to 49 days. In some cases, beyond this duration, the being becomes a wandering spirit. Still, there is hope of being able to Nianfo to reach Pure Land. (It is also true that anyone already reborn, other than in the formless heavens, can still reach Pure Land if there is proper practice.) There must be a sense of urgency though, as the winds of karma can blow strongly and quickly, forcing one to take rebirth sooner than expected – at any time – before one feels ready. This uncertainty of the moment of rebirth applies to us non-dying persons too – as the death can occur without warning.
Question: It doesn’t seem to make sense that one will be reborn in a lower realm if one has a negative thought when dying, despite having done lots of meritorious deeds when alive?
Answer: Actually, this makes perfect sense. Again, as above, it is illogical that, say, one dies with great hatred suddenly takes a higher rebirth. Vice versa is also illogical – that one dies with great peacefulness takes a lower rebirth. Hence, the quality of rebirth must be associated with the quality of the last thought.
It is an illusion that it is unfair, if a person in case (1) did lots of good before the last thought, which is negative, thus having a negative rebirth, while a person in case (2) did lots of evil before the last thought, which is positive, thus having a positive rebirth Everything turns out karmically fair in the long run. For one to harbour an evil last thought, the person is usually characteristically evil in everyday life. For one to be able to nurture a good last thought, the person is usually characteristically good in everyday life. In this sense, the last thought can be a summation of the quality of a person’s overall character. We can think of this in terms of taking a final exam after a string of course-long tests. The quality of one’s score in the exam is usually linked to the overall quality of one’s scores in the tests leading up to it.
However, there are exceptional cases once in a while. Say person (1) habitually did lots of good in everyday life, but still turns out to create a negative last thought, or person (2) habitually did lots of evil in everyday life, but still turns out to create a positive last thought. The resulting rebirths are still karmically just as they are possible due to hidden tendencies in their minds, that surfaced as their last thoughts. Of course, for case (2), it would not be a big problem. Using the exam example again, it is as if the person managed to prepare for the final exam in time, and passes. This is usually due to a mix of last minute personal efforts and support-chanting with guidance of spiritual friends. Strictly speaking, even having such support in the nick of time is a manifestation of the person’s positive karma, and wanting to change in time is due to presence of hidden good roots (capacity for goodness).
The vice versa is true for case (1), unfortunate as it might be, which is to have generally passed in tests but not doing well enough in the final exam – due to not having enough personal resolution and/or support to create a positive last thought, partly due to hidden lack of strong good roots and past negative karma (in this or from past lives) surfacing. We should do what we can to spiritually support them though, as we might be able to offer conditions through which their positive karma can ripen! (This happens to create some positive karma for ourselves too.) Only after trying to help personally do we know if someone is receptive to the support or not.
As we are uncertain of whether our karma is positive enough and that our good roots are deep enough, we should practise Nianfo more sincerely and diligently in everyday life. This will help us to dilute negative karma (which we tend to keep creating), while creating positive karma. This is helpful for us when alive and when dying, as both our lives and dying moments will be more karmically blessed, with less obstacles. Nianfo itself is an expression of our good roots in action, which strengthens and deepens them in time.
The Buddha gave the analogy, that if a tree grows inclined in a certain direction (e.g. West, to represent going towards Amituofo’s Pure Land), it will fall in that direction when it eventually falls upon death. Likewise, one who habitually practises Nianfo will be more inclined towards Pure Land upon death. Even if this person, for some other reason, such as lack of sufficient Three Provisions (Faith, Aspiration, Practice) does not make it, the positive inclination will at least lead to a good rebirth. This is why regular Nianfo is always wise – even if one is still unsure if one wishes to reach Pure Land. Of course, there should be more efforts to nourish the Three Provisions via continual learning, reflecting and practising.
It should be noted that no past lifelong ‘sets’ of positive and negative karma that has yet to ripen are lost karmically. Their potencies are just suspended in the last thought moment due to the then stronger death-proximate karma created, that has overriding power. This means that given the right conditions in the future, past karmic seeds can still bear sweet or bitter fruits of experience accordingly. When a dying person practises Nianfo and connects to Amituofo wholeheartedly, not only is there personal positive karma created, Amituofo’s merits (pure karma) flow over to be shared with the person too, ‘topping up’ the person’s limited positive karma to help the person karmically deserve reach to Pure Land.
Once Pure Land is reached, one’s negative karmic seeds will be disabled for good as there is no fertile ground there to condition their fruition, while there is only personal sowing of positive and pure karmic seeds there, that bear fruits conducive for our progress towards Buddhahood without being distracted or obstructed by the fruition of negative karma. This great advantage of non-retrogressibility (spiritual non-backsliding) is one of the key reasons to reach Pure Land. If reborn elsewhere (in non-Pure Lands), remnant seeds of karma can still ripen with availability of corresponding conditions. This is why unenlightened rebirth in Samsara is dangerous, and somewhat a gamble, as we are uncertain of when negative karma that obstructs spiritual progress can ripen. Even if quality of the immediate next life in Samsara is generally favourable due to a good last thought, there is no guarantee that latent negative karmic seeds will not ripen in that or subsequent lives.
In case there is still thinking that due to the dynamics of death-proximate karma, the usually evil might get away ‘unpunished’ while the usually good suffer ‘unjustly’, we should remember that one who has turned over a new leaf with true repentance (e.g. via sincere Nianfo, that ‘requests’ Amituofo to bear witness and help while naturally re-aligning to one’s pure Buddha-nature) is already not the evil person that one used to be. Imagine a murderer given a hellish death sentence… If a judge has the ability to read his mind, and can tell that he has truly reformed, now with clear understanding that what he did was really wrong, and has the resolution to never commit a crime again but to do good instead, it would then be grossly unfair to still sentence him to death, as he no longer deserves it, while his deep remorse is punishment enough already.
Likewise, one whose mind suddenly turns negative on the deathbed is opening up hidden potential for more negativity, and thus does not karmically deserve a good rebirth then. It might be consoling to know that if intensity of the negativity of the last thought is low, the fruition of negative rebirth will be short-lived (unless one creates more negative karma in that life), before remaining positive karma propels one to a more positive rebirth. Similarly, if intensity of the positivity of the last thought is low, the fruition of positive rebirth will be short-lived (unless one creates more positive karma in that life), before remaining negative karma propels one to a more negative rebirth.
Again, all these reasons are why we should create and fortify the strong and pure habit of Nianfo, to prevent such problems – starting from now. To play safe, we should not imagine we will have enough positive karma to have spiritual friends gather around us in time to offer support-chanting. We should aim to be our own support-chanter and our own best spiritual friend (other than Amituofo)!
What If I Cannot Nianfo In Time Due To Negative Karma & Sudden Death?
What If There Is ‘No Time’ To Nianfo Due To Sudden Death?
Buddha Mindfulness In The Dhammapada