Amitabha practice: Prayer for the time of death
Amitabha practice: Prayer for the time of death
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.
- Imprinting in our own minds how we should think in different situations
- What happens at the time of death
- Preparing for the time of death
- Developing a feeling of connection with Amitabha
Yesterday after I commented that the aspiration prayer was typical Lama Zopa, I was reading the rest of the thing and I saw that the sadhana was put together by Lama Yeshe. So that shows how close Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa’s minds were.
The next prayer sounds very much more like Lama Yeshe. This is how Lama would explain things. Here, again, it’s an optional prayer, a prayer for the time of death. And it’s actually giving us instructions. We’re requesting Amitabha please to guide us in a certain way, but what we’re doing is trying to imprint in our own mind how we should think when different things, visions and so on, occur at the time of death.
What he’s describing here are the eight visions that happen at the time of death. This is usually described in Highest Yoga Tantra not in the Kriya Tantra practice that this is. But Lama had us meditating on the death absorption even when we were just beginning lamrim people, so clearly he thinks that it’s something helpful for people to be aware of.
This is a good way to imprint this in our minds should we be able to see these visions at death. And even if we aren’t, it’s still a good thing to imprint our minds with these kinds of aspirations.
At the moment the messenger of death arrives, please come instantaneously from your pristine realm, advise me to give up grasping at mundane existence, and invite me to come to your pristine realm.
The messenger of death. There’s no real messenger of death, no external being. This is anthropomorphizing things. It means when the time of death arrives this is what we need to think, and we need to be able to recognize that we’re dying instead of just denial, denial, denial, manana, later on, I’m too busy, whatever. Death is here and to accept that this is happening. And, as His Holiness says, this is what we’ve been preparing for during our lifetime is this moment of death, to see if we can practice the Dharma at this time, and especially if we can have some understanding of emptiness at this time would be very, very helpful.
When death arrives, then we’re requesting Amitabha, “Please come instantaneously from your pristine realm.” Now, I’m not so sure Amitabha’s going to take the next jet from the pure land here. Hopefully he’s TSA pre-checked, he can get on easily. He doesn’t have to go through…. Maybe he has global entry, too, he can come in without the long lines. So I’m not quite so sure.
Maybe it happens that there’s a vision of Amitabha, because if we’ve meditated on Amitabha and familiarized our mind with Amitabha and really see Amitabha as the embodiment of all the enlightened qualities, then yes it’s totally possible that at the time of death we have a vision, an actual vision of Amitabha.
It also seems to me that instead of a vision of Amitabha, it’s more an internal feeling of connection with Amitabha. So it’s not that you would see Amitabha in a vision but you would feel connected to Amitabha in your heart.
What are we asking Amitabha to do when he comes, or when we feel connected to him? “Advise me to give up grasping at mundane existence.” That’s the whole thing to do at the time of death is give up grasping at mundane existence, because when we study the 12 links of dependent arising we see that craving and clinging are what nourish the polluted karmic seeds that then ripen in renewed existence and project us into another rebirth. So the more we can give up grasping at mundane existence then the weaker craving and clinging are going to be. Also, the more peaceful our mind is going to be. Because when we’re dying, if we’re grasping at mundane existence we don’t want to separate from our dear ones, and there’s this incredible anguish of thinking of separating from the people we care about. Then dying with that kind of mind is not going to be very pleasant. If we’re clinging to our possessions and our property, worrying about who’s going to take what, or worrying about who’s going to find what amongst all of our junk, and what are they going to think about us when they find this stuff, then we’re not going to die peacefully. If we’re attached to this body, and we don’t want to separate from this body at the time of death, not going to be a good state of mind. If we’re so hung up in our ego identity: “I am this kind of person who should be treated in this way, who deserves this, who should have this,” or whatever, at the time of death all that is going bye-bye. Because our whole ego identity is something that is completely fabricated depending upon the environment that we’re in. Without the environment we’re in we would not have all of the worldly goals that we have. We’re in a certain environment so we value certain kinds of possessions, a certain kind of reputation, all these kinds of things. That whole identity–“I am this race, this nationality, this kind of personality, this social class, this educational level, this religion….”–all of that’s gone, finished, forget it. So if we’re really attached to that, and we’re separating from all of that, it’s going to be pretty confusing at the time that we die because we’re going to go, “Who am I?” There’s going to be this feeling of the “I” is just being obliterated.
That’s why first and foremost, “Amitabha, remind me to give up grasping at mundane existence,” and see that there’s nothing here to hold onto, whatsoever.
When you really think about it, it’s true, isn’t it? What are we going to take with us from here? It all stays here. We may have gotten our way 100,000 times. None of that matters at the time of death. Who cares? We may have all sorts of praise. We may have diplomas. We may have certificates. We may have a whole stack of cards with people singing our glory. So what? None of it comes with. People are going to go through it and look and say, “Why are they saving all this junk?” So best not to be attached to any of those things.
And that’s what Nagarjuna really advised the king in Precious Garland.) Whatever you have, use it to create merit. Don't just hang onto your own wealth and so on. Use it to create merit before you die. The king had to have his stockpile during his life because he's running the kingdom and he needed that to be able to disburse to people and such, but Nagarjuna said, "King, as you're approaching death everybody's going to forget about you and they're going to be focused on brown-nosing up to whoever is going to be the next king, so that they can get some of the pot that you're leaving for them. So why are you letting all of this stuff sit in your storage? You should give it out to your population, use it to create merit, because otherwise, all these people are just going to fight over it, and then who knows? You can't even control who's going to be next king and how they're going to use it. So use it in a wise way now before you die."
Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Remind me, Amitabha, to give up grasping at mundane existence.
Now, Amitabha can be there saying over and over and over again, “Don’t grasp at mundane existence. Don’t grasp at mundane existence. Don’t grasp at mundane existence….” And if during our whole life we haven’t tried to relinquish grasping at mundane existence, it’s not like we’re going to listen to Amitabha at the time we’re dying. Whatever views we have that are deeply entrenched, that are our stubborn views, they’re not going to evaporate at the time of death. Even if Amitabha appears in front of you with firecrackers and says, “Give up mundane existence,” you’re going to say, “But but but… I want to do things this way, and I’m attached to this, and I want this, and I want that, and it should be this way and that way….” So if we want to be able to listen to Amitabha at the time of death, we need to listen to Amitabha while we’re alive, which means on a day to day basis. On a day to day basis practice giving up our grasping at mundane existence. And if we do that, then there’s a chance, at the time of death we’ll listen to Amitabha, and maybe even we’ll have it already spontaneously coming in our mind, which would be even better. But that’s only going to happen if we practice while we’re alive.
And invite me to come to your pristine realm.
We’re asking Amitabha, “Tell me stop grasping here, invite me to come.” So if we’re expecting a royal invitation from Amitabha, that he’s going to appear, prostrate to us three times, give us one of these beautiful gold invitations…. And you know the latest thing in India is when you’re invited to some big thing they give you some big kind of thing with all these different colors going around it, and you pin it on [your lapel] and that means you’re somebody important, and you’ve been invited somewhere. It’s really great. It lasts maybe three or four hours, as long as that event does, and then I don’t know how much money they’ve spent to make those big fancy things, but you either throw it away or you have a drawer where you stockpile all your invitations and big fancy things, which I don’t know what they’re going to do with after.
Don’t expect that to happen from Amitabha. Amitabha’s not going to beg and plead and prostate and get down on his knees to request us to come. We should be the ones who are begging and prostrating and getting down on our knees and requesting Amitabha’s inspiration to transform our minds so that at the time of death we’re thinking about the pure land. If we’re not thinking about the pure land….
For example, they say if at the time of death you’re really cold and your craving, craving, craving heat, then if that craving is strong it could make a negative karma ripen that presents the vision of the hot hells to us as a paradise and we’re attracted to rebirth there because it’s warm. So we have to really create some strong imprint with Amitabha’s pure land, and imagining it, and imagining the other beings around us as bodhisattvas in Amitabha’s pure land, and imagining all the sounds that we hear as the sounds of Amitabha’s pure land. Because they say in Sukhavati when you hear the birds chirp you hear a teaching on impermanence. When you hear the waterfall you receive a teaching on dependent arising. Every noise you hear becomes a teaching for you. This happens because of the state of our mind. We could do the same thing here. Instead of each noise becoming a source of irritation, if we thought, “Oh, there’s the sound of the drill, it’s teaching me emptiness,” then we’re transforming that sound right there and then. Otherwise we hear the sound of the drill and it’s like, “Oh this is such a horrible sound.” Or we hear some sound… The person who’s meditating with the nylon jacket, that crackles and crinkles, and the zipper that makes so much noise, and you’re hearing that, “Oh god, that person, why are they moving so much, they should sit still, they’re disturbing me. And then this other one is clicking their mala–click, click, click. It’s so annoying!” And we get really angry. “Don’t they know I’m meditating?” Well actually, we’re not meditating. We’re being angry, aren’t we? So at those times if we just say, “Okay, let’s imagine that I’m in Amitabha’s pure land and these sounds are teaching me the sound of emptiness, the sound of impermanence, the sound of fortitude.” And so we take those things as part of our path instead of getting angry. Then we’re able to really transform what we’re doing here and now.
All those gatas that we read in the Avatamsaka sutra, and that we have in our Vinaya booklet? Those gatas are the things that are helping us transform every single thing in our daily lives into something that reminds us of the Dharma. And that’s so useful at the time of death because, talk about not being able to control our environment, who knows what kind of environment we’re going to die in? We don’t know. If it’s going to be in a car crash at the side of the road, or if you’re going to wind up in a hospital with a roommate who’s watching television while you’re dying, and they’re listening to Fox news. Or any kind of news. And you want to die to that? We’re going to need some way to transform that. Aren’t we? Some way to hear that and respond with compassion. And train the mind while we’re alive to respond that way.
That’s what this first request to Amitabha is about. And we see it’s up to us to start practicing that now.
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.