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Buddhism of Wisdom & Faith: Pure Land Principles and Practice
Dharma Master Thich Thien Tam
Translated and edited by the Van Hien Study Group
Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada
10. The Last Rites
71) Between Death and Burial 72) Success and Failure in Supportive Recitation
 If, during this period, we move the body, clean it, change its clothes, or weep and lament, the deceased may still experience feelings of pain, sadness, anger or self-pity, and descend upon the Evil Paths. This is a crucial point -- a critical one -- that relatives should note and remember well.
The practice of touching the body of the deceased to locate the last warm spot and deduce his place of rebirth is grounded in the sutras and commentaries.
However, we should not be inflexible. If the patient had sincere, earnest faith and vows in normal times and clearly exhibits right thought at the time of death, this is sufficient evidence of rebirth in the Pure Land. Some persons who are not careful keep "feeling" the body, touching one spot after another, disturbing the deceased. This can cause great harm.
After the patient has expired, the persons who came to recite the Buddha's name should continue doing so for another three hours. After that, the body should be left alone, free of all disturbances, for another five hours (or a total of eight hours), at which time it can be bathed and given a change of clothing. If, during the entire eight-hour period. someone, or a group of persons, can remain near the deceased reciting the Buddha's name, so much the better. Except for recitation, nothing should be done. A reminder and caveat: during this period, the "deceased" may still have consciousness and feelings.
After the eight-hour period, if the limbs have grown stiff and cannot move, we should put a towel soaked in hot water around the joints. After a while, the body can be repositioned.
Funeral arrangements should be kept simple, not accompanied by superfluous ceremonies occasioning unnecessary expenses. Another caveat: only vegetarian food should be served. No non-vegetarian food should be provided as offerings or to entertain guests -- for to take life is to sadden the departed with more karmic obstructions and "heavy baggage," making his liberation that much more difficult. Even if he has already been reborn in the Pure Land, his grade of rebirth may be lowered as a result.
Some time ago, this author, along with other monks and nuns, attended an elaborate funeral for the stepmother of one of his friends, a high-ranking Master in Long An province, southern Vietnam. Throughout the funeral, only vegetarian food was served. After congratulating his friend, the author inquired about this and was told, "the serving of vegetarian food is due partly to my recommendation; however, the major impetus was an event which took place not long ago in a nearby village:
"After a prosperous elder had passed away, his son ordered a huge quantity of livestock slaughtered to feed relatives and friends for several days. (In his lifetime, the elder, a good-natured, benevolent man who practiced Buddha Recitation and was vegetarian several days a month, had had many friends and associates.) The very evening after the funeral, his eldest grandson suddenly had a fit in front of everyone. His face all red, he suddenly jumped onto the wooden plank bed in the living room, sat squarely upon it, and slapped his hand against a nearby desk. Calling his father by his given name, he scolded him loudly: 'Right up until my death, I practiced charity and accumulated merits; without any heavy transgressions, I should have been reborn wealthy and into a good family. Instead, because of you and the heavy karma of killing you created on my behalf, I, as your father, am now confined and forced to look after a herd of cows, as well as pigs, chickens and ducks. I have to run back and forth barefoot through mud and thorns. My sufferings are truly beyond description!"'
After recounting the story, the Master smiled and said, "This event, which occurred only a few months ago, is known to the entire village and is believed and dreaded by my relatives. For precisely this reason, when I suggested vegetarian food, the idea was immediately accepted."
The Ksitigarbha Sutra [ch. VII] goes into detail about the harm associated with slaughtering animals to serve guests at funerals. Buddhist followers should take heed and bear this in mind.
When performing follow-up good deeds on behalf of the deceased, we should dedicate the merit and virtue to all sentient beings in the Dharma Realm. In this way, these merits and virtues will be multiplied many times over and so will the benefits accrued to the deceased.
These preparations for the time of death have been taken from the teachings of Elder Masters of the past. The last moments of life are the most crucial ones. If the "provisions for rebirth" are not ready and adequate, the patient cannot avoid extreme fright and bewilderment. At that time, too late to seek help and faced with the simultaneous appearance of all kinds of bad karma accumulated over countless lifetimes, how can he achieve liberation?
Therefore, while we may rely on others for support and assistance at the time of death, we ourselves should strive to cultivate during normal times. Only then will we feel free and at peace.
I beg you all, fellow Pure Land practitioners, to take heed and be prepared, so that we may all be reborn in the ocean-wide Lotus Assembly!1. Story of LCL
The layman LCL was a legislator and an official early in life. As he had affinities with Buddhism, he contributed to such good works as restoring a local temple, donating land to it and inviting an Elder Master to head it. He was also diligent in raising funds to build a statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which was about one hundred feet high.
In 1933 he took refuge with the Triple Jewel under the Patriarch Yin Kuang. He resolved to be a vegetarian six days a month and took up the practice of Buddha Recitation. In the years that followed, however, because of his heavy schedule, his practice, while sincere, was irregular.
In 1938, he fell gravely ill. As time went by and his condition did not improve, he made large donations to worthwhile activities, in the hope of expunging some of his bad karma. He also became a full time vegetarian. The following year, as his illness took a turn for the worse, his wife and sons, realizing the importance of the last moments, hurriedly invited monks from the local temple to recite the Buddha's name at his bedside.
On the 19th of January of that year, LCL, sensing that his end was near, asked to be taken out to the courtyard to breathe fresh air. After speaking to his brothers and sisters, he requested his son to kneel down to hear his will. As he was speaking, LCL's countenance suddenly changed. Seeing this, his wife and son helped him back into the house and placed a statue of a standing Amitabha Buddha before him. They then began to recite aloud, together with the monks. For several months, LCL's left arm had been paralyzed, but when he saw the statue, he managed to regain the use of his arm. With palms joined, he began to recite the Buddha's name, his face radiant and beaming with joy. At that moment, he seemed to have forgotten all pain and suffering, as he recited along with the others for a while, before dying peacefully, at the age of sixty-one.
The layman LCL had practiced Buddha Recitation sincerely during the last part of his life. At his deathbed, thanks to supportive recitation, a number of auspicious signs appeared. These included stable faculties, right thought and a peaceful death, as though in samadhi. We can therefore deduce that he certainly achieved rebirth in the Pure Land.
While the layman's rebirth was due to his maturing good roots, it was also helped by the supportive recitation he received when on his deathbed. Thus, Pure Land practitioners should recognize the particular importance and urgency of supportive recitation just before death.
The laywoman DH was the wife of a certain man in the city of Yangchow. As she could not bear children, her husband took a concubine, which made it difficult for her to remain in the conjugal home. Therefore, she went to live with her stepmother, another lay Buddhist, who loved her as her own daughter. They supported and relied on one another, and two years passed as though they were but one day.
The laywoman DH was a vegetarian who earnestly practiced Buddha Recitation day and night. She and her stepmother realized that they had scant merits and few good conditions in this life, and no one else to rely on in case of need, as their relatives were dead or far away. They therefore wholeheartedly helped one another, as Dharma friends along the Way. From the point of view of faith and daily cultivation, DH far surpassed LCL of our previous story. Unfortunately, however, because of heavy residual karma and unfavorable conditions, she always met with adverse circumstances and her mind was never at peace.
In 1938, sensing that a major upheaval was impending, mother and daughter immediately left Hong Kong, where they had been staying, to seek refuge back on the mainland. At that time, the cost of living was skyrocketing. Renting a place to live was difficult, while staying in hotels for any length of time was both costly and inconvenient. Fortunately, a local abbot took pity on the women and set aside a small area of his temple for them and three other refugees.
Around March of the following year, DH suddenly contracted typhoid fever. The illness lasted for over a month, with no signs of recovery. At that time, the temple was very busy and space was at a premium. If she were to die there, it would cause a great deal of inconvenience. Therefore, with great reluctance, her stepmother decided to bring her to the local hospital.
The hospital followed Western medical practice, making it difficult to engage in supportive recitation freely and in an appropriate manner. On the 18th of August, after two or three days in the hospital, with no one practicing supportive recitation at her bedside and in a confused state of mind, the laywoman DH died. She was fifty-one years of age at the time.
We can see that the laywoman DH was truly a woman of faith, who had practiced in earnest. If, at the time of death, she had had the benefit of adequate supportive recitation, auspicious signs of rebirth in the Pure Land should have appeared, no fewer than in the case of LCL. Such was not, unfortunately, the case. Because of adverse circumstances, she died in a coma, unattended by Dharma friends. She probably did not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, but merely managed to sow the seeds of Enlightenment for future lives. What happened to her was regrettable, but demonstrates that supportive recitation at the time of death is truly of crucial importance.
The layman DLH was from a poor merchant family Well-mannered and courteous, he had a good grasp of worldly affairs. In 1922, following the example of a friend, he took refuge with the Triple Jewel, and along with others, vowed to develop the Bodhi Mind, to rescue himself and others.
A few years later, because of a serious illness, he abandoned vegetarianism and began to drift away from his Buddhist friends. In July of that year, his illness grew more severe, and everyone feared the worst. Realizing that his end was near, DLH sincerely repented his past transgressions, let go of everything and concentrated all his time and effort on Buddha Recitation. Fellow cultivators, fearing that his practice was still shallow, were continuously at his bedside.
Supportive recitation itself began on the 12th of July. Three days later, the layman DLH suddenly experienced a surge of strength, feeling fresh and well. On the 17th, he told everyone that in a dream, he had seen an aura of light as bright as five or six electric bulbs. That evening, his complexion appeared to be normal. His fellow cultivators continued their recitation until the wee hours and were preparing to leave, when DLH suddenly said, "I have not yet reached the Pure Land. Please continue reciting all day."
The group gladly complied, and recitation went on, with DLH mostly remaining silent. He was smiling calmly, his face radiant, as though he had received some news that was good beyond expectation. This continued for some time, until he became still and immobile, his gaze fixed on the standing Amitabha statue facing him. His eyes then began to cloud over and his breathing subsided. He passed away at five o'clock that morning.
The cultivators took turns reciting, interspersing recitation with words of encouragement and exhortation, until his body was completely cold. His next of kin had been warned not to weep or wail. At ten a.m., one of the practitioners touched DLH's body and discovered that it was cold all over except for the crown, which was as hot as boiling water.
The sutras contain a stanza:The crown stands for sainthood, the eyes rebirth in a celestial realm,When the cultivator's body is completely cold except for the crown, that person has been reborn in the realm of the saints, or of the Buddhas. When his eyes are the last to remain warm, he has been reborn in the celestial realms; warmth in the area of the heart means rebirth among human beings. If the abdominal area retains warmth after the body has grown cold, he has been reborn among hungry ghosts. The knees represent rebirth among animals, while the soles of the feet indicate the hellish realms. Thus, the last warm spot represents the place where the consciousness of the deceased escaped the mortal body.
The heart indicates the human realm, the belly stands for the ghostly,
The knees are tantamount to animality, the soles of the feet stand for the hells.
The fact that DLH's crown was the last warm spot shows that he achieved rebirth in the Pure Land -- his very goal in the last years of his life.
The layman DLH was not above violating the precepts. His cultivation was shallow and wanting as well. His rebirth in the Pure Land, therefore, was largely due to the supportive recitation of his fellow cultivators. Here again, we can see the importance of supportive recitation at the time of death. That time was the 18th of July 1924 -- and DLH was thirty years old!