Lecture given by Shramana Hong Yi
of Zun Sheng Institute of the Great Kai Yuan Monastery at Jin Shui
Translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society
(Originally published in Pureland Karma Society Members' Handbook, 1995)
In the 12th month of the year Ren Shen (1932), the Buddha Recitation Association of Miao Shi Monastery in Amoy asked me to give a talk, the transcription of which formed the basis for this article. At that time, Vinaya Master Liao Shi was ill in bed. He was miserable day and night. When he saw this article, he suddenly felt a mixture of joy and sorrow. He ignored his body and mind, forgot about his medicines, and vigorously recited the Buddha's name. Even though he was sick, he still got out of bed and bowed the Great Compassion Repentance. He sang praises and recited Sutras loudly and knelt for hours. His perseverance and vigor surpassed that of ordinary people. Those who saw him or heard about it were surprised and pleased. They commented on what a great inspiration this article provides. So I thought that although this article is only a few pages long, still it is the excerpts of the inspired words of the past and present, plus some of my own experiences. Those who are happy with simplified materials might prefer this. That is why I compile this material so that it can be printed for distribution.
Section 1: Introduction.
To quote the classic poem:
"I watch other people die,
And my mind is ablaze like fire.
It's not burning for them,
It's 'cause I see my own turn coming soon."
How could we forget even for an instant the very last moment of our life which is the most important part? So I'm going to discuss it in the following six sections:
Section 2: During A Critical Illness.
When you are critically ill, you should put down all family matters and any concerns for your own body. Single-mindedly recite the Buddha's name. With all your heart, yearn to be reborn in the West. If you can do this, when your time is up, you will be certainly be reborn there. But if your time is not up, although you seek rebirth, your sickness will be cured quicker. Because your mind is so sincere, you can eradicate the evil karma from many lives past.
Suppose you fail to put everything down and have not concentrated on reciting the Buddha's name. Then when your time is up, you certainly won't be reborn in the Western Land. Since you only concentrated on trying to recover from your illness, and you didn't seek rebirth in the West, there is no cause for you to be reborn there. If your time is not up, yet you have wholeheartedly wished to recover from your illness, to the point that you have become deeply worried and frightened; then not only will you not recover quickly, you will also add further misery to your illness. If your illness is not critical, you can take medicine, but you should still vigorously recite the Buddha's name. You shouldn't think of recovering through taking medicine. If your illness becomes critical, you may stop taking medicine.
When I was sick and lying in a stone hut, some people advised me to see a doctor and take medication. I thanked them with a verse:
Amitabha Buddha is
The Unsurpassed King of Medicine.
To renounce him and not seek from him,
Is to be a fool!
One recitation of "Amitabha"
Is an agada;
To ignore it and not take it,
Is to make a big mistake.
Although I am sick, why would I forsake the Dharma-door of the Pure Land, which I ordinarily believe in and explain to others, and instead, ask for other medicine? Wouldn't that be a huge foolish mistake? When the sickness becomes fatal and you are in intense pain and suffering, you should never be panic. The illness and suffering may be your karmic obstacles from past lives. Or, it could be the future suffering of the Three Evil Paths which you are now encountering in this life in a lighter form. In this way the debts get paid off quickly. You should also give away all your clothing and personal belongings when you are critically ill. It's best if you can offer Sutras and images, such as is mentioned in the "Chapter of the Praise of the Thus Come One" in the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva Sutra.
If a person's consciousness is still clear when he is fatally ill, someone should invite good and wise advisors to speak the Dharma to him. Use your best effort to soothe and pacify the dying person. Enumerate all the good deeds that he has done throughout his entire life. Detail and praise each one of them. Make the dying person happy so he will have no doubts and worries. Give him confidence that through the strength of his good deeds, he surely will be reborn in the Western Land.
Section 3: At The Time Of Death.
At the moment of death, never ask the dying person for his will or indulge in small talk and unnecessary conversations. These could trigger the dying person's passions of loving to stay in this world, and thus hinder his rebirth in the Pure Land. Those who wish to leave a will should write it up while they are still healthy and give it to someone for safekeeping. If the dying person asks to be washed and to have his/her clothing changed, then you can try to comply with his/her wishes and do it. If he doesn't want to, or is unable to talk, don't force the issue. If you have to forcefully move a dying person to bathe and change his clothes, you will only increase his pain which, usually at the time of death is already intense. In the world there have been many, many cases of people who had made vows to be reborn in the West, yet because of the family members' disturbance by moving them at the time of death, their proper mindfulness got broken, so they failed to be reborn in the West. There are also cases where the dying person would have been reborn in a good path, but someone accidentally touched him; whereupon the dying person became angry and fell into an evil path instead. A similar story is recorded in the Sutra where King Agnidatta died and was degraded to a snake's body. Isn't that frightening?!
At the time of death, follow the dying person's wishes as to whether they want to sit or lie down. Don't force them. If the dying person feels that his strength is failing, he can certainly be allowed to lie in bed. It is not necessary to struggle to sit up just for appearance's sake. If the dying person lies down, he should lie facing theWest on his right side . If the dying person is in pain, they can lie on their back or on their left side, facing East. Everything should be done naturally without force. When everyone has gathered to recite the Buddha's name, an image of Amitabha Buddha welcoming beings should be placed in the person's room so he can see it. It doesn't matter how many people there are to recite. If there are many, they can recite in shifts so the recitation never stops. You should find out from the dying person beforehand how he/she usually recited the Buddha's name; with six or four syllables, fast or slow. If you follow the tune that the dying person usually uses, he will at this time be more easily able to follow along in his mind. Nowadays, I see that those who help recite at the time of death follow their own whims as to what music to use without asking the dying person. How can we expect him to follow along since what we do is different from his usual habits or taste? I hope that from now on those who assist in reciting will pay attention to this point.
Further, those who help with the recitation sometimes use a hand bell and small wooden fish. From my experience, I have seen that those who are nervous and hysterical find the sound of the hand bell and small wooden fish frightening when they are ill, because the high pitch stimulates their nerves, making their minds unsettled. In my opinion, it is best to use only your voice to help the recitation; forget about the hand bell or the small wooden fish. Or you can use the big bell, the big gong, and the big wooden fish, since their tones are more sonorous. Those who hear these instruments become more respectful and solemn. That is much better than the small hand bell or the small wooden fish. Everyone's liking is different. You should really ask the dying person in detail beforehand what he would prefer and then go aheadand follow that. However, if it turns out to be inappropriate, it can be changed anytime. Don't be obstinate.
Section 4: The Day After The Death.
Once the person has died, the most important thing is not to hastily move the body. Even if it has been soiled with excrement, you shouldn't wash it right away. You must wait for at least eight hours before washing the body or changing the clothes. Although this is very important, often people do not pay attention to it. Please advise others to observe these instructions cautiously.
Before and after death, the family members should not cry. What is the point of crying? The dead person truly benefits if everyone puts his effort into reciting the Buddha's name. If there are people who really need to cry, they should wait until at least eight hours after the death. Don't become attached to the idea about the warmth at the crown of the head
though it may be evident. If the person usually had true faith and vows and, at the time of death, was properly mindful and clear, then his rebirth in the Pure Land can be verified with certainty. After the person has died and after the Buddha's name has been recited, immediately lock the door to the room to avoid someone coming and unintentionally touching the body. You may wash the body and change the clothes no sooner than eight hours after death. Though it has been mentioned before, I want to reaffirm that. Please remember it. If you move the body within this eight hour period then, although the dead person cannot speak, he can still feel pain and suffering.
After eight hours, it is permissible to change the clothing. If rigor mortishas set in and the joints are not limber, you may sponge down the body with warm water. Wrap a warm cloth around the elbows and knees to loosen them up. Soon you will be able to move the limbs as though the person were still alive.
Dress the body in old clothes; don't use new ones. Give away the new ones to others, so that the dead person may receive some blessings. Don't use an expensive coffin and don't bother with an outrageous tomb. None of these extravagant expenses are of any benefit to the deceased.
Section 5: Ceremonies For The Deceased.
When the Sangha is invited to perform transcendent ceremonies for the deceased within forty-nine days after death, keep recitation of the Buddha's name as the principal business. Although reciting sutras, bowing repentance, performing the "Flaming Mouth Ceremony", and the "Water and Land Assembly", etc. carry inconceivable merit and virtue, yet because most of today's Sangha regard these as formalities, the ceremonies they perform are done in a very perfunctory manner. There is no actual benefit when ceremonies are not performed in accord with Dharma. In the Collected Writings of Dharma Master Yin Guang, several times he comments on this point, saying that if the performance of ceremonies is just to make an impressive show, it's a trick without value.
If you emphasize the recitation of the Buddha's name, then everyone can participate, and it is something concrete with lot of benefits for all. If you invite the Sangha to recite the Buddha's name, then the whole family should join in the recitation, too. The women should sit behind a screen or in a separate room to avoid criticism and rumors. All the merit and virtue from the recitation of the Buddha's name should be transferred to all living beings throughout the Dharma Realm. This will enable the merit and virtue to be extensive. The transference will also increase the benefit to the deceased. If you hold memorial services for the deceased, the meals should be vegetarian and everyone should abstain from eating meat, since the killing involved in meat is totally non-beneficial to the deceased. Don't be ostentatious in the funeral ceremonials, making it look good for the living. It should be done in such a way as topreserve the blessings of the deceased. After the forty-nine days are over, you should still often perform ceremonies as an act of filial remembrance. Great Master Lian Chi said that throughout the year we should frequently pray for blessings on behalf of the dead. It is not the case that since they are already liberated, we don't have to do anything for them any longer.
Advice Others to Organize Associations
Help Recite At The Time of Death.
This is a very important matter. As many of these associations as possible should be set up in towns and villages everywhere. For detailed regulations, one may read about them in the "Guiding Instructions for the Management of Death."
Section 7: Conclusion.
The year is close to an end, soon it will be the 30th of the twelve month, which is the last day of the year. If you have not managed your finances well, debt collectors may come knocking at your door. How are you going to shut them out? When our life is close to an end, it is like the thirtieth day of the twelve lunar month, the last day of our lifetime. If we haven't prepared our provisions well for the Pure Land, we will be totally disoriented and crying to our parents for help. When the evil karma from many lives past appears all at once, how are we going to get out of it? Although at the point of death, we may rely on others to help recite and carry out everything the right way, yet daily cultivation, practiced during ordinary days, will allow us to be in control at the time of death. I exhort all of you, Virtuous Ones, it is better to be prepared in advance!
Revision made in the tenth month of draft material (A) from a talk in the ninth month of the year Ren Shen.
return to top