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  • Thong Tri Temple

Reflections on Rebirth, Sickness, Aging, & Death

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

March 25, 2022 | Compassion {Karuṇā} | Loving-kindness {Metta}


In December 2021, my mother passed away. Although I have studied, written about, and contemplated the Noble Truths for several years, the experience of losing my mother and the sadness I faced have helped me to understand the Teachings of the Buddha with new insights. According to the Buddha’s teachings, as a part of the natural process of birth, sickness, aging and death, we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life. We should always be aware of our actions in every moment and the true nature of things.


From a Young Age

From a young age, I have been close to my mother. As I have described in my Profile Interview, my mother took me often to the nearby Buddhist temple when we lived in Vietnam. My earliest memories were of peace, tranquility, and happiness at the Temple. Both of my parents, devout Buddhist followers, instilled in me the values of the Triple Jewels.


My mother renounced and transitioned to be a Buddhist nun on the same day that I did. My father, who is a Buddhist monk, was our sponsor and Master (Venerable Teacher). I feel at peace for my mother, because I know the life that she lived. I know that she will not have a negative rebirth where one’s spirit can be reborn to one of the three lower realms of reincarnation. At the hospital, the Master and I recited the Buddha’s name to help guide her in the right direction as her spirit left her body.


What are the Realms?

(These are questions from the Lay-friends, which you will see throughout the blog)


The Ten Realms consist of Four Higher Realms (Four Noble States for Enlightened Ones) and Six Lower Realms (Unenlightened Beings). You can find more information about each of the ten realms in the following blog post: The Ten Realms {https://www.thongtritemple.org/post/the-ten-realms} and the Desire, Form, and Formless Heavens {https://www.thongtritemple.org/post/desire-form-and-formless-heavens}

Six Months Ago

In May 2020, my mother suffered a stroke. Her entire left side was paralyzed. She had to relearn how to walk and how to use her left arm. She was also diabetic, so we had to be careful about what she ate. After six months of physical therapy, my mother was still unable to walk on her own without the use of a walker. She had also lost a great deal of weight. I began to realize that she would not regain her former health and vigor. Throughout this ordeal, my mother was always in good spirits. Although she was in great physical pain, she did not suffer. Suffering occurs when you cannot accept things as it is. My mother still remembered to recite sutras. She was often telling jokes with a positive outlook, not complaining or cranky.


Final Days

My mother still had an alert mind and sharp sense of humor up until the last days of her life. I believe this is due to her meditation practice. About a week before she passed, my mother would press the medical alert button around her neck to summon my sister. One time, after she finished telling my sister what she wanted, she pressed the button again. My sister asked, “Why did you press the button again? I am standing right here speaking to you.” My mother replied, “I am done talking. I am turning off the channel.” She treated her medical alert system like a radio station, signaling when she wanted to speak and end her conversations. As always, she was playful and lively.


In early December, my mother had asked my sister to prepare and deliver the Christmas gifts she had wanted to send to family members. Although it was a bit early, I think she knew that she wouldn’t make it to Christmas.


Saturday

When I last saw my mother, everything seemed normal, although she was a bit tired. My mother had been significantly weakened by her stroke in May 2020. She talked a little bit slower than she used to. She was losing her hearing, losing her wind. At this point, she was bone and skin, and constantly cold. That day, her eyes appeared to have lost focus, as if they had lost their spark. We spoke at length. She still understood everything I said and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She had even set aside money to give to me and the Master. Before I left, I gave her a kiss. She said, “Good night, be careful, and drive safely.”


Sunday

The next day was extremely windy and sunny. It had rained the night before, so the weather was chilly. On Sundays, I typically start chanting at 10am, but that day, I couldn’t focus, and started chanting at 2pm. I felt like I was waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. I started offering incense and inviting the bell to sound. (Click here to read what it means to invite the bell to sound.) As soon as I started chanting, I felt the door open; a wind rushed in, and I heard someone come in. I thought it was the Master since he has a key, but when I went to the door, it was not open. I returned to chanting, but again, felt as if someone was there with me. I usually put my phone away in silent mode when I meditate, but for some reason, on this day, I decided to keep my phone next to me. As soon as I finished chanting, my brother called to tell me that my mother was on her way to the hospital. My mother lived here in the temple when she renounced. I felt her presence, and she was there with me, as if she wanted to visit her home one last time before she left.



Death

Ultimately, the cause of her death was cardiac arrest. My mother was eating a late lunch when she started choking on the rice and tofu. She coughed up a spoonful of food, exhaled her last breath, and closed her eyes. My sister called 911 and performed CPR on her for 15 minutes until the paramedics arrived and tried to revive my mother for another 15 minutes. By the time they arrived at Kaiser, my mother’s heart had stopped beating for 30 minutes. At the ER, they were able to revive her. She was intubated and breathing through a tube. We requested a head scan and MRI to see if her brain incurred any damage when her heart had stopped beating. After reviewing all the information with the doctors, nurses, social workers and discussing the matter as a family, we made the decision to pull her breathing tube.


What are the benefits to the deceased when reciting the mantras and/or chanting the Buddhist Scriptures?


We are told by the Buddhist masters that the last moment of our subtle consciousness is of the utmost importance. Our last thoughts and feelings will be the deciding factor in conditioning the first moment of the next life. The Venerable Teacher (my father) and I stayed with my mother for another 5 hours, chanting, reciting, and praying over her. We requested that her body should not be touched or moved for 8 hours after the tube was pulled. It takes time for the subtle consciousness to separate from the body. If the body is touched or moved, it could distract the deceased from her journey, mire her in suffering, and possibly cause rebirth in a lower realm. For 49 days, we chant the Buddhist Scriptures (Sutras) or recite mantras to help the deceased to ascend to a higher realm. Death is a transitioning period from one life to another (reincarnation).


A good death moment does not cancel out any bad Karma from a person’s life; however, the chanting rituals benefit the living as well as the deceased. Chanting generates merit as we dedicate our positive thoughts, good deeds, and energies outward. The deceased can receive 1/7 of any merit dedicated to them when we do good deeds on their behalf, while the other 6/7 of the merit will return to the living who has done the good deeds. Therefore, we should do what we can while we’re still alive. Live as today is our last day to live. Live mindfully; be aware of our actions and help those in need. A simple act of kindness and compassion can go far.


In addition, the chanting helped my mother to reflect on her accumulation of positive good deeds and what she has learned from the Buddha’s Teachings in this life. We reminded her to let go and that her Karmic actions in the past will help her to take her rightful place of rebirth in the next life.


What technique do you use to help you go through the process?


One of the mantras we recite, Om Mani Padme Hum, is the most popular mantra in Buddhism especially Tibetan Buddhism. It means “hail to the jewel in the lotus.” Lotus represents compassion; Jewel is the mind; “Om” represents Buddha’s body; “Ma” represents His speech; “Hum” represents His mind. Om Mani Padme Hum encompasses the three powers that a Buddha contains, which is body, speech, and mind. Therefore, “hail to the jewel in the lotus,” has a double fold meaning.


According to Tibetan Buddhism, Om Mani Padme Hum belongs to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva – the Buddha in his compassionate aspect. When we pray and recite this mantra, it is very powerful and holy. We appeal to an outer source of compassion (in Sanskrit called Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva or Great Compassionate One), soliciting the energies to help us forgive and let go of things that others have done to us, and let go of things that we have done to others.


We also connect to our inner selves to open up the energies that can develop compassion (the compassion we have within us is likened to a lotus opening up). When reciting this holy mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, while we visualize the deceased, it directs our mind towards something that is very positive. We pray and wish for them to take their next journey in rebirth, and let go. We recite this mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, for at least 10 rounds a day for 49 days (a mala or rosary of 108 beads - one mantra per bead - equals one round), and dedicate it to the deceased as an expression of our love.


When we recite Om Mani Padme Hum, we meditate on the things we have done, and meditate on compassion. Do not meditate on tangible things, but meditate on our actions. Focus on things that we regret, as well as things we have done positively. Sometimes it’s hard to look at the things we regret. We won't like it, but we have to face it. Once we have done that, we will increase our ability for introspection.


Mala beads (a set of 108 beads)


Why 49 days?

In Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the Vietnamese tradition, we pray for the dead for 49 days after the spirit has left the body. 49 days is the estimated time it takes for the spirit to take rebirth (reincarnate) into a new life. Some spirits reincarnate in 3 days or 100 days after death. In some cases, it takes years. In that state, their body is no longer there, so they can move around with their mind, which is quick and moves at the speed of thought. Although we cannot see them, they can be near us, and we can feel that they are there. Their attachment to what they were attached to during their life is still very strong.


Dream

My mother did not want to have a funeral, memorial service, or ceremony. She simply wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered wherever is convenient. A few days before her death, my mother had had a dream that her body exploded and there was blood on the walls. When my sister told me about the dream, I reassured my mother that she was still here, and her body was still intact. My mother responded, “Well, my day is getting closer.” I feel that the dream was not only a premonition of her impending death, but also a metaphor for her desire to be cremated once her spirit left her body.


Funeral

In a Buddhist funeral, we make offerings to the Buddha. The offerings have special implications:

  • Incense symbolizes the fragrant scent of morality, ethics, and discipline.

  • Candles and light symbolize wisdom and illumination of the Dharma that frees us from ignorance.

  • Water symbolizes purity and clarity of the mind .

  • Flowers symbolize beauty, impermanence, and the flowering of enlightenment. “Whatever arises also ceases.”

  • Fruits symbolize the offerings of our Dharma practice.

The best way to honor the Buddha is to practice the teachings of the Buddha and to make non-material offerings, which can be demonstrated by practicing:

  • Giving (an act of “Dana,” by cultivating generosity, charity or almsgiving)

  • Moral Conduct (one of the three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path)

  • Meditation (a state of meditative consciousness and concentration)

  • Wisdom (an understanding of the “true nature of phenomena” and the “three characteristics of all things,” which is impermanence, suffering and non-self)


Why do people offer food and tea to the deceased?


At the memorial service, there were two altars. One was near the casket, featuring an image of the Buddha, incense, candles, water, flowers, and fruits. The other one dedicated to the deceased had a photo of my mother, incense, candles, tea, flowers, fruits, and food. Family members offer vegetarian food to the deceased as a symbol of respect to show that they are loved in death as they were loved in life.


During the funeral service, cremation and ashes rituals were performed by chanting the Buddhist Scriptures (Sutras and Mantras). The chanting reminds lay-friends and the deceased to listen carefully to the words of Buddha’s Teachings. Before and after all the rituals, mindfulness walking, and sitting meditations take place, we dedicate merit to the deceased and all beings.


An act of “Dana” (Giving) is performed, which is an act of purifying the mind of the giver by cultivating generosity, charity, and almsgiving, allowing blessings to be showered upon the Triple Jewels and subsequently transferred to the deceased.



Here is a link to the eulogy that my siblings and I wrote together for the service:


How do you cope with the great sadness of losing your mother?


Mourning & Gratitude

I felt deeply sad after the loss of my dear mother. I gave myself time to mourn with my family and close friends. I also took time to reflect, observe, and meditate on the Four Noble Truths and the Three Universal Truths which the Buddha taught his disciples. Now that I have had direct experience (due to the loss of my mother) of what I have studied, wrote, and shared, I feel that I have gained an opportunity to deepen my practice with mindfulness.


I am so grateful to my mother for many things. She introduced me to the Temple at a young age where I watched her practice, learn and apply the Buddha’s teachings so that I could follow. Her generosity was displayed when she sent money to the needy, disabled children in other countries or in the US and other temples. Most of the things I do right now, I learned from my mom. I am just following in her footsteps. I will always treasure the Three Jewels first, but my mom is the world to me. She taught me to strive to be a righteous human being and a productive member of society. My mother lived her life beautifully, and I am following her path.


Understanding the Noble Truths has helped me to have awareness of the way things are, to heal quicker, to let go quicker, and to minimize suffering through acceptance. It is not easy to do, but I have learned that the most important lesson is to live in the present moment and meditate.


Meditation

Meditation was an important practice that helped me to heal and to have awareness and acceptance. When I meditate, I have a clearer vision of what I need to learn in order to understand the Buddha’s teachings. A clear mind helps me to observe and understand things better.


Meditation helps us to familiarize ourselves with certain truths. As we become familiarized with these truths, we will see our mind change. We will see our mind renounce our attachments and our suffering and become detached. As our mind becomes detached and renounces (realization), we will not be affected when things change. It becomes easier for us to accept and let go (unattachment).


Meditation also deconditions the mind to let go of our rigid views, delusions, and obsessions. In our daily lives, what is real is discarded while what is not real captures our attention. This is ignorance - when we follow our distracted thoughts.



Lessons Learned

I have learned many lessons from this experience. I know that Buddha’s teachings are the truth. It was easier to heal and to let go after I had applied what I learned. In order to be mindful, to have awareness and wisdom, we need meditation. I have learned the importance of showing love and care to your loved ones when they are still alive. Most importantly, I have learned to accept, heal, let go, and move on.


As I think about my own death, I know that I don’t have to be scared. When you learn the Dharma, you are not afraid of death. My mom was not scared even when she knew the end was near. I loved my mother; I did everything I could for her, and I have no regrets. I am very sad and in pain, but I am not suffering. By giving up craving, we are giving up suffering.


This passage from the First Noble Truth blog has given me comfort and guidance:


Suffering Because of Death

When we see our loved ones die, we are not only grieving their death, we are also grieving our own death. We grieve because of the fear that we will never see our loved ones again. We will never talk to them again, hear their voices, touch them, laugh with them.


This can be troubling, but there’s a way for us to mentally and emotionally prepare for the death of a loved one or our own. When you see someone else die, then you can be mindful that this will also happen to you so that you are more appreciative of your life and your current situation. When we know death, we appreciate life more. Aside from this, we can live in the present moment. We can know that just as life is given to us freely, it can be suddenly taken away. Like a thief would take any of our possessions, by surprise.


What happens after one dies? In the Buddhist tradition, the cycle of rebirth after death is determined by Karma (action) and driven by Intention --a deed done deliberately through body, speech, or mind which leads to future consequences. Our past actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and our present actions will affect us in the future.


After a great storm, A magnificent forest tree stood still with its leaves, though some had fallen on the ground, and some were still attached to its branches. Those that fell, young or old, are the ones that died, and the ones left attached, young or old are the ones who are still alive. This means that whether young or old, it is our nature to die. Knowing that death is a natural phenomenon, we can contemplate on living with our positive actions and intentions to appreciate the breath that lingers day by day. When the time comes, we can go in peace.


May you all be free from suffering and all the causes of suffering!


Namo Shakyamuni Buddha.



References:


Chơn Lý,” Tác Giả Đức Tổ Sư Minh Đăng Quang (Language in Vietnamese)


Phật Học Phổ Thông,” Tác Giả Hòa Thượng Thích Thiện Hoa (Language in Vietnamese)


The Seeker’s Glossary of BUDDHISM,” Edited by the Van Hien-Study Group, Sutra Translation Committee of the United States & Canada


A Simple Path – Basic Buddhist Teachings,” by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama


The Buddha and His Teachings,” by Venerable Narada Mahathera (Sri Lanka 1970), Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.


Buddhism,” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism.


"Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth" (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 13 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html .


"Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3)" (Ud 8.3), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 September 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.03.than.html



A Verb for Nirvana by The Theravada Scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2005”




The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by H.E. Sogyal Rinpoche in 1992, is a presentation of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol

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