Deathbed Experiences of the Pure Land

Dr. Carl Becker, a researcher of near-death experiences, documented at least a hundred cases in China and Japan of people who claimed to see visions of Amida or the Pure Land on their deathbed:

The Pure Land tradition is renowned for recording the miraculous experiences of Amida Buddha and his attendants coming to guide the dying to the Pure Land. Some people say that these experiences are just hagiography, but the specificity of detail in such accounts gives prima facie reason for distinguishing them from adjacent fairy tales. Prof. Becker himself has identified some 100 such accounts from China and Japan.

In the 1970s, Prof. Becker found other people studying near-death experiences in the United States. With hints from the renowned death specialist Dr. Elizabath Kubler-Ross, he helped to found the International Association of Near Death Studies. In the process of this study, researchers found the need to coin the new term “figure of light” which they found common across various cultures. Hospital research around the world has shown that this “figure of light” is experienced by many dying people. This is not just a belief, but has been well documented over the past 30 years worldwide and the last 15 years in Japan. This is hardly surprising, since Japan has a long tradition of this belief in Pure Land practice, but such studies have been slow to permeate modern Japanese medicine…

Prof. Becker then showed a video on Near Death Experience (NDE) from Japanese television for which he acted as a consultant. In many NDEs, people speak of being (re)born through a tunnel of light, which image matches the Pure Land account of being (re)born through the calyx of the lotus into the Pure Land. There are many accounts of natural and flowery images as in the Pure Land. These are difficult to attribute solely to anaesthesic drugs, since such drugs tend to create architectural and geometrical images, and most experiencers had not received medication in the first place. Many NDEs in hospitals cannot be explained as delusions or dreams; there are many documented incidents of soldiers who were seen by their wives in their homes at the moment that they were mortally wounded on distant battlefields. We know that such phenomena can occur, but we don’t know how.
http://www.jsri.jp/English/ojo/round1/day2morn.html

In this video, Master Chin Kung describes contemporary stories of Pure Land devotees who predicted their time of death in advance, and who passed away in a sitting or standing position while reciting Amitabha’s name:

Buddhists can have different criteria in evaluating what to believe. Some prefer to dig through the early Buddhist texts, to find the earliest layers of the Buddha’s instruction. Others might find contemporary accounts of deathbed experiences compelling.

We’re only in this lifetime for a short time, which makes many of us wonder what there might be on the other side. According to Shinran Shonin, the Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana, which is why he referred to rebirth into the Pure Land as “the birth that is non-birth,” just as the Buddha referred to Nirvana as “the unborn.”

We’re sort of like the Buddha’s parable of the blind men and the elephant, doing our best to grasp at a reality beyond any of our understandings. We’re therefore bound to seek truth in different ways and come to different conclusions, while still all remaining under the umbrella of Buddhism, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Buddhism has never been just one homogeneous entity:
https://www.spiritrock.org/document.doc?id=5336

For someone like myself, who probably wouldn’t even have hope of attaining stream entry in this lifetime, seeking rebirth into the Pure Land is an attractive option.

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With respect to visions of light & NDE’s in general:

Interesting stuff.

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Hi @daverupa.
Can you give some of your thought based on these books?

Let me mention one more book; I want to put an end to the idea that this sort of thing isn’t receiving serious academic attention:

Here is a review.

Finally, an extended conversation with the author; quite lengthy but ultimately worth the slog.


It’s very complicated.

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Just give a try.
I am not going to hold you to it.
:grinning:

image

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I can’t comment on people who claim to see visions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on their deathbed. All I can say is, as a Buddhist, hearing stories about people who saw Amida or the Pure Land on their deathbed helps give me hope that there is life beyond this world of suffering, what the Buddha called the unborn and the unconditioned. If a Theravada Buddhist had a deathbed vision of Ajahn Chah, I’d probably be encouraged by that too.

I think this finding would be much more interesting if there were 100 cases of people in the US or Ireland seeing Amida on their deathbed.

Somehow people never see Ganesh drinking milk outside of India and people deep in China never see visions of the Virgin Mary.

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I wouldn’t expect non-Buddhists to have deathbed experiences of Amida or the Pure Land. Pure Land Buddhism has been in the West at least a hundred years, so there have been such stories, just not as many as in China or Japan.

Master Chin Kung’s video, posted above, includes an elderly woman in the United States of Chinese ancestry.

That is my point. Pure Land Buddhists see Amida on their deathbed, Catholics see the Virgin Mary, etc, because those people conditioned their minds that way. The see those things (illusions), because that is how they inculcated themselves through their lives. People seeing those things doesn’t mean they are true, anymore than a person’s nightly dreams mean anything is true.

No disrespect or offense meant.

There are similarities across cultures and religions which might suggest they are witnessing the same reality, while interpreting it in different ways:

In the 1970s, Prof. Becker found other people studying near-death experiences in the United States. With hints from the renowned death specialist Dr. Elizabath Kubler-Ross, he helped to found the International Association of Near Death Studies. In the process of this study, researchers found the need to coin the new term “figure of light” which they found common across various cultures. Hospital research around the world has shown that this “figure of light” is experienced by many dying people. This is not just a belief, but has been well documented over the past 30 years worldwide and the last 15 years in Japan. This is hardly surprising, since Japan has a long tradition of this belief in Pure Land practice, but such studies have been slow to permeate modern Japanese medicine…

Prof. Becker then showed a video on Near Death Experience (NDE) from Japanese television for which he acted as a consultant. In many NDEs, people speak of being (re)born through a tunnel of light, which image matches the Pure Land account of being (re)born through the calyx of the lotus into the Pure Land. There are many accounts of natural and flowery images as in the Pure Land. These are difficult to attribute solely to anaesthesic drugs, since such drugs tend to create architectural and geometrical images, and most experiencers had not received medication in the first place. Many NDEs in hospitals cannot be explained as delusions or dreams; there are many documented incidents of soldiers who were seen by their wives in their homes at the moment that they were mortally wounded on distant battlefields. We know that such phenomena can occur, but we don’t know how.
http://www.jsri.jp/English/ojo/round1/day2morn.html1

Going through a tunnel of light, being met by a figure of light, and seeing flowery imagery are common themes in NDEs, across various religions and cultures.

I’ve read of those similarities before. Hopefully there is truth to them the way every human would want to be truth to them. However, similar shared images do not mean those images are reality, only similar hallucinations. It could mean only that like many physiological responses that are the same in all people, the dying human brain could fire off a similar set of neurons in almost everyone. Neurons that give the sensations of floating, neurons that bring up the memories of life, and lost loved ones. Hopefully this is what you hope it is.

Here is a lecture of Dr. Carl Becker on deathbed experiences of the Pure Land, as well as the wider context of near-death experiences:

It wouldn’t be surprising if Pure Land Buddhism originated from Buddhists witnessing a figure of light on their deathbed or in meditational samadhi.

Or it may have originated from this:

The (wishful thinking) ego that one can somehow be spared the suffering of repeated cycles of rebirth and suffering without putting in the required effort.

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Perhaps you are oversimplifying things.

Seeing light and flowers isn’t the only option for NDEs. There are people who have reported going down to fire and darkness with all sorts of disturbing imagery and distress.

Hearing both, I recall the first verses of the dhammapada. We will follow in the footsteps of our actions.

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Yes. Some Western converts to Buddhism don’t acknowledge it, but there is a hell in traditional Buddhist teachings.

The person I know who had a hellish experience was an atheist, not a Buddhist. They were not approaching from a conditioned viewpoint

That’s kind of scary, the prospect of an unfortunate afterlife. That’s not something we normally like to think about.

There’s this idea that jhana makes the mind malleable (for implementing wisdom and insight).

we suggest that since sensory deprivation has been shown to introduce a period of enhanced neuroplasticity (Boroojerdi et al., 2000; Fierro et al., 2005; Pitskel et al., 2007; Maffei and Turrigiano, 2008), meditation may also have an enhanced neuroplastic potential beyond ordinary experience-dependent changes.

Not to suggest that any experiences of light is jhana or that meditation is sensory deprivation!

With metta

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