on Death and Dying / Buddhist and Catholic Teachings and
Fr. James Wiseman, OSB / Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D.
presentations on death and dying constituted the "public
the Second Monks in the West Conference held at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville,
Minnesota, October 26-29, 2006.
REALIZING THE DEATHLESS OR SEEKING REBIRTH IN THE PURE LAND?
BUDDHIST VIEWS ON LIFE, DYING, AND WHAT COMES NEXT
Rev. Heng Sure, PhD
The topic of
death and dying is something that Buddhists spend a lot of
time with. What I am going to share with you today is virtually
unknown out of Asia. There devotion rather than meditation
is the number one form of Buddhist practice.
In this country
people say, “Buddhism, meditation: same thing, right?
They’re synonymous.” But when you enter a Buddhist
monastery in Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Singapore, in
Vietnam, Korea, and, more and more, Japan, you don’t
find zafus and zabutons (meditation cushions and mats). You
find bowing benches and big images of the Buddha. You don’t
meditate; you recite the Buddha’s name. You practice
a form called Pure Land devotion.
historically, the most popular and enduring form of Buddhist
practice in Asia over the last 700 years is devotion to the
Buddha Amitabha. Amitabha is a Sanskrit name that means limitless
light. Amitabha , the Buddha of Limitless Light, is not the
historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha of the Sakyamuni clan;
he is another Buddha.
On one occasion
the historical Buddha said to his monks, “I am going
to tell you something that you wouldn’t know about unless
I opened it up to you.” According to the Mahayana or
northern tradition he told them about the vows of the Buddha
named Amitabha. So, according to the Mahayana or northern tradition,
at least, there are two Buddhas right from the beginning.
Like my teacher,
the late Master Hsuan Hua, in addition to meditating and reciting
the Buddha’s name, I do exegesis of texts and lecture
on them. This involves opening up the sutra—it’s
kind of like lectio divina. I go into the text, using Chinese
and English, and explain it line by line. These texts have
been around for 2500 years and they need some interpreting
to make them accessible.
About six or
seven years ago, I was lecturing in Burlingame, California.
I usually include stories in my lectures to make them more
appealing, but on this occasion I didn’t have a story.
So I said, “We’re learning about the Pure Land,
about Amitabha. Is there anyone who has a story, a personal
experience about someone reciting the Buddha’s name and
going off to rebirth in the Pure Land at death?”
about sixty people in the audience, most of them Asian Americans,
along with a fair number of Caucasians, African Americans,
and Hispanic Americans. Since Burlingame is in the heart of
Silicon Valley, a lot of them were Silicon Valley yuppies,
high tech folks. I thought to myself, “What if they do
the typical Asian thing and look at the floor as soon as you
ask them a question? Unlike Americans who always have an opinion
and immediately raise their hand and asked to be called on,
the Chinese just clear their throat and say something like, “Grandpa
is here and he can speak for the Wongs. And Mrs. Lee can speak
for the Lees.”
But I thought
I would try, so I asked, “Does anyone here have a story?” Four
hands shot up in the air. “Do I have a story about Pure
Land? . . . Let me tell you.”
The first person
to speak was a 35-year-old Stanford grad who was working for
Sun Microsystems. He said, “My parents are Buddhists.
I wasn’t much of a Buddhist myself, but my neighbor in
the condominium, Mrs. Wong, we all knew that she was a Buddhist.
She was in her 70s. We didn’t know much about her. She
smiled all the time and was really sweet. She had a cat, and
we always heard her tapping her little wooden fish as she chanted, ‘Namo
Amitabha.’ We heard her reciting the sacred name all
the time, day and night.
day we realized we hadn’t seen her for a couple days,
so my wife and I went down to her apartment. We had a funny
feeling as we knocked on the door and went in. There was Mrs.
Wong, sitting on the bed with a smile on her face. She had
a new dress on, incense lit, and a picture of the Buddha Amitabha
in front of her. She said, ‘All of you, be good. Don’t
worry about me. Take care of yourselves. You should believe
in the Buddha. Goodbye.’ And then she closed her eyes
and died with a smile on her face. There was this very amazing
feeling in the room. It was incredible. She was so blissful,
and then she was gone, just like that, with a smile on her
of course, did all the things you do when someone passes away.
But we were amazed, because there was nothing but peacefulness.
That’s my story.”
And then more
hands shot up in the air. “My grandma, my grandma. I
couldn’t believe it. Grandma was always a Buddhist and
we knew it, but no one ever paid any attention to her. She
was always cooking, always taking care of us, but who knew
about grandma’s spirituality? One day she went to the
hospital and checked herself in. Then she sat upright on her
bed and passed away just as peacefully as could be, reciting
the Buddha’s name. The doctors were amazed.”
We spent the
whole next hour exchanging Pure Land stories of what happened
in these peoples’ lives.
So, what can
we make of all this? What in the world is going on? What I
heard were testimonies of Pure Land devotion, the recitation
of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, the number one practice
of Buddhism in East Asia. All I can do is present these stories
to you cold. You can make of them what you will.
Now, does everyone
go off to rebirth in the Pure Land with a smile on their face?
No. These are devout practitioners, and the fact that in a
group of 60 we had four stories is a very interesting testimony.
There is a
volume called Stories of People Who Go out to the West. The
stories have been collecting since the Tang Dynasty in the
tenth century. The stories are about monks, nuns, lay men,
and lay women, and the stories all agree—like the stories
from 2002—that someone who recited the name of the Buddha
Amitabha with real devotion at the end of life went off to
rebirth in the Pure Land peacefully, without raging against
the dying of the light. That’s fascinating, because this
form of Buddhist spirituality is unknown in the West, even
though it’s number one in Asia.
Now, why is
that? Basically, it has to do with the threefold formula the
Buddha left: shila, samadhi, and prajna: Character, Concentration,
Insight; or, Precepts, Concentration, Wisdom. All Buddhist
practice begins with character. Fundamentally, with commitment
you take the precepts, the first five of which are refraining
from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the use
of intoxicants. Monastics take 250 vows to be a monk and 50
Bodhisattva precepts on top of that. But the foundation is
the same. That’s the shila part.
Mind you, four
of those precepts are the same as four of the Ten Commandments.
(We think that the commandment to honor your father and mother
should be a precept too. We’re still learning.) The foundation
of morality is what allows you, when you meditate, or whatever
practice you might use—recitation, meditation, prostrations,
devotions, memorization of scripture, reciting mantras—to
arrive at the state of samadhi, stillness and purity. With
that stillness and purity insight can arise. When situations
come up, you know what to do; you’re not confused. You
work with your morality; you employ samadhi, stillness. You’re
not knocked off your feet when life does what life does to
you. When storms arise, insight allows you to make your way
through the big waves. That’s the foundation: precepts,
side is something that arose later, in China, as a response,
I think, to historical developments. Chinese history is a long
and painful history: famine, drought, floods. Locusts would
come, the warlord would overthrow the emperor and become the
emperor, and then he would be overthrown by another warlord.
Armies and tax collectors would come. There was a lot of suffering,
and it’s possible that the description the Buddha gave
of the Pure Land of Amitabha seemed such an attractive alternative
to the reality in front of their eyes that the Chinese picked
up on the description of the Pure Land in the West and said, “I
want to go there.”
of the Pure Land say that there was a monk by the name of Dharmakara
who made 48 vows. He said, “In the future I want to create
a paradise where suffering is over for anyone who recites my
name at the end of life.”
is the story. It’s a salvation story, a salvific story.
It’s a story that is very appealing when life is tough.
In order to go to the Pure Land, what is required is faith,
vows, and practice (reciting). You have to believe that there
is such a world. You have to want to go there. You have to
say, “I will be born in that land.” And then you
have to recite “Namo Amitabha.” That, essentially,
is the key.
One of the
biggest appeals of Pure Land devotion is that anyone can do
it. You don’t have to have a PhD in comparative religion,
you don’t have to shave your head and put on a robe,
although that helps. Men, women, young, old, all can be born
in the Pure Land. For East Asia, this is the answer to the
problem of death and dying.
over the centuries people have adopted all kinds of ways to
enhance devotion: there are praises, there is dedication of
merit, there are methods for the bedside, there are things
to do with the corpse. There are all kinds of ritual practices
around the actual physical part of dying. But the main focus
is, keep reciting. When the time comes you too will wake up
from a lotus flower, born pure. The Buddha Amitabha will greet
you, and you’ll be reborn in this land of utmost happiness.
There is more
to the story, and it’s about what happens when you get
to the Pure Land. There you study to be a Bodhisattva, and
you make vows to return to the earth. So the Pure Land takes
on the character of an academy or a seminary, a place where
you learn to become a servant who leads others to salvation.
the story. There is more to Buddhism than meditation. When
you go into a Chinese temple and see all those Buddhas up front
on the altar, the one in the middle is Amitabha who stands
with his hand raised welcoming you to the Pure Land. “Have
no fear,” he says. “Recite my name, believe you
will go there, want to go there.”
conclude with a song I composed. Since this is the West, I’ll
sing it to the accompaniment of an Iroquois rattle.
Buddha named “The Eternal Light”
Made a vow to save creation.
He made a land where suffering’s gone
A place of liberation.
use his vows and be reborn,
In lotus flowers be lying.
You simply keep his name in mind
And never stop reciting.
- A CHRISTIAN’S WAY TO DEATH -
James Wiseman, OSB
and psychotherapists are well aware of the fear of death that
marks the lives of many of their clients and directees. This
widespread fear makes it all the more impressive to note how
radically different was Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s attitude
toward death. She often said that there is no need to fear
it, since “death is something beautiful: it means going
home,” going home to God. She likewise loved to recount
the wonderful contentment of the thousands of persons whose
earthly lives ended in her Homes for the Dying. One such person
have lived like an animal in the street but I am going to
die like an angel—loved and cared for.” 
care for the sick have noted how the conviction that one is
destined for a heavenly homeland has enabled even young children
to make definite and appropriate decisions about their medical
care. Sister Margaret Sheffield, while working among terminally
ill children at a hospital in Alaska, tells of a twelve-year-old
girl, Karen, who was dying of leukemia and who one day unexpectedly
announced to the doctor who had just given her an injection:
the very last time you are going to prick me. From now on
I will not let you put another needle in me. I’m so
tired of all this. It won’t ever do a bit of good.
All I want now is to go to heaven. I’m just waiting.
Why does God make me wait so long? I’m all ready to
that the girl then entered into the most peaceful period of
her three-year struggle with the disease. All aggressive treatment
was terminated and replaced with the simple administration
of pain medication. Karen was alert and comfortable for the
following three days, said all her “good byes” and,
surrounded by her family, slipped into a coma and shortly thereafter
expired. Without necessarily being well-versed in all the scriptural
terminology of heavenly dwelling places, this young girl had
firmly grasped the reality of Christian faith and in so doing
was enabled to die a grace-filled death.
The faith that characterized the spiritual life of Karen, of Mother Teresa,
and of so many others who—contrary to the advice of the poet Dylan Thomas—have
in fact gone “gently into that good night” is a faith expressed
most powerfully when Christians come together in the Church’s liturgy.
The first of the five Prefaces for Masses of the Dead is a particularly fine
summary of Christian belief, especially in the following lines, which begin
with a reference to Christ’s resurrection:
him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death,
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.
as well as many other passages from the Church’s liturgical
books dealing with death and dying, encapsulate the faith and
hope that have inspired Christians since the first century,
giving some of them the courage to face martyrdom and granting
others the strength to endure situations of tremendous pain
and hardship without giving way to despair. Among other things,
those lines from the Preface conclude with one of the most
important images found in Scripture to portray the nature of
eternal life: the image of a dwelling place, with the related
notion of what Mother Teresa called “going home to God.” In
his Last Supper Discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells
his disciples that in his Father’s house “there
are many dwelling places” and that he is going away “to
prepare a place for you, and then I shall come back to take
you with me, that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).
For anyone who accepts these words as a sure promise, they
provide the reason why one not only need not fear death but
can even welcome it as a friend, as did St. Paul when he wrote
to the Corinthians: “We are full of confidence and would
much rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2
It is, however, worth noting that, in the words of that same Preface, this
is “our hope,” and as St. Paul wrote long ago, hope that is seen
is no longer hope (Romans 8:24). There is a tendency in many of us to think
that we know more than we really can about what is, after all, rightly termed
the mystery of death. It is all the more refreshing, then, to see that some
of the most important theological and spiritual writers of the past few decades
have candidly acknowledged the limits of their knowledge about death. When
Thomas Merton’s close friend Victor Hammer was dying in a Lexington,
Kentucky hospital, the monk wrote in his journal:
fact is that it is just not conceivable that Victor Hammer
should cease to exist. This is a basic absurdity which Camus
confronted, and which religious explanations may perhaps
help us only to evade. Instead of facing the inscrutable
fact that the dead are no longer there, and that we don’t
know what happens to them, we affirm that they are there,
somewhere, and [that] we know . . . But we don’t know,
and our act of faith should be less facile; it should be
rooted in our unknowing, not just a further construction
of a kind of instinctive feeling for survival.
Karl Rahner once gave an interview on German television in
which he was asked how he, as a Christian and a theologian,
pictured what might lie “beyond” for himself after
his death. He replied simply:
picture nothing for myself. What kind of picture would do?
What I affirm as definitive . . . can in no way be compared
with the present temporal existence. . . . [T]his is not
a case of being unable to put things more clearly. The topic
itself excludes all possible images of the beyond.” When
pressed by the two interviewers, Rahner did go on to acknowledge
that he and other believers needed “something to grasp,
something to hold on to,” but he insisted that even
in his need to use traditional images of life after death,
he always had to “formulate them anew, modify them
also, always in the awareness that they are inadequate and,
ultimately, again and again shunt [us] over to sidetracks
that lead nowhere.” 
Even as I,
too, acknowledge the need for such images—dwelling places,
heavenly banquet, new Jerusalem, God’s wiping away of
every tear from our eyes, and so many others—I would
here like to reflect on the reality to which the images refer,
even though my reflections will inevitably be somewhat abstract
and therefore not as gripping as the pictures offered us so
abundantly in the Bible and later Christian tradition. At the
very heart of Christian faith is the conviction that we have
come forth from a God who lovingly chose us in Christ from
all eternity (Ephesians 1:4) and that our entire vocation is
bound up with the call to return to God. Although we nowadays
tend to avoid referring to life on earth as “a valley
of tears” and instead emphasize the goodness of creation
and the need to take initiatives in politics and ecology that
will enhance earthly life for all creatures, Christian faith
will always include the note that this life is not “all
there is.” When St. Paul wrote to the Philippians of
his earnest desire “to depart and be with Christ, for
that is far better,” even though he felt it was “more
necessary to remain in the flesh on your account” (Philippians
1:23-24), he was giving voice to a permanent part of our Christian
heritage. At times this will provoke someone like St. Ignatius
of Antioch to urge that nothing be done that would spare him
an imminent death by martyrdom. More commonly it will simply
lead the followers of Christ to recognize that all they do
on earth acquires its ultimate meaningfulness from a definitive
realm of transcendence, in which God is “all in all.”
to Realize What Matters Most
This is one of the primary reasons, perhaps the most basic reason of all, why
so many spiritual writers have recommended some form of the command found in
the monastic Rule of Saint Benedict:
death daily before your eyes” (4:47). Despite the negative
reaction of some persons to such an admonition, it is not
at all something morbid. Rather, it arises from the simple
recognition that we are in fact drawing nearer to the time
of our death day by day, hour by hour, and that an acceptance
of this basic truth will help us live more mindfully. Thus,
Karl Rahner, in an essay written near the end of his own
life, observed that “death rightly understood is an
event involving the whole person” and that it takes
place “not by any means necessarily in the chronological
moment of the medical exitus . . . but occurs in a true sense
throughout the whole of life.”  Centuries earlier,
St. Augustine made essentially the same point when he wrote
that “if every person begins to die, that is, is in
death as soon as death has begun to show itself in him, .
. . then he begins to die as soon as he begins to live.” 
is to let a conviction of this truth prevail throughout our
life and not merely when our earthly span seems to be drawing
to a close. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had this conviction, for
in a letter written a full four year’s before his early
death, the great composer avowed:
death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal
of our existence, I have formed during the last few years
such close relations with this best and truest friend of
mankind that his image is not only no longer terrifying to
me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank
my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning
that death is the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.
I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young
as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one
of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose
or disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator
and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow creatures
could enjoy it. 
This is a quintessential
expression of a Christian’s attitude toward death, filled
as it is with a believing hope and a hopeful faith. It would
be hard to find a more eloquent expression of what St. Benedict
meant by the charge to “keep death daily before your
eyes.” To the extent that anyone can make Mozart’s
sentiments his or her own, to that extent such a person will
possess what the composer called “the key to true happiness.”
- QUESTIONS -
say a few words about the meaning of the phrase in the title
of your talk “realizing the deathless” and where
it comes from.
“ Deathless” is a term found commonly in the teachings of the Theravada.
The idea is that the body, the thing that dies, made up of earth, air, fire and
water, is very much like a hotel or a suit of clothes; we move in and out of
it; we don’t really own it. The thing that moves in and out is what we
want to pay attention to, to purify, and that would be the Buddha nature. So
if we can live skillfully, wisely, compassionately in this suit of clothes, in
this hotel room, so to speak, at the same time focusing on the thing that doesn’t
die, that doesn’t come and go, and use that to benefit living beings, to
purify, to still, then we have done what the Buddha did. The Buddha was one who
embodied the deathless while still in his human form, so that when he cast off
that form in Nirvana, the deathless manifested itself. In fact, that is the true
to someone who takes his or her own life?
In the Christian tradition, one can only sympathize with someone who kills
him or herself. We often feel that we have no way of knowing what tremendous
deep pain and suffering led a person to do this. But it is never something
that is counseled or recommended. It is only something that one could sympathize
with. As some of you may know, suicide is, I believe, the second leading cause
of death among teen-agers. We all know how turbulent the teenage years are
for many people, but still, we often underestimate the real anxiety and turmoil
that go through a young person’s mind, leading him or her to take that
there was a time, I think for centuries, within my church when
someone who committed suicide was not allowed to be buried
in holy ground. We realize now how insensitive that was; it
manifested a judgment that none of us should dare to make,
because we can never know what led a person to take such a
In Taiwan right now there is something they are describing an epidemic of suicide,
as if it were a kind of virus. The Abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas,
Master Heng Lyu, who is here with us, was in China and spoke about the large
number of suicides there. The statistics are really disturbing, because the
number of suicides is growing among young people, among women in particular.
We echo the
wisdom expressed by Fr. Wiseman when we say that suicide doesn’t
help. Buddhism does talk about past lives and future lives,
about something that continues on from one to the next. If
you kill, you violate a precept, even if the life you take
is your own. It’s a karmic error, and there’s retribution
for that. The way you depart is in anger, confusion, and grief,
all mixed up together. So the seeds of that will be manifested
in a future life will bring you back in a form “having
killed,” having made the journey from one suit of clothes
to the next in a state of confusion and anger and violent emotion.
The next rebirth has an inauspicious beginning. That being
the case, suicide doesn’t solve anything. You will come
back more confused than before.
not a simple thing at all to talk someone out of a state in
which they can take their own life, but one way is to wake
individuals up to the network of families and relationships
that they’re living in right this minute. Usually if
someone commits suicide it’s because of isolation, loneliness,
alienation, being cut off and broken. Suicide is seen as an
answer, a solution to the problem. But if you can remind someone
at that point that they are children of parents, grandchildren
of grandparents, great-grandchildren of great-grandparents,
present or not, you may help them to see that they represent
the hopes and aspirations of all these generations, are alive
in their flesh at this very moment. We are siblings of siblings,
some are students and teachers, some are parents of children.
Right now we are knit into this fabric of relationships. When
someone suddenly departs, all the fabric gets torn. Being awake
to that reality is another reason to think twice, to be patient,
and to wait it out.
I was very
impressed by the similarity of the two stories. Both Mrs.
Wong and Karen died so peacefully because of their hope and
their faith. How would you answer the agnostic who would
say they were victims of a delusion, they simply convinced
themselves of something that is really not true. That conviction
helped them die peacefully, but that’s all. Any delusion
will do, because the whole point is to help people die peacefully.
I don’t think you could absolutely convince an agnostic away from that
position, because, as I said, one simply does not what is on the other side
of death. For us Christians—and, I suspect, for Buddhists too—it
is part of our faith that life here is not all there is. If someone responds, “Surely
it’s a delusion, wishful thinking,” you could not necessarily convince
that person that it is otherwise, but I find it a superficial response, and
I doubt anyone in this room would find it acceptable.
There is yet another Buddhist list—we’ve been going through a lot
of lists this weekend—that is called the Eight Difficulties. One of those,
number seven, is “Worldly Knowledge and Argumentative Intelligence.” Worldly
knowledge and argumentative intelligence is something that can keep you blind
to wonder of all kinds. The fact that gravity works is then just a fact. That
music and mathematics bears a relationship to petals of flowers and the way
they’re organized in nature—well, who cares? You can explain that
mathematically. Some people are just that way.
some folks who hold to “scientism” are somewhat
the same. So what can you say to someone who believes that
science holds all the answers and there’s no room for
emotion or feeling or faith, because they are all “fuzzy”?
You might say, “Well if you don’t believe that
there’s anything coming, that there’s any transformation,
how is it that only humanity is not subject to Newton’s
first law of thermodynamics, which says that matter turns to
energy, energy turns to matter, that nothing is created or
destroyed, nothing lost. If this is the case, why would the
soul fall away?”
In fact, we
are part of the Dharma realm, coming back now as matter, soon
to be energy, then to reincarnate. If they can listen to anything,
maybe you can use science and throw it back at them.
Pure Land have a social dimension?
The story I told you about Shakyamuni Buddha and the Pure Land is unique in
that it’s the only time the Buddha ever spoke without being asked. As
I said, this is a Mahayana story. He said, “When you recite my name with
your last breath, you arrive in paradise. You’re reborn in a lotus flower.
There are nine different grades, depending on how sincerely your recited. When
the flower opens, the Buddha Amitabha is there, and depending upon your sincerity,
there are eight great Bodhisattvas surrounding him, all of whom welcome you,
and you know their names and their stories. So there’s very much a sense
of family, of the saints.
The Pure Land
is described in very glowing terms. There are birds that speak
the Dharma. There are pools of water for you to bathe in; your
cares are washed away and your thirst is quenched. The social
dimension is very much present; compassion is the keynote;
Amitabha is the Buddha of great kindness and compassion. So
it’s not at all cold or analytical. That’s why
it is the Buddhism of devotion.
we have all sorts of rituals to build up this sense of community
with those who have gone before us in death. For example,
in our monastic refectory a candle is put at the place of
the monk who has died. Does Buddhism have something similar?
The number one symbol of passing is a plaque. The family of the deceased will
request that a plaque be set up in a side altar of a monastery. These plaques
are very ornate. They can be carved out of ivory or made of a simple piece
of paper. They are shaped like a lotus blossom, symbolizing the Pure Land where
you hope the soul is now residing. So you write the name on the plaque and
put the plaque up. And then there are special chants that are recited in front
of that plaque. And the family, if they’re following the Chinese tradition,
comes back every seven days for a period of 49 days; the first and the seventh
are the most important. There are teachings about the period between leaving
the body and the 49th day. So, there are rituals, candles, lamps, incense,
food offerings. The latter are often made in a ceremony of remembrance, in
which a meal is shared with the monks and nuns who do the chanting. A Japanese
tradition for special ceremonies of remembrance is to observe them at six months,
one year, and seven years. The idea is that you’re doing this for the
deceased, but the ceremonies are also for the healing of the survivors.
Kingdom of Heaven within?
The phrase comes from the Gospels, which were originally written in Greek.
They’ve been translated into English in various ways. I’ve read
that probably the better translation of that phrase is “The Kingdom of
Heaven is among you.” It’s not necessarily referring to something
within the individual person, but rather to something that is here in your
midst. It was Jesus’ way of saying that the definitive way in which we
are all called to exist—as brothers and sisters of one another and as
sons and daughters of God—is already taking place, even if not fully
more traditionally, have understood it to mean that God is
within. To me, that probably is not the most accurate translation,
and it probably also leads to an overly individualistic kind
petals does the lotus have?
The teaching of Pure Land is not related to petals on an individual lotus,
but to nine grades of lotus. One interesting thing about Pure Land is that
the teaching sounds very much like the theistic view. Amitabha is there, there’s
lots of teaching, there are rules, there’s an entrance an exit to the
Pure Land. The nine grades are nine kinds of lotus. You are reborn in one or
the other, depending on how well you recited here. They are called “Higher
higher, higher middle, higher lower, middle higher, middle middle…” They
are all good lotuses. (Some lotuses, however, are more equal than others.)
How well you
recite determines where you are reborn. Violent criminals,
if they are sincere and recite the Buddha’s name at the
end of life, also will be reborn in the Pure Land. It just
takes longer for them to come out of the lotus. Your karma
is wiped away while you’re in the lotus. What a wonderful
vow. Imagine the monk’s mind as he created this paradise.
He allowed even people who violate the civil law to go to the
Pure Land. As long as you believe it’s possible, make
the vow to go there, and recite, there will be a way to wipe
away the sins of your past life, even if you’ve been
Why a lotus?
A lotus is a plant whose blossom is above the water and pure,
but whose roots are in the mud. The idea is that the Bodhisattva,
the Awakened Human is firmly rooted in this world but their
pure mind is unstained by worldly dust and turmoil.
still make sense to pray for the dead?
The short answer is yes. In our Church the month of November is a special time
of prayer for the souls of the dead. One of the most common beliefs throughout
the world is that this life is not all that there is. Within our tradition,
there are those who are already with the Lord, there are those who are on the
way, meaning that some further purification is needed (Purgatory), and there
are those who comprise what is called “the Church Militant,” those
who are striving here on earth. But these three comprise the one body of Christ,
with Christ as head. There is communion possible among all of them. Throughout
the year, but especially in the month of November, we are mindful of the need
and the call—and the opportunity—to pray for those who have gone
before us. We do that, in fact, in every single Eucharist. In whatever Eucharistic
Prayer is chosen, you will always find a commemoration of the dead, and that
is because they are still part of us, part of one large body of the communion
In the Buddhist tradition there is very much a sense of what we call the transference
of merit, the dedication of the merit that follows every meritorious activity.
For example, if you’re meditating or bowing to the Buddha or reciting
scripture—practices that laypeople or monastics do—the last thing
you do is send out the merit; you share the goodness. It’s up to you
where your vows go, but there’s very much a sense that you can dedicate
merit to beings in what is called the six-spoked wheel of rebirth: the hell
realm, which in the Buddhist tradition is very hot; then the level of ghosts,
which would correspond to a purgatory realm; then the realm of animals. You
would dedicate merit with the wish to end the suffering of those beings, pull
them out of their misery in those places. There are said to be the three wholesome
destinies: the realm of humans; and then the realm of the Asuras, which is
very interesting because they correspond very much to titans, those beings
who are always struggling with the gods; and then the realm of devas, different
forms of gods.
is a sutra in the Mahayana called the Sutra of Earth Treasury.
It is about a Bodhisattva, an awakened being, who vows to stay
in hell until hell is emptied, which is to say, forever. Interestingly
enough, he was a she. When she made her vows, she wanted to
rescue her mother, who she knew was suffering. She said, “If
my mother can be saved, I will willingly go to hell to rescue
all beings.” The sutra describes her lifetime as a woman
and her incredible filial regard. So there is very much a sense
that those in purgatory and beings who are suffering can be
elevated by the heart and the work of the practitioner.
One of the questioners pointed out that there was a striking similarity between
the deaths of Mrs. Wong and Karen. There is another similarity in our traditions.
One of Rev. Heng Sure’s main points today was devotion to the name of
the Buddha, the constant repetition of Amitabha. I think every Christian here
is aware, though the Buddhists may not be, that there is also a very, very
revered tradition within Christianity of devotion to the name of Jesus. It’s
especially pronounced in our Eastern Orthodox Churches, where the so-called
Jesus Prayer is almost the prayer par excellence. It has slightly different
forms, but one traditional way is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have
mercy on me.” One could lovingly repeat that thousands of times. There
is a beautiful little book, The Way of the Pilgrim, that shows how a simple
Russian pilgrim in the 19th century attains such depths of spirituality by
lovingly repeating that prayer.
But it doesn’t
have to be that special formula. There’s another beautiful
book by a French scholar who’s probably dead by now,
Irénée Hausherr. The title of the book is simply
The Name of Jesus. It traces through twenty centuries Christian
devotion to the name of Jesus, not simply so that by reciting
the name one will then come into the Christian equivalent of
the Pure Land, but simply because the name represents the person
of Jesus, and to be devoted to the Lord is perhaps best expressed
by the loving repetition of the sacred name, Lord Jesus Christ.
I myself often use a somewhat different formula. I’ve
learned a lot from the Buddhists, whose concern is not just
for human beings, but for all sentient beings, so I will often
just pray again and again, “Lord Jesus Christ, may all
beings have joy, peace, and happiness.” Saint John Chrysostom
once said that the value of these short prayers is that they
keep you from becoming distracted. If you have long prayers,
your mind is often somewhere else. But if you just have that
one little verse, and especially one that means a lot to you,
it’s a wonderful way to pray. I think the fact that we
pray in the name of Jesus and Rev. Heng Sure’s tradition
prays to Amitabha shows that there is something very human
about that way of devotion.
I am sure many of you know J.D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zoe, which
refers to the same prayer. Some enterprising Buddhist/Catholic dialoguer incorporated
Vipassana mindfulness with counting the breath, so it became “Lord Jesus” (inhaling), “Have
mercy” (exhaling), integrating breath count with the Jesus Prayer.
of Calcutta, My Life for the Poor, ed. José Luis González-Balado
and Janet N. Playfoot (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985),
Sheffield, “Conversations with Dying Children,” Spiritual
Life 33 (1987):33.
Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom, ed. Christine
M. Bochen (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 260.
Karl Rahner, “What
Do I Mean When I Say: Life after Death?” in Karl Rahner
in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965-1982, ed. Paul
Imhof and Hubert Biallowons (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 91-92.
Karl Rahner, “Following
the Crucified,” in idem, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook
of Contemporary Spirituality, ed. Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt
(New York: Crossroad, 1984), 146.
The City of God, 13.10.
Amadeus Mozart to his father, 4 April 1787, quoted in Francis
Carr, Mozart & Constanze (New York: Avon Books, 1985),