Teaching on Buddha Amitabha (Sangay Yoepamed) and His Pure Land (Dewachengi Zhingkham)
How to positively help the deceased and the dying ones through Buddha Amitabha practice ~ Gyalwa Dokhampa
1. Cultural and Spiritual values
We should realize that our culture is about how we live this life. For example, what do we do - when we have a new born, when a couple is getting married, when someone dies, what prayers do we do daily, how do we live in this world, how do we maintain our relation with our family members. We should understand why do we do things in a certain manner and what is the meaning?
Any culture, which has a mix of Buddhism, has so many spiritual reasons behind what we do as a part of our tradition and culture. It is entirely about how you live your life in conjunction with the practice of Buddha dharma. Therefore, if we lose our culture, we are losing our entire way of living. Nowadays, people give more importance to modern education and don’t care much about their culture. I am not saying this is wrong. There is nothing wrong with modern education, which is important to survive in this world, but if you forget your culture, then our children and grandchildren will actually not learn how to live this life. Such as - how do we handle when our loved ones die, how do we pray and what do we do when we have a baby? All of these will be forgotten. Sometimes, when we say choe (spiritual practice), it seems like we have to do so many things but it is actually a part of our life. For example, how we talk to our spouse in the morning when we get up, how we talk to our neighbours and our office mates. If we can merge the practice of Buddha dharma in our daily activities, and on top of that do the prayers, this is a life of prosperity. Personally also, I handle things that happen to me as a Buddhist practitioner but at the same time, I learn how to use computers and Internet, which is important in this age. This is just my personal opinion.
I am talking about culture because it is related to today’s teaching – How to face death? What do we do when we are dying or when others are dying? How can we help them? Imagine if in future, our children do not know what to do when we die, there will be no prayers done for us which is a part of our culture and tradition and spiritual believe. They may hire someone who does the rituals after a person’s death as a part time job and that person may do some dances and so on. At that time, we are the sprit who has died. With this condition, how can we receive help from a part time ritual performer when we need so much help? When we are dead and going through so much difficulty, how can a person like that truly help us?
The purpose of today’s teaching is to understand - how to pray for a dead person, how to pray when we know we are going to die even if no one else is around, what should we do and what kind of practices we should do at this very important time in our life.
2. The two greatest fears during the time of death
From the dharma point of view, the experience of dying has two great fears – (i) the fear of losing things and (ii) the fear of the unknown path.
The fear of losing things due to our strong attachment – Let’s start with an example. Tomorrow if someone comes and by force takes away your job, your belongings, savings and everything that you have for which you have worked for many years, it will be immensely painful and scary. Even to get a divorce or say the loss of our iPhone is so painful. At the time of death, it is not only our belongings that we have to leave behind but we have to leave behind even this body that we are born with. With this fact, imagine how much pain and fear we will experience at the time of death. However, people should not feel that thinking of death is scary. Rather, thinking of death and losing things should and will make us appreciate this life more, enjoy life more and life will have more meaning. In the ‘Book of Living and Dying’ particularly in the bardo (intermediate stage) teachings, it is mentioned that, when people die, the being remains unconscious during the whole of the first day due to the shock of its separation from the physical body. After the being becomes conscious, it takes almost 4 days to realize that he/she is dead. During the first four days, - they talk to their family members and want to make a normal conversation but family members do not respond to them; they want to use things but they cannot. They don’t know why people cannot hear them and why no one is responding to them. During this time, people alive cannot see them but they can see people and can even read minds. During this time, if they see that their hard earned wealth is misused, it is of so much pain to them. Therefore, this first four days is the most painful period. When the dead being feels anger, jealousy and other afflictive emotions, they see strong winds, thunder storms, windstorm, loud noises and experience very scary things. Such experiences in the intermediate stage are actually projections of our own afflictive emotions. When we are alive we have a body which seems real and we can also imagine so many things which is called reality imagination. What is happening to our body is real, what we can see is real, but what we imagine is not real. But after death, there is no body. Therefore, our thoughts are projected as our experience. When we feel anger, it is manifested into storms. All fearful things are projected by our own mind. Within 49 days, most of the beings will be reborn except for some that get stuck in the intermediate stage for a very long time. During the 49 days, Buddha’s of the five directions come to teach us and bless us but, most beings run away from the Buddha’s at that time. This is because right now when we are alive, we always imagine Buddha as a statue, which is not alive, and pray to the statue. In addition, our devotion is mixed with a little bit of doubt. We do not really have the belief that Buddha Amitabha really does exist. Our belief is very much lacking with mix of doubt and our visualization is very static. We should know that every time we pray, Buddha Amitabha comes to bless us. Buddha Amitabha is real in the pure realm of Dewachen (Sukhavati). Then why can’t he move? This is why even when Buddha comes, we feel scared and run away. This is why it is important to familiarize and visualize Buddhas as real and alive (smiling, speaking, moving, showing loving kindness) and not like a statue.
In order to reduce the pain of losing things due to our strong attachment at the time of dying as well as after death, what we can do now is to understand that objects that we have around us are not something that we can hold on to forever. Everything is changing every second. We should understand that they are impermanent by nature. For example, let’s look at our own body. Is our body the same that we had five minutes ago? You will say it is the same. But actually that is not correct. Our body is going through change every second which is beyond our control. It is not like suddenly after 50 years you have become old and till then you were young. We are getting old every second. It is same with a building. Every second it is undergoing change with deterioration and the coming together of condition for it to fall down is a continuous process. We are holding on to something only by our mind but nothing can really be held on to. You can appreciate and enjoy our body and material wealth when we are alive and also benefit others. Holding on to something as if it will be forever with you is an illusion. And actually the more we hold on to something, fussier we become and more irritated we become from anything. For example, if we hold on to our body so much, everything irritates us - too hot, too cold, even breaking a nail. When you have a pimple, you cannot go out because you are so much worried that others will see it. In reality, I don’t think anybody will come so near to you to see your pimple and most of the time, nobody will even notice it. But when you are so concerned about your pimple, you waste your whole day.
Another example I can share with you is when I visit Europe, there are many old castles and historical buildings. For me, when I look at a 400 years old building, I feel quite funny. 400 years ago, the owner must have been Sir so and so and then after 50 years another owner comes in power and must have said ‘this is my castle’ and everybody at that time must have said yes to confirm his belief. All along, actually, there is nothing but to say this is my castle and people have agreed to it and you feel like you own it forever. I am not saying you have to give up everything. Basically, it is the mind that has to give up. Remember that attachment is not only to do with materialistic richness. Whether you have a lot property or not does not matter. You can get attached to your one shirt or your bag and it is the same attachment. Irrespective of the materialistic value, if you have attachment, pain is the same and therefore, a fear is also the same. It is key to understand that ATTACHMENT is the one, which we need to reduce so that the pain is not there. Now what can we do to reduce attachment at this stage? What we can do now is - in Vajrayana we say mandala offering. What it really means is that we have to do offering to the Buddhas. Actually we cannot offer anything in real. Buddhas do not need anything from us but we need to train our mind. Therefore, we should visualize offerings and offerings can be anything. For example, if you are a Director of a company, you can say I offer my position and status to the Buddha. This is because status, power and family are things that we can be attached to. This is a way to reduce our attachment.
We should know that everything that happens today is tomorrow’s dream. For example, just now we enjoy and laugh together, but this will be a memory by tonight. Our material possession is like a dream. With this essence of impermanence, rather than holding on to it, in this life and at the time of dying which will cause so much suffering, we should offer our body, wealth, status and the entire universe to the Buddha Amitabha. Pray for the acceptance of these offerings for our sake, for our accumulation of merit and to reduce our attachment.
One day, when my root teacher was in Nepal, he saw an old lady doing circumambulations and when he was trying to listen to her, he heard her praying and wishing for so many things. From what he was hearing, all her moenlams (aspirations) were for this life only. Although she was already in her 80s, she was still praying for her long healthy life, prosperity for her family, success of her family’s business and good education for her grandchildren and so on. And only one aspiration was not self-centered where she said may my root teacher live a long and healthy life. But she never prayed to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha. This shows that even when we reach the age of 80, we humans never realize that we have to die but still feel like we have so many more years to live on this earth. We never remember the impermanence of everything including ourselves. Whether we are young or old, we have to die one day and therefore, it is so important to accumulate merit. We have to do offerings for the prosperity of this life but we should never forget that we have to die one day and ask ourselves where will we be born after we leave this body? In one way we feel like this life is long but when we think of the many lives to come, this life is so short. Believing in the cause and condition, whatever good deeds we do, whatever merit we accumulate, we should not only think of this life but also of the future lives. The day when death comes our way, our family members, our status and title, our wealth and popularity has to be left behind. At this time, only the negative karma of our bad deeds and the positive karma of our good deeds will accompany us. Our next life is determined according to our karma. Therefore, when we do choe/practice dharma, it is very important to remember our next lives. The cremation ground is never empty and we are all same, although some go there young and some old. Irrespective of our age, we always forget impermanence and the inevitability of death. Therefore, always remember that while this life is important, afterlives are equally important.
The fear of the unknown path- not knowing where are we going next - If we don’t believe in rebirth then I guess maybe you think that after you die, chapter is closed. And I hope that for their sake that it is true and that there is nothing after this life because if there is and if they are not prepared for it, then definitely that is going to be a big problem. One master said that whether there is anything after death or not, better be prepared for it. In case there is something, you are prepared for it. And if there is nothing, it does not matter. Now what can we do to address the fear of where are we going next, the fear of the unknown path. This is where the Buddha Amitabha practice comes in.
3. Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land (Dewachengi Zhingkham)
When Buddha Amitabha was a Bodhisattva, he made a prayer that “when I become Buddha, may I develop a Pure Land called Amitabha Pure Land (known as Sukhavati in Sanskrit) where even ordinary beings with defilements can be born because of my practice for eons and eons as long as they have the thought to be born in the Pure Land and develop the connection with me with devotion and belief”.
There are three important tasks for all the Bodhisattvas before they attain Buddhahood. These are: (i) accumulation of merit (sonam and yeshey ghi tshog) through practice of generosity, prostrations, etc.; (ii) meditation and; (iii) benefit countless number of sentient beings. The Buddha builds his Pure Land (zhingkham) through his moenlam (aspiration). It is said that it is difficult to be born in the Pure Lands of other Buddhas but because of the wish of Buddha Amitabha who said that even beings who are not yet enlightened can be born in his Pure Land, it is less difficult to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha.
If we think that the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha is like a heaven with enjoyment all the time and lifetime vacation, then we are wrong. It is not like that. It is a place with perfect conditions to enhance our spiritual practice. In the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha, you receive teachings from Buddha Amitabha and many other Buddhas, and practice and then get enlightened.
It is important to believe that Buddha Amitabha is living in the western direction many planets away from this universe. It is equally important to know how the Pure Land looks like and visualize the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha (available in sutra), the land of happiness. Buddha Amitabha is in the center with Chenrezig (Buddha of Compassion) on his right and Vajrapani (Chana Dorji) on his left in the presence of Jitsuen Drolma and Guru Rimpoche. Tshepamey (Amitayus) and Buddha Amitabha are the same. It is called Tsepamey when it is with ornaments. If we pray to Buddha Amitabha while we are alive, our life will be longer with no sickness, fulfilling all our wishes and when time of our death comes, he helps us to be born in his Pure Land. As portrayed in the visualization of the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha, the Tsawai Lama (Root Guru) of Jitsuen Drolma (Tara), Chenrigzig (Buddha of Compassion) and Guru Rimpoche is Sangay Yuepamey. That is why there is a Buddha Amitabha on the crown of Chenrigzig and Jitsuen Drolma. Guru Rimpoche is Buddha Amitabha’s Thugsey (Heart Son). When we say Guru Pema Siddhi Hung, Pema signifies that Guru Rimpoche is from the lotus family. Therefore, whoever we pray to is all the same. The most important aspect of praying is to accumulate merit and tame our mind.
If possible, always turn to the west side where the sun sets and prostrate to the west side. Buddha Amitabha is not a Buddha of the past but he is still living. He is the longevity Buddha and lives for a very long time. The Pure Land is made of gold, silver and precious stones, a place where whatever we wish for comes true and all sounds are of dharma. The landscape is extremely beautiful. Beings there live for thousands of years and have the opportunity to listen to teachings and practice.
If we think carefully, this earth has so many different landscapes, which are not manmade, but these are there because of some cause and conditions. Therefore, if the earth can exist, why not Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha that has been built because of Buddha Amitabha’s practice and his wish not exit.
The Ngotshar Sangay Moenlam (an Abridged Prayer for Rebirth in Dewachen) is very popular in the Himalaya region. Terton Trulku Migyur Dorji, at the age of 13, saw the entire Buddha Amitabha Pure Land in his vision and Buddha Amitabha himself taught this prayer. This is why this prayer is very sacred.
4. Can ordinary people like us who are not enlightened be born in Buddha Amitabha Pure Land?
Yes, we can. This possibility is not because we are great practitioners and we have worked so hard. But it is because of Buddha Amitabha’s hard work and his aspiration for the enlightenment of all beings. Unlike us, who do some prayers and practice once in a year, Buddha Amitabha practiced for three eons. He practiced the six paramitas (generosity, discipline, patience, perseverance, full concentration of meditation, and wisdom) for lives and lives and he has made it so easy for us to be born there.
4. a) Buddha Amitabha said that any being who has not committed the following five worst actions maybe born in his Pure Land.
Being disrespectful to the different yanas (different vehicles of Buddhism) especially the ones which you are not following is also a great sin. This is because this can lead to the deprivation of the opportunity for many others to follow the dharma path. You want to get to Buddha Amitabha’s Pure Land following the Buddha’s teachings and at the same time disrespecting the dharma, which causes deep misunderstanding for other people.
Therefore, as long as we have not committed the above mentioned grave sins, people like us who do both good and bad deeds, such as tell a few minor lies, drink a little bit and at the same time do some prayers - we can be born in the Dewachengi Zhingkham. This is not because of our karma but it is because of the immense hardships that Buddha Amitabha went through till enlightenment, which is of immense difficulty.
While we pray that may all good things happen to me after we go on a pilgrimage, Bodhisattvas pray that after I get enlightened, may I benefit all sentient beings to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha. It is because of the wish of Buddha Amitabha that makes it easier for all beings to be born in his Pure Land. However, it is not possible to be born there just by the hard work and prayer of Buddha Amitabha. We cannot be born there just by sleeping and relying on Buddha Amitabha. If this was the case, then there is no cause and condition. For example, even if other people have cooked delicious food, without your own effort to put it in your mouth, the food will not automatically get in your mouth. The existence of good food is because of the other person who has cooked it but for it to be in your mouth, you have to make the effort of putting it in your mouth.
4. b) Likewise, to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha, we have to have three conditions as follows:
One should have a Bodhichitta mind. This means that when you pray to Buddha Amitabha, you cannot pray for only yourself to go the Pure Land. Or even worse is thinking, I want to go but don’t let that other person come whom I hate. Rather, you have to pray that may I and all sentient beings be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha, receive teachings from Buddha Amitabha and then get enlightened because even if we are born as human beings, we may or may not encounter dharma and we have to go through a lot of sufferings.
One should have the devotion to Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land. It is very important to have the devotion and visualize Buddha Amitabha’s Pure Land while practicing. Buddha Amitabha said that when we talk, pray, he listens and understands. Visualizing is important to familiarize oneself with the existence of the Pure Land. For example, some children do not want to come to dharma teachings but parents can force them to bring them here. Even though their mind is somewhere else, their body is here. But when we are dead, there is no body. So the mind goes where it wants to go. At that time, if the mind does not believe in Amitabha Pure Land, it will not go there. After we die, we do not have a body and our mind will go wherever it wants to go. Because of our attachment to this world, we will only be thinking of this world which will result in getting stuck in this realm. After we die, if the mind wants to go, it can reach the Buddha Amitabha Pure Land in one second. Therefore, the more we visualize the Buddha Amitabha Pure Land when we are alive, the more we will be thinking about it and this will help us to think of it even after our death. It is like if I am always thinking of going for shopping, I will definitely go one day. The mind will definitely take the body. Similarly, if we always think and visualize Buddha Amitabha Pure Land, we will know where to go when we die. And the mind will definitely take us there. However, if we doubt the existence of the Pure Land, even if we are born there, for 500 years, even if we can hear the Buddha’s teachings, the lotus flower through which we are born will not open and we cannot see his face.
That is why the second condition, which is to have devotion and visualization of Buddha Amitabha Pure Land in the west direction is very important.
Dedication of merit. Every time we do something good, it is very important to dedicate the merit for positive karma. Karma is like energy, which can be used for anything. If you pray to become rich, you will become rich but the prayer will not take you to Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha. That is why dedication of merit is very important. You have to direct your karma to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha. For example, when we offer butter lamps, we have to pray that by this light offering to the Buddha, I and all sentient beings when we are dying, when we are confused and lost in the darkness of intermediate stage, may the lamp guide me and all sentient beings to the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha. We should understand that if we are born in Dewachengi zhingkham where Buddha Amitabha resides with Drolma and Guru, we have the opportunity to receive teachings, practice and strengthen our spiritual practice. Therefore, we should dedicate our merit to be born there. Pray that with my prayers today, may I be born there and benefit all sentient beings and lead them to be born there.
These above three conditions are important because right now our sem (mind) is inside our body. Therefore, even if our mind does not want to do something, we can be forced to do things by our body. When we die, we do not have a body. Therefore, if our mind can have the devotion to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha, we can go there. This is why it is very important to develop that devotion. We should not be attached to the worldly happiness and rather should have the desire to be born in the Pure Land.
Practicing (reciting Dewachengi Moenlam - Aspiration Prayer of the Pure Realm of Sukhavati) supports the development of our devotion and the wish to be born in the Pure Land. Practicing while alive helps us to realize that we have done everything in this life, and now we have no attachment to this worldly existence; and may I be born in the Pure Land. You should realize that everything that I had in this life is like a dream and I offer everything to Buddha Amitabha.
5. Important things to remember at the time of death
When a person is about to die, I always tell them these:
Do not get attached to family members (parents, siblings, and children) and materialistic wealth. While we are alive and living together, we have to be good to each other but when we are about to die, we should remember that everything is impermanent and should not have attachment. Suffering comes because of attachment and attachment is because we do not contemplate on impermanence. We feel that it is nice to have everyone around when we die and say good-bye but this may cause the dying person even more sadness. Milarepa said “I don’t want anyone around me when I die. I will practice and remember my root Guru at that time. I do not want anyone crying.” When we are dying, our possessions such as wealth, family, everything is like a dream. We say ‘Junor Long-ched’ which means wealth to use. The word “Long-ched” means ‘able to utilize’. Whatever wealth we have is for using during this lifetime. After our death, someone else will use it. That is why we should realize that all that we have is only for using during this lifetime including this body which is everything to us in this life. This is very important to be realized at the time of death.
The mind at the time of death - For example, it is important to get ready to go to a place say the town. It is equally important to know which path to take to reach the town from a junction. If we chose the wrong direction at the junction, we will go to a wrong place. Similarly, it is important to pray and accumulate merit while we are alive but the time of death is also very important to ensure we reach the place we aspired for. If we get angry and die, it may lead us to be born in hell realm. The period between the time of death and next birth is the time when this life is finishing and before the ripening of our karma for the next life. If we make a mistake at this important junction, we may be born in lower realms. Therefore, at the time of death, it is important to contemplate on realizing the impermanence of this life and getting rid of attachment. We should also purify (shakpa) our negative deeds at the time of death.
It was said by Buddha Amitabha that if we practice the “Aspiration Prayer of the Pure Realm of Sukhavati (Dewachengi Moenlam)” prayer every day, he himself will come to rescue us from lower realms during the time of death. When we do this prayer, always remember that “I have to die one day and when I die, I will not be attached to all my material possessions and relations and I pray to be born in the Pure Land. Please bless me.”
Visualize Buddha Amitabha in front of us on a lotus flower on the sun and moon. As we chant “Om Ami De Wa Hri”, rays coming from the Buddha’s body, cleanse all defilements of body, speech and mind of all beings on my right and left.
We should confess our negative deeds and purify them for all beings.
Then all beings transform into light and dissolve into the heart of Buddha Amitabha.
After the dissolution, stay in the nature of your mind.
Do this not only for ourselves but for everyone. When we do good things to others, it is a training for ourselves to become a good person.
Finally, once again please remember that the greatest fears when we die is the fear of losing things caused by attachment and the fear of the unknown. In order to reduce attachment, we should practice offering and understand that everything is impermanent. In order to overcome the fear of the unknown, we should practice Buddha Amitabha. This is one way of how Buddhist practitioners handle death.