Hello, all PPF (Pureland Practice Fellowship) friends. I would like to share with you my Niànfó (念佛) experience during the Haw Par Villa (虎豹别墅) tour last Saturday, on 20 July 2019. (The villa is a theme park founded in 1937, that displays various aspects of popular Chinese culture, including Buddhism.)
At about 6.15 pm, we were accompanied by our teacher for a walk through Haw Par Villa. (We decided to go for an excursion there as we were discussing on four sūtra ‘Verses For Breaking Free From Hell’ [破地狱偈] during our PPF sessions recently, which concluded on how Niànfó is not only able to have the similar function, but able to enable hell-beings to reach Pure Land too.)
I had hesitated to go as I thought the evening tour might end late, as I planned to pray to Guānyīn Bodhisattva (观音菩萨) on the next day, which is her Enlightenment Day (成道日), on the 19th day of the 6th lunar month. I had been praying to her for about 45 years.
However, on the way to PPF on the same Saturday’s morning, having alighted from the same bus, and while walking together, teacher chatted with me and assured that it will not end late, and that it is okay to leave earlier.
When touring the various areas within the villa, I remembered the myths and legends heard from my Grandfather during my childhood days. (I am now 71 years old.) Whether they were true or not, I still had some fear, due to some ghost stories heard, especially on the hell cave.
When I finished touring most of the other parts, I wanted to make a turn to go home, but PPF friends advised that since the hell cave with exhibits on ten courts of hell is the most relevant area for us to learn the Dharma, I should not miss it. So, I plucked up my courage to go forward.
(The number of hells and sub-hells is not fixed, depending on how they are classified and which sūtra referred to. The hell cave does not portray the nature of the hells in a strictly Buddhist way, but as partly confused with some contradicting Chinese beliefs. There are three main different views.
First, is the Chinese belief that all beings will go to hell upon death to be judged, with it functioning like an interchange between all rebirths. In the Buddhist teachings, only those with very negative or complicated karma will go to hell after death.
Second, is the Chinese belief that all hell-beings are able to leave hell annually for ‘holidays’ during the seventh lunar month. In the Buddhist teachings, this is impossible due to their heavy negative karma; possible only upon sufficient eradication of such karma.
Third, is the Chinese belief that hell-beings are the same as hungry ghosts and wandering spirits. In the Buddhist teachings, due to their very different quality of karma, they are not the same. Also, humans only ‘share’ the same physical space with hungry ghosts and wandering spirits, while hell-beings are spatially distant.)
As I entered the cave, following teacher’s earlier instruction during a PPF session to Niànfó if there is fear, I started to be mindful of Āmítuófó’s name (阿弥陀佛) silently. (Other than for conquering fear, the visit was also encouraged for greater cautionary mindfulness of the karmic cause and effect of misdeeds.) Upon seeing the ‘hell-beings’ being punished, tortured and killed, which seemed very painful, I did Niànfó to help ‘them’ express repentance.
From the first to fifth court, I started to smell a light jasmine-like scent. As I proceeded from the sixth to tenth court, the fragrance grew stronger, and continued to be present at the area with Guānyīn Bodhisattva’s image above the ‘pond-well’ outside the cave (where I donated a dollar for fish food), and down the road to the villa’s exit.
I turned to my friends to ask if they smelled it too. They replied that they did not. This made me worry and panic as I was told by old village folks when young that when encountering flowery scents at night, there might be supernatural trouble. However, the sun did not even set yet. (Ironically, due to the villa’s newly extended opening hours, the initial plan was to enter ‘hell’ after dark for more atmosphere, but due to wrong estimating of time, even after exiting it at around 7.20 pm, it was still rather bright outdoors. Sunlight was also shining in the cave’s entrance, side door and exit.)
(Whether true or not, there is a Malay folk belief that the smell of frangipani flowers at night is due to presence of a pontianak [i.e. a wrathful ghost]. However, flowers’ smells might be be carried by wind naturally. Generally, evil spirits are more associated with foul smells, as smelt by those near. With Niànfó, there will be protection, and evil spirits will not be able to confuse or disturb.)
In order to clear my doubt, I turned to our teacher and explained what happened. I was told that because of my sincere Niànfó, I experienced the extraordinary fragrance; and that since the others asked were not doing Niànfó in the same way, they did not create the cause to experience it then. Upon hearing this, no longer fearful and worried, I felt very relieved and blissful, as I went home feeling very blessed in my heart.
Namo Amituofo : Ivyt (name changed for privacy)
Note: It is a common auspicious sign (瑞相) to experience extraordinary fragrance ‘filling the room’ (异香满堂) and beyond when practising very sincere Niànfó, with it being ‘flower-like’ or ‘incense-like’ yet special, coming from Pure Land directly. Even though extraordinary, the fragrance is often related to a smell more habitually familiar with.
(Less commonly, such fragrance is also experienced by others who have adequate affinity then, even if not doing Niànfó. Protective good gods [善神] passing by can have fragrance too, but it is usually smelled by others present too. These factors makes the experience likely to be due to personal Niànfó.)
As stated in Āmítuófó’s ‘Thirty-Second Vow Of Magnificent Adornments Surpassing That Of All Gods And Humans’ (第三十二严饰超诸天人愿):
‘If I, [Dharmakāra Bodhisattva: 法藏菩萨], attain Buddhahood [as Amitābha Buddha], from the ground to above, as far as to the sky, palace halls, towering pavilions, ponds, streams, flowers, trees, and all myriad things in my land, will altogether be composed of immeasurable variegated treasures, and a hundred thousand kinds of fragrances. These magnificent adornments are marvellous and wonderful, surpassing everything heavenly and human. Their fragrances universally perfume worlds of the ten directions. When Bodhisattvas smell them, they will all cultivate Buddhas’ practices. If not so, I shall not attain right awakening.’
To summarise the vow, all objects in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land will be supremely splendid and fragrant. Being composed of so many kinds of fragrances, that ‘radiate’ from there to everywhere else, including our world, this explains why various Pure Land practitioners might describe what they smell differently when it is experienced. When those practising the Bodhisattva path smell it, they will be encouraged to continue walking the path to Buddhahood. It can also be said that those not yet practising the Bodhisattva path will be inspired to start walking the path too.
In the ‘Sūtra Of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Fundamental Vows’《地藏菩萨本愿经》was the case of a very virtuous Brahmin woman (婆罗门女), who ventured into Avīci Hell (阿鼻地狱) with mindfulness of the Buddha of her time to save her Mother. (Usual mindfulness of Buddha will not have this effect, while she wanted to know her whereabouts, and was ready to enter hell with aid of the Buddha.) Seeing the many other suffering beings there, she gave rose to Bodhicitta (菩提心). In our world, perhaps ‘hell parks’ are the the closest equivalent to the true hells, to help us awaken compassion for all in a similar way.
While the hell cave is just a simulation for educational purposes, it turned out to be a skilful means for overcoming fear and awakening compassion, which motivated sincere Niànfó. Before praying to Guānyīn Bodhisattva on her Enlightenment Day at a Buddhist temple, she was already prayed to at the park, while expressing what she represents – great compassion (大悲)!
This experience also helps us relate to how it is possible to transform cauldrons of hot oil in hell to be cool lotus ponds with Niànfó, for hell-beings to be relieved and liberated from suffering. Although there is an urban legend that the hell cave is an actual portal to hell, the truth is, anyone who is doing the hellish anywhere is already beginning to enter hell there and then. This is while, challenging as it is, even the actual hell can become a momentary ‘portal’ to Pure Land with Niànfó.
How The Future Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva ‘First’ Visited Hell
The Flower Adornment & Immeasurable Life Sūtras’ ‘Verses For Breaking Free From Hell’
The Lotus Sūtra’s ‘Verses For Breaking Free From Hell’