My Mother, Tan Geok Tin, 72, passed away suddenly on 23 September 2021. I had found her lifeless on the toilet floor at home, at around 9 pm that day, as I tried to do CPR, and called the SCDF (paramedics) for help. All attempts to revive her were futile. I was told that she had passed on for 1 to 2 hours. The paramedics thought she most likely had a cardiac arrest.
My Mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in April 2020. She underwent aggressive chemotherapy, countless tests, took copious medications and had numerous radiotherapy sessions. Her condition was stabilised briefly. It was a roller coaster ride for the past one and a half years. As I was her only child, I was her sole caregiver.
Once she was diagnosed, I started to tell her about Niànfó (念佛: mindfulness of Buddha). I did not talk about death or Pure Land (净土), telling her instead that ‘Āmítuófó (阿弥陀佛) is the great king of healers’ (佛是大医王), and that with the Buddha’s blessings, chanting Āmítuófó’s name (阿弥陀佛) could make her feel better. (Even if healing is limited in this life, it will be complete and lasting in the next life, in his Pure Land.) As she was a worrier, if I had mentioned death and Pure Land upfront, she might think her end was near and give up.
I was pleasantly surprised that she took my advice and started chanting twice daily since. She also diligently watched videos on Niànfó, and along the way, would have known that the ultimate destination, with the Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith, Aspiration and Practice (信愿行), was Āmítuófó’s Pure Land.
Week Of Passing
To know she was safe at home, I had installed an IP camera, which I checked frequently while at work. Typically, she would sit on a chair facing an Āmítuófó portrait that we hung on the wall, practising Niànfó for 15 to 20 minutes in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. As she was mobile but rather feeble then, in a regular Niànfó session, she would either chant silently or vocalise softly.
On 20 September, I was doing a random check with the camera. To my surprise, she was robust and standing up, facing the portrait, and visibly chanting with clear movement of her lips. She looked joyful. That was a picture of someone energised and eager. I had never seen her like this before. I was so amazed that I took a screenshot to immortalise that moment.
Night Of Passing
Just three days later, on 23 September, when I came home, she was in the toilet, seemingly taking her usual shower. I suspected something was wrong when she was still inside at 9 pm. I knocked and called for her, but there was no response. I forced the door to open a small crack and saw the tap running, with her sprawled on the floor. She was done showering and was already fully dressed. I squeezed through the crevice, performed CPR and called SCDF. (It is reasonable to try fairly to resuscitate if uncertain, as there are indeed cases of recovery.)
The SCDF paramedics arrived first, followed by the SPF (police). Everything became a blur. There were ‘troops’ of uniformed and non-uniformed people in my apartment doing various things. The paramedics asked questions, and the police interviewed me. As it was not a ‘natural’ death, they could not rule out foul play directly.
My objective was clear – no one was to further touch my Mother, and she was NOT going for an autopsy. So, I had to convince the police that there was no foul play – with the recording on my IP camera, of my mother’s activities just before she entered the toilet. (It is crucial to be appropriately cooperative to the authorities, yet stay focused on what is best for the departed.)
To have the police not take her away for an autopsy was only the first of the challenges to come. I needed a doctor to certify my Mother’s death. Thanks to Teacher Shi’an, I had the ready contact of Vimalakirti Buddhist Centre’s funeral services. They arranged for a doctor to come by, who certified her cause of death to be breast carcinoma.
Niànfó, Niànfó, Niànfó
At around 9.30pm, when the paramedics told me my Mother had passed, I immediately did three things. First, I contacted Teacher Shi’an, hoping to arrange for support-chanting (助念). He rightly reminded me that COVID-19 safety measures then would make such arrangements very challenging. However, he sent me all the necessary information, in summarised form, to guide me through this critical period. For that, I am eternally grateful. There was also phone updating of Pureland Practice Fellowship’s (PPF) list for dedication of merits, for my Mother’s ‘swift rebirth in Pure Land’.
Second, I quickly took two huge portraits of Āmítuófó and placed them near my Mother’s body. I also started playing the Niànfó device (念佛机) to guide our chanting. Third, I ‘dug out’ the Rebirth Blanket (往生被) and placed it on my Mother’s body.
While all the various personnel were still in my apartment, I offered words of guidance (开示) and started to Niànfó. (This was encouraged: https://purelanders.com/2020/03/15/support-chanting-notice.) I tried my best to respond to their questions, but there was no doubt that I had to start Niànfó straightaway.
When my partner and I started Niànfó, my Mother’s body was in an awkward position in the toilet. Although her legs were bent as she had fallen backwards, we did not move her. We but just continued to Niànfó throughout the ‘chaos’. (Movement and even touching can create magnified pain – if the consciousness is still within the body.)
The only time we paused was at around midnight. We had to go to a police station to get a death certificate, so that we could proceed with the wake the next day. Once we returned, we continued with Niànfó throughout the night. We stopped only at around 7.30 am – 10 hours after we started. (This is 2 hours more than the usual 8 hours recommended.)
When the undertakers came at around 9 am, they carried her from the toilet to the bed in her room. She looked very serene, as if sleeping peacefully – drastically different from how I found her. My partner thought so too. This is the auspicious sign (瑞相) of ‘the facial appearance as if alive’ (面相如生). (Her jaws were ‘locked’ initially, when I was doing CPR, but she now looked relaxed.)
With some trepidation, I asked the undertakers if they had any difficulties manoeuvring her body. They said ‘no’. Her body was supple. This is the auspicious sign of the ‘body and mind being gentle and soft’ (身心柔软), a sign of peace and bliss (安乐), with connection to Āmítuófó’s great blessings. That was about 14 hours after she had passed.
Wake And Funeral
At the encoffining service, the monastic who did the chanting commented that my Mother looked very serene. So did the funeral director.
The wake lasted three days. We arranged to have monastic chanting of the Amitābha Sūtra《阿弥陀经》on the first night, and the Kṣitigarbha Sūtra《地藏经》on the second. We never stopped chanting Āmítuófó throughout the wake. Whenever I had time, I would sit on a chair by the coffin to Niànfó. One of my cousins did so too. (This was encouraged: purelanders.com/wake.) Everything in the Buddhist wake and funeral went smoothly. I thought my mother had a dignified send-off.
Since my Mother’s funeral, I practised Niànfó for about 30 minutes daily, and would dedicate the merits for her rebirth in Pure Land, in a higher grade if possible. We completed 49 days of practice three weeks ago. Throughout this duration, I did not have any dreams of my Mother or experience any unnatural phenomenon.
While I did not encounter heavenly music, catch a whiff of extraordinary fragrance, or witness golden light… I sincerely believed that my Mother made it to Pure Land. The serenity on her face, as if she was asleep, and the suppleness of her body were proof enough for me.
And yes, I still miss her daily. But I am comforted that she is now in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, to continue her Dharma learning directly from Āmítuófó and all the great Bodhisattvas there.
I wish to put on record my sincere gratitude to Teacher (S)hi’an for guiding me through one of the most difficult challenges of my life, and at short notice too. Now, I truly internalise the truth that ‘death is without a definite date’ (死无定期), which is why we should always practise Niànfó, and be prepared to step up with Niànfó for our loved ones.
S: Since the primary practice you did for your Mother was support-chanting (助念), and since she already practised Niànfó daily, these auspicious signs MUST have arose because of Niànfó. And since you offered guidance properly, she MUST have heeded the advice to give rise to these signs. To heed the guidance also means she MUST have given rise to the Three Provisions to reach Pure Land. Thus, she MUST have reached Pure Land. There is simply no likelier alternative possibility.
Me: Thank you. This is very comforting. The knowledge of her reaching Pure Land was why I barely shed a tear through her wake and funeral.
S: Wonderful! 善哉! (Excellent!) Congratulations! You have indeed done the best thing for your Mother, with utmost efforts fulfilling filial piety successfully (尽心尽孝成功). You are the next recent PPF Purelander, who more or less single-handedly handled the departure of a family member during this challenging COVID situation. Our Dharma learning is for practice, especially during such moments. Well done!
Me: My Mother started Niànfó only one year plus ago – thanks to your encouragement and reminder, that the most filial thing anyone can do is to urge one’s parents to believe in Niànfó, and to practise it to reach Pure Land.
Assurance Of Others
Me: I hope, among other things, that my sharing can help others in similar situations to have some comfort, to remind them that we should not always expect some ‘ultra-special’ phenomenal signs to be convinced of our loved ones’ rebirths in Pure Land, although they might arise in some cases. We tend to remember the more amazing cases while forgetting that most of us are very ordinary practitioners. That was one of my biggest learning points. There was nothing dramatic, while an overall sense of serenity convinced me that my Mother had indeed reached Pure Land.
S: Another Purelander’s Mother departed recently. She worried at first, about not having very special signs, despite her Mother having already practised Niànfó for a long time, and having a peaceful final expression. Your sharing will surely further comfort her.
Me: If I wasn’t convinced myself, of the ability to reach Pure Land, how could I expect my Mother to do so, if her consciousness was still around? I had to actively tell myself to have Faith, and not bear seeds of doubt.
S: Yes, our Faith can and must be pure and infectious. Also, she did see her near her last moments, moving her lips to Niànfó silently.
Me: That is as good as it gets – to Niànfó till the last moments. The Purelander must be assured of her Mother’s Faith, Aspiration and Practice! She had the advantage of seeing her Mother Niànfó towards the end. I didn’t, but am still convinced my Mother had reached Pure Land. So, all the more should she be convinced. Āmítuófó.
🙏 南无阿弥陀佛 🙏 Námó Āmítuófó 🙏
Seeto Wei Peng
Pureland Practice Fellowship Member
5 December 2021