Testimonies

Our Amazing And Surreal Experience: From Niànfó Novices To Zhùniàn Leaders 我们的奇妙经历: 从初学念佛者成助念领导者

Introduction

My wife Linda and I (Han) have been students of Teacher Shi’an (SA) since the early 2010s. It is our good fortune to learn about Āmítuófó (阿弥陀佛) and the Pure Land (净土) teachings from him. We were also regulars in his Dharma classes and Pureland Practice Fellowship (PPF). However, since PPF sessions’ location and timing changed some time ago, we hardly attended any sessions, though we still try to attend the classes. We did what we could to continue with our Niànfó (念佛) practice (of sincere mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s name).

We remain part of the inner PPF WhatsApp group and the public Telegram group: https://t.me/purelanders, and were constantly updated with the Dharma sharing by Teacher SA. We read about the various support-chanting (助念: Zhùniàn) activities by PPF and rejoiced in all the auspicious signs (瑞相) that arose: https://purelanders.com/category/testimonies. But we never had the affinity to partake in any of them, thinking we will someday.

I always remember what Teacher SA said… Don’t depend on others for Zhùniàn and even Niànfó. Due to the unpredictability of life, conditions may not be ideal when it is our time to go. Thus, it is always best to be diligent in Niànfó, to be self-sufficient.

These words proved ‘prophetic’ when my Father-in-law (Dad) Mr. K.T. Sen passed on suddenly. We were on our own. Not that it was not possible, we felt that there was little affinity to ask PPF for Zhùniàn as we did not partake in any PPF Zhùniàn sessions before. We explored engaging other groups but it did not feel appropriate, and we were not sure how. With so many things happening at the same time, we decided to do it on our own. To say it was ‘challenging’ is an understatement. Dad’s immediate family is a huge and typical somewhat Taoist-leaning family. Out of 27 family members, only Linda and I are trained Pure Land Buddhists.

This is our story of how we went from NATO (No Action, Talk Only) novices, to be the ones leading a group of more than 20 family members to Niànfó, for more than 8 hours, and throughout 5 days of the wake. We also personally experienced the auspicious signs that we often heard about. This truly reinforced our Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith (信), Aspiration (愿) and Practice (行) to be reborn in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land.

Background

Dad’s faith in Āmítuófó began some years ago when he was hospitalised. Linda told him to Niànfó whenever he felt uneasy, telling him that if he does so, Āmítuófó and all other Buddhas will be able to look after him.

One day, while Linda was visiting him there, Dad told her that he had a beautiful dream. He saw a bright light and the Buddha, and he was lifted up to the sky. He felt so joyful and blissful. However, he was brought back to earth after a short while. All these years, Dad asked why he didn’t have that dream anymore. Linda told him that he is already very blessed to have affinity with the Buddha, to have such a dream, and encouraged him to Niànfó often. Since that day, Dad strengthened his faith in Āmítuófó and his Pure Land.

Before Departure  

31 January (Sunday)

At 3am, Dad, age 94, had difficulty breathing at home and was rushed to Singapore General Hospital. His ward was a high dependency ward due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The doctors’ prognosis was not positive due to his age and medical condition. But he could not transfer to a normal ward until confirmed to be without COVID-19. The hospital did 2 swab tests and we had to wait for the results.

1 February (Monday)

Dad was transferred to a normal ward after clearing the tests, but there was no improvement. The nurses told us to be prepared for the worst, asking us to get all his kids, grandkids and extended family (of more than 50 people) to take turns to come to see him. We initiated Zhùniàn in the hospital room with those who present. Those who could not come chanted through live streaming. Dad was conscious and requested to go home.

2 February (Tuesday)

Given his situation, the doctors cleared Dad for discharge to go home. There was a mad rush to go home via private ambulance as Dad’s condition was unstable, with ‘record-breaking’ speed in heavy traffic conditions.

After settling down at home, Dad’s condition improved and he became lucid. He asked for a drink and was able to converse with us. The sombre mood of the past few days turned to cautious hope. Dad seemed to be on the way to recovery.

But his condition turned bad in the evening. The whole night, all the family members were with him. We did Niànfó all the way. Linda heard him say ‘Āmítuófó’ twice. Linda told him to Niànfó, and to only follow Āmítuófó and no one else to his Pure Land.

3 February (Wednesday)

1.00am: The condition of Dad turned bad again. The whole extended family was called to his bedside.
1.35pm: Dad finally passed on peacefully.

After Departure

The Pure Land Passport book《净土护照》(purelanders.com/now) was very useful, as Linda followed its instructions on how to cover Dad with the Rebirth Blanket (往生被) with finesse when he passed on. She proceeded very smoothly as the instructions were detailed and clear. (As it is for protection and blessings, it can be used in the dying phase too.)

As Pure Land practitioners, we are mindful that we must continue to carry on Zhùniàn (after passing) for at least 8 hours. His body should also not be touched or moved. With gratitude to Āmítuófó’s blessings, the 8-hour Zhùniàn was surprisingly smooth. Dad had so many children and grandchildren who adored him. Though the plan was to Niànfó in group shifts of 5 to ensure continuity, some simply did it for 8 hours straight with minimal breaks. The affinity of non-Buddhist family members with Āmítuófó really impressed and touched us.

Not moving his body was a challenge. We had to get a doctor to certify his death, to examine his body. Also, we had to move his bed further into the landed house for the undertaker to set up the wake with an altar in the living room. This again involved moving the bed with his body. When it was over, we were relieved to find that sincere Niànfó can overcome these minor inconveniences.

When Dad first passed on, the changes in his facial expressions were obvious. His mouth was open and the overall appearance was stiff. When Mom (Mother-in-law) saw this, she was worried. She asked if we should put anything on his mouth to ‘close’ it. We told her not to worry, and to simply continue with sincere Niànfó.

A Bhikṣuṇī (比丘尼) who was a former neighbour, whom Linda had not seen for more than 30 years attended the wake, and broached the subject of organising a refuge ceremony (皈依仪式) for Dad (to become a Buddhist formally). Linda was hesitant due to her large and traditionally Taoist-leaning family, not wanting to be seen as imposing her beliefs, especially given the trying circumstances. But the Bhikṣuṇī spoke to Mom about it and she was surprisingly supportive. So, when the Bhikṣus (比丘) came to chant on the last day, they conducted the ceremony for Dad to take refuge. This is nothing short of miraculous.

Auspicious Signs After 8 Hours Of Zhùniàn

[1] With Facial Features As If Alive

Not only did Dad’s mouth close naturally, we could see the tinge of a smile. His complexion became clear, soft-looking and radiant, a sharp contrast to the pale look of agedness and tired suffering before he passed on. You have to see it to believe it. Dad looked as though he was in deep sleep, better than how he looked on his hospital bed. Teacher SA confirmed that this is a good sign when I told him so. It is an auspicious sign called ‘with the facial features as if alive’ (面相如生), expressing the peace and bliss of the departed upon connection to Āmítuófó’s blessings.

[2] Extraordinary Fragrance Filling The Room

For a moment, during the 8-hour chanting, I sensed a mysterious fragrance. I looked around to find the source but could not find anything unusual because everyone was chanting. Given my Pure Land training, I was quietly joyful to experience this, even if it was only for a short while. This is another auspicious sign called ‘extraordinary fragrance filling the room’ (异香满堂), expressing connection to the blessings of Āmítuófó, sometimes experienced when his noble assembly (圣众) arrives to receive and guide (接引) to Pure Land. Though this can be due to the presence of good gods (善神) too, when this occurs in the midst of Niànfó, it should be linked to Āmítuófó.

Some Lessons Learnt

[1] Final Lucidity Is Real

‘Returning of reflecting light’ (回光反照) is a metaphor for the sudden lucidity or short-term ‘excitement’ that might arise when a person is about to die, that is like the final energetic splutter of an ‘engine’, which might be mistaken as recovery. This happened on 2 February when Dad came home from the hospital. He behaved almost normally. He could speak and even ask for food. As mentioned, we were cautiously hopeful. It was short-lived because he passed on the next day. Thus, false recovery should not lead to complacency.

[2] The Power Of Niànfó And Āmítuófó’s Blessings Is Real

One morning at the hospital, Linda noticed that Dad was very restless. Though he kept quiet, Dad kept staring at different parts of the ceiling. Linda quickly showed Dad Āmítuófó’s image on her phone. She told him to look at Āmítuófó’s image instead, and to Niànfó with her, to not look at other ‘stuff’. We suspected he may have seen ‘unseen’ beings, who might or might not be karmic creditors (冤亲债主). (Another approach that could be used, especially if there is no Buddha image around for diverting attention, is to ask the dying person to close his or her eyes to do sincere Niànfó.)

Linda also reminded Dad of his experience of bright light with the Buddha, to encourage him to Niànfó with her. After a short period of Niànfó, Dad was sleeping peacefully like a baby. He was also breathing very smoothly. It is thus very important to have Āmítuófó’s image as a focal point for those on their deathbed, so that they will readily see it when awake, to be reminded to stay focused on Niànfó, to not be distracted.

[3] Practice Makes Perfect

Zhùniàn and Niànfó are skills. Skills can be improved with efforts and practice. We did more Niànfó practice during this period than in the last 7 years. This certainly reinforced our faith in the power of Āmítuófó’s blessings and his Pure Land, as we strengthened our Three Provisions.

[4] Not All Are Pure Land Trained

We assumed that a Buddhist undertaker should know the ideal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for facilitating a Pure Land rebirth, with steps like those explained in the Pure Land Passport. But this is not necessarily true. Undertakers might have their own suggested Buddhist SOP, which can be different due to different schools of thought. You have to tell them clearly what you want and stand your ground. To do that, you must know your Dharma well, to have strong conviction that what you wish to do is the most appropriate. As Teacher SA shared, be the real Funeral Director and tell the undertaker what you want, because you are the paymaster. This was certainly a profound learning experience for us. (In Singapore, all burial and cremation processes can only be done through a licensed funeral service provider.)

[5] Last But Not Least, Niànfó Works!

We were your typical NATO Pure Land practitioners. Learn from what we went through. Apply what Teacher SA taught and use the Pure Land Passport’s instructions to guide you. We managed to transform from NATO novices to those leading a big group to do Zhùniàn because of our personal positive Niànfó experiences in everyday life. If you truly embrace the Three Provisions, we believe you can do it too. We look forward to seeing all fellow practitioners in Pure Land one day!

* Our sincere gratitude to Teacher SA for providing timely and very helpful remote guidance while we were going through the process, including providing copies of Amitābha Sūtra (阿弥陀经) and Buddha images for Zhùniàn. Most importantly, the lessons we learnt from his classes gave us the skills and confidence to help Dad in his final journey to Āmítuófó’s Pure Land. Thank you, Teacher SA.

Námó Āmítuófó :
Brother Han & Sister Linda
7 March 2021

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!

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