Question: If one practised mindfulness of Buddha (念佛) diligently all the while, but during the last moments, is unable to do so due to great pain and confusion, can one still reach Pure Land? Will earlier diligent practice be able to help then?
Answer: The Buddha taught that one who had accumulated good practices (人积善行), who dies without evil thoughts (死无恶念), is like a tree leaning to the West (如树西倾), such that when it falls, it will surely be to the West (倒必随西). Diligent practice of mindfulness of Buddha is equivalent to ‘good practices’ (善行) done, with the West representing the Western Pure Land.
What if there is pain leading to confusion when dying, which might lead to ‘inability’ to be mindful of Buddha then. Such related negative thoughts that surface can become equivalent to ‘evil thoughts’ (恶念), making dying without them challenging. Can one reach Pure Land then?
Great Master Tánluán (昙鸾大师) and Pure Land Patriarchs such as Great Master Yìnguāng (印光大师) reminded that there should be good-knowing (spiritual) friends (善知识) then, to offer guidance (开示), to urge giving rise to Faithful Aspiration (信愿) to reach Pure Land, followed by support-chanting (助念) to motivate adequate sincere mindfulness of Buddha.
Naturally next, is the worry that there might not be friends present to offer guidance with support-chanting. Great Master Yìnguāng put an end to this worry by teaching this — ‘If you are willing to support others to have pure mindfulness for rebirth in Pure Land, you will also attain the reward of others’ support-chanting for you.’ (肯助人净念往生，亦得人助念之报。) Thus, there is no need to worry about not getting help if one helps others.
He also taught that with guidance and support-chanting offered, ‘Accomplishing one person’s rebirth in Pure Land is to accomplish one sentient being to become a Buddha. Of this kind of meritorious virtues, how can they be conceivable?’ (成就一人往生净土，即是成就一众生作佛。此等功德，何可思议？) These great meritorious virtues, also created by mindfulness of Buddha, are part of the ‘good practices’ (善行) above too.
For truly sincere practitioners, even if there are no human support-chanters present, there can be unseen ones, in terms of Dharma Protector Gods (护法神) and Bodhisattvas, whose guidance to be mindful of Buddha fills the air (and mind). Once sincere mindfulness of Buddha arises, pain and confusion will disappear, as replaced by bliss and clarity with connection to Buddha.
As further assurance, with truly diligent practice of mindfulness of Buddha in everyday life, one is correspondingly less likely to have great pain and confusion when departing, as much negative karma that conditions them should have been cleared with an entire lifetime of practice already. This is how ‘earlier diligent practice’ is be able to help then, with no past efforts wasted. To summarise the above are these verses —
Verses On Leaning West
People [who] accumulated good practices,
dying without evil thoughts,
[are] like trees [to the] West leaning,
[with] falling definitely [and] accordingly [to the] West.
Relying [upon] Faith, Aspiration [and] Practice,
[with] a lifetime [of] Buddha mindfulness,
wholeheartedly [to the] West leaning,
definite [is] birth [in the] Western [Pure Land].
(The first verse is by the Buddha, as quoted by Great Master Tánluán in his ‘Brief Treatise On Meaning Of The Pure Land Of Peace And Bliss’《略论安乐净土义》，while the second verse links it to Pure Land practice.)
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