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Amitabha practice: Practice while we are alive

Amitabha practice: Practice while we are alive

Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.

  • The importance of practicing while we are alive
  • Working with the mind during the death process
  • Seeing things around us as visions or appearances

We are continuing along with the Amitabha sadhana, talking about the death absorptions and visions that we have as the elements of our body are losing their ability to support consciousness. The kinds of visions, sensations we may have, and what we are requesting to Amitabha to inspire us with when those visions and sensations happen, and how important it is to make these determinations and aspirations while we’re alive. Not just waiting until we’re on our deathbed.

We’ve talked about the earth absorbing and requesting Amitabha to helps us to give up our grasping at mundane existence and to aspire for rebirth in his pure realm. How it’s important to give up our grasping at mundane existence while we’re alive.

That’s why the Buddha taught. The Buddha didn’t teach the Dharma so that we could wait until we’re on our deathbed to practice.

Then we talked about the earth absorbing into water, the mirage-like appearance, our mouth becomes dry and foul tasting, and then requesting Amitabha to tell us not to be afraid and to inspire us with pure courage, and how pure courage comes from refuge, bodhicitta, renunciation, and the correct view.

Then the next verse:

When water absorbs into fire, the smoke-like appearance is perceived, and my tongue gets thick and my speech is lost, please show me your shining face and give me solace and peaceful joy.

The second thing that happens, after the earth absorbs, is the water absorbs, so the fire element becomes very prominent at that time. Then we have appearances of smoke, billowing smoke. And it’s not like we’re sitting here and the smoke is ten feet away, but we are the smoke, the smoke is all around us. That’s the internal sign.

The external sign is our tongue gets thick, our speech is lost. When the earth absorbed our sight decreased dramatically. Here when water absorbs, our hearing decreases dramatically. So you can see in the death process we are slowly, by a natural process, detaching from this life, and this body, and all the objects that we know through these senses, because the senses cease to function.

It’s not like they cut off immediately, but they really decrease in power.

Here, when this is happening, we’re asking Amitabha, “Please show me your shining face and give me solace and peaceful joy.”

You can imagine, in the death process, especially you’re having this smoke-like appearance of just smoke all around, instead of panicking and feeling like you’re choking and wanting to get out of there, to be able to calm our mind and have solace and a sense of peaceful joy.

I think that comes from the preceding one of not being afraid and having true courage, because then we can pacify our own mind and reassure ourselves, “I don’t need to freak out. This is a vision appearing to the mind, I don’t need to react in my usual way to visions appearing to my mind.”

That’s also a very helpful way to practice when we’re alive. To see the things that we experience, very often, as visions or appearances to the mind, instead of as truly existent external events that are occurring. Because it’s our deluded mind that is making everything truly existent, so it seems like it’s happening outside: “These people are harming me.” It doesn’t appear to our mind as if I’m creating an enemy by the power of my anger. It seems like there is an external enemy out there who’s harming me. If we can train our mind to say, “These are appearances to my mind,” that will help us lessen the afflictions that so easily come up in response to our projections on top of these appearances to the mind. You know how it is, especially with anger, somebody does something we don’t like, and immediately our mind projects, “They are deliberately trying to harm me, and I am actually being harmed, and this harm is irreversible and traumatic, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Therefore, I have every right to punch the guy in the nose, or slam the door and go away, or however I choose.” We just act out these patterns of perception, and emotion, and behavior without realizing that this is all coming from our own mind, and coming as a result of our own karma. Things appear to us in a certain way as a result of our own karma

If we’re able to practice understanding these things while we’re alive, then in the death process we’ll be able to be much more relaxed and have a sense of solace, peaceful joy of “I can get through this. Dying is not going to destroy me. I’ve done it millions of times before. I don’t need to freak out.”

Again, this is a good way to practice while we’re alive so that we’ll have the ability to practice it at death. Think of those situations where like this [finger snap] we get anxious and we’re paralyzed by our anxiety, we can’t see past it. Or like this [finger snap] we’re angry and we can’t see past it. Or like this [finger snap] we get attached and we’ve got to have something and we can’t see past it. Look at those things and train our mind already now, these are appearances to the mind, they’re not a truly existent objective reality. And if they’re appearances, then we can play with them a little bit. We don’t have to react to them so much. We don’t have to fall into our old behaviors regarding these things.

We’re asking Amitabha “show me your shining face and give me solace and peaceful joy.” What what we’re really doing is saying, “What about the Amitabha inside of me, can I remind myself of my shining face and give myself some solace and peaceful joy?”

The next verse. The third element to absorb is fire.

When fire absorbs into air, the firefly-like appearance is perceived, and my body heat and the light of my eyes rapidly fade away, please come and fill my mind with the sound of Dharma wisdom.

Isn’t that beautiful?

When the fire element absorbs, our sense of smell is also decreasing dramatically.The air element becomes prominent so there’s an appearance to the mind of fireflies.

We don’t have so many fireflies here, but when I was at Deer Park in Wisconsin they had lots of fireflies, and on a really dark night you just see these little bits of light coming and going like sparks. That’s the kind of appearance that comes to the mind. But again, it’s not like we’re watching a movie out there [in front of us], this thing is us, it’s all around us, it’s an appearance to the mind. If we don’t recognize it as an appearance to the mind, then we’re going to react to it, and think, “Oh, there are all these sparks of light, what’s going to happen to me, maybe these things are going to harm me, or who knows what’s happening…” and our mind makes up stories.

That’s the internal sign. The external sign is our body heat goes down, so the body begins to get cold, the digestion stops, there’s no need to digest food because we’re in the process of dying. And the light of our eyes rapidly fades. We can see that when people are dying. The light of the eyes is fading.

At that time we’re requesting Amitabha “please come and fill my mind with the sound of Dharma wisdom.” I’m really, big-time, losing touch with this world, the people in it, and my body, my status and social position, and my friends and relatives. When all this is happening, may the sound of Dharma wisdom be what’s prominent inside my mind. Not my emotional reactions to fireflies or smoke or these kinds of things. But just may the mind resonate with Dharma wisdom.

The next one:

When air absorbs into consciousness, the burning like a butter lamp appearance is perceived, and my body becomes like the earth and my breathing altogether ceases, please draw me to your pure land with the radiant light of your shining face.

The next element to absorb is the wind or air element. When this absorbs, then externally the breath stops. From a Western medical perception this could be considered the time of death. That’s how most people view it. I don’t know when your brainwaves stop or your heart stops in relationship to that, it could be slightly before or slightly after, depending on the individual person, but your breath is stopping, so you’re pretty much gone.

The subtle mind, at this point, is still in the body, so the actual moment of death, from a Buddhist perspective, hasn’t occurred yet. But in terms of relating to the external environment, not so much.

What appears to the mind then, because the wind element has lost its strength, is called a butter lamp appearance. What it’s like is like a very dim light at the end of a tunnel. And you hear people sometimes talk about that in near-death experiences. It’s very symbolic, isn’t it? Your life, like that very, very delicate little flame that is in the process of going “poof.” That’s the appearance to the mind.

Physically what’s happening, the body becomes like the earth…. What do they say? From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The body is just a hunk of…. It’s going to be very soon decomposing, vegetable goo. And our breathing stops altogether.

At that time, when we’re having that very delicate appearance of the flame that’s about to go out, instead of freaking out and saying, “I’m becoming non-existent,” which is what the self-grasping ignorance does, and then [cling]…. This is when your craving and grasping in the 12 links, it’s going on from the beginning of the death absorption, but this is the point where it’s becoming stronger and stronger, and that karma that is the renewed existence, the 10th link, this is when it’s ripening, that’s going to throw you into the next rebirth. Because after this, then you’re working with the subtle mind. The karma’s already ripened and projecting the next rebirth.

What do we want to do here? This very small light about to go out. “Please draw me to your pure land with the radiant light of your shining face.” Instead of grasping at the light of this life, to be focused on the radiant light of Amitabha’s face.

What does that mean? What is Amitabha’s face? For some people maybe it means that you’re just going to be visualizing Amitabha. I have a feeling that the face of Amitabha is referring to emptiness. So at that moment if we can really let go and think of the emptiness of the person, that there’s no “I” that’s becoming non-existent, but there’s no “I” that’s dying to start with. We don’t need to be afraid of becoming non-existent, because there’s no truly existent I that’s dying. And so we let go.

Lama Yeshe used to say, when he talked about this, that when we die we should be like a bird on a ship in the middle of the ocean. The bird is on the deck, and it just takes off and it goes, and it’s free. The bird doesn’t take off and then look back and, “Oh there’s the ship, I want to be on the ship, maybe I shouldn’t have flown. There are my other friends back there. I want them to come with me, I want to be back there with them. Where’s another ship, I want go…. Oh dear, what have I done? Can I really make it?” No. That bird just takes off and goes. And he said that’s what we should do when we die. We just take off.

So, “draw me to your pure land with the radiant light of your shining face.” Faith in Amitabha, refuge in Amitabha, and an awareness of emptiness. That’s going to draw us to Amitabha’s pure land, because the more we make our mind like Amitabha’s mind, the easier it is for Amitabha to benefit us. So the more we’re able to reflect on emptiness, then the more the enlightening influence of Amitabha and all the other buddhas can really impact us and take us to his pure land.

Then after that you have the white appearance, the red appearance, the black appearance, and then the clear light, in the normal death process. Here what’s happening is, after this part:

Then may the radiant red hook emanating from your pristine heart enter my crown, descend my central channel, and hook my very subtle clear light mind and bring it to your pure land.

You’re going through these death absorptions to the clear light, and the way they do the powa practice, you imagine Amitabha on your head and from his heart a hook coming down and then going into your central channel, through the center of your body, into your heart, and then the indestructible drop of your extremely subtle wind, it’s hooking that and you imagine that then it goes out of your head and into Amitabha’s heart, and at that point you are born in Amitabha’s pure land.

What it’s talking about here in this verse is the powa practice for Amitabha.

By this point, hopefully, we have some renunciation, bodhicitta, refuge, understanding of emptiness. We’re going with compassion, because we’ve made this very strong aspiration before to be born in Amitabha’s pure land for the benefit of sentient beings. By doing that, then may we get reborn in a lotus in Amitabha’s pure land, like we prayed at the beginning, one of the ones that opens quickly.

Yet, if I must go into the intermediate state by the force of my destructive karma….

In other words, we weren’t able to hold our mind to the preceding things, and so karma’s ripening and here, especially, destructive karma, pulling our mind into the ordinary bardo or intermediate state. It could be afflictive karma instead of destructive karma. I think afflictive karma would be better. Or polluted karma. It doesn’t need to be destructive. It could be polluted virtuous karma as well.

…may all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas rescue me with the power of Dharma and inspire me with the pure view that sees all beings as utterly pure, hears all sounds as Dharma teaching, and sees all places as a pure land.

So if we don’t get reborn in Amitabha’s pure land, and instead we’re born in a samsaric realm, then “may the buddhas and bodhisattvas inspire us with at least a pure view.” This is the “pure view” practice in tantra all the time, which is seeing all beings as utterly pure, our environment as utterly pure. That includes Donny (Trump), includes the person you dislike the most, you see them as utterly pure.

What does that mean? It means that you recognize that the nature of their mind is the emptiness of true existence, that they have the buddha potential, they have all the factors that can transform into a buddha’s enlightened three kayas, or three bodies. We see our environment as pure, sentient beings as pure. Again, instead of projecting our own rubbish on everybody and everything around us.

“Inspire me with that view…. And also to hear all sounds as Dharma teachings.” Remember in Amitabha’s pure land, the birds are teaching you impermanence. What are our turkeys teaching us? Non-attachment. And maybe intelligence. When we hear the deer bark, they’re crying out for their friends and relatives, they’re teaching us non-attachment.

We want to really train our mind, again, now, to hear things like that. When we hear other people saying foul, racist, bigoted things, instead of hating the people, think “this person is showing me what I look like when I let my mind become like that.” Whenever you see somebody doing something that you disapprove of, that you can’t stand, that makes you crazy, “this is what I look like when I act like this.” So dispel the arrogance that says “but I never act like that.”

“Hear all sounds as the Dharma teaching, and see all places as a pure land.” This also refers to our thoughts. Even if we have negative thoughts, to see them as empty of inherent existence. Let them come, let them go, we don’t have to attach to them, we don’t have to clobber them. They’re just like bubbles, coming, going, coming, going.

That’s our prayer for the time of death. If we’re fortunate, maybe we’ll have a Dharma friend reading this to us when we’re dying. But in any case, we have to practice it while we’re alive so we can respond to it when we’re dying, and even remind ourselves of it.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.