Enlightenment at death

Hi everyone :slightly_smiling_face:

How is it possible to get enlightenment at death? I recall that I read something about it but I can’t remember which Sutta (?) it was.
How is enlightenment at death possible? Is it because at this point of time one is truly able to let go, due to ones diligent practice during previous life times?

Thank you :pray:

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A book by Rector Sayadaw is attached.Dr-Nandamala-Kama-at-death-and-rebirth.pdf (16.1 MB)
It might explain you how to deal with death.

Thanks and regards,

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I’m not sure if this is what you’re after, but the faith-follower and the Dhamma-follower are said to attain liberation (sotapanna) on their deathbed at the latest. For example, SN25.1. I would guess that most cases of deathbed enlightenment are Dhamma-followers and faith-followers.

But there’s also another sutta, AN3.57 which suggests that those on the right track may attain Nibbana in a future life:

Fools devoid of understanding,
dull-witted, unlearned,
do not attend on the holy ones
but give their gifts to those outside.
Those, however, who attend on the holy ones,
on the wise ones esteemed as sagely,
and those whose faith in the Fortunate One
is deeply rooted and well established,
go to the world of the devas
or are born here in a good family.
Advancing in successive steps,
those wise ones attain nibbāna.

I bring this up not to suggest that the practice can be put off until death or future lives. But because I find it important to remember that this path is a process. And all hope is not lost for those who don’t awaken in this life.

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Maybe because at the time of death we realize impermanence most intensely. Because we know we will die one day…still its not in our experience. And furthermore during life we can guide ourselves by discernment as we have body, brain, memory, but after death we can guide ourselves only by our tendencies(karma) we carried out while alive because body is not there and also memory and brain is also not there to be used by us, but we only have tendencies (karma) to guide ourselves. After death it’s just as if entering dream without any control upon our direction (except our karma). So even if it’s possible, it’s actually very hard to attain enlightenment at death unless we are very advanced on path towards nibhana. That’s what I feel.

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Maybe sn48.17?

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Hello @Alex70!

It depends on which stage of enlightenment is intended, and the level of insight one has reached during life.

As @turntables mentioned, in SN 25.1 Dhamma-followers and faith-followers are assured stream-entry before death.

If one has reached stream-entry during life, then all other stages of enlightenment are possible to be realized at death.
For example, SN 55.3 records the case of a stream-enterer lay follower who became a non-returner at death by deepening their understanding of the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering and not-self).
SN 55.54 even describes the possibility for a stream-enterer lay follower of attaining arahantship on their deathbed if instructed in letting go of all conditioned phenomena:

If they reply,
‘I have done so,’
then there is no difference between a lay follower whose mind is freed in this way and a mendicant whose mind is freed from defilements; that is, between the freedom of one and the other.”

It should be noted that these are not “automatic” attainments that one magically receives at death. They involve careful reflection and very active participation on the part of the dying person and are not guaranteed to succeed in any way. I would recommend the presence of a monastic who is well versed in these issues.
And, just to be clear, putting off one’s efforts until deathbed is very risky business. We might not even be fortunate to die in a bed, or to retain the clarity needed.
(I’m sure this is not your case, just stating it for others who might come across this post :slightly_smiling_face:)

As to how and why it would be possible to advance to higher stages of enlightenment in such a short time, we need to extrapolate various concepts from different places in the Suttas.

As you mentioned, during the death process one is forced to let go. If one makes use of this experience wisely, this letting go (paṭinissagga) can go a long way towards reducing the five hindrances in the mind, which then can more easily give rise to “Truly knowing and seeing” (yathābhūtañāṇadassana), as it happens during jhana for someone who has cultivated the Buddhist path.

Of course, if one has had samadhi experiences during life, it would be much easier to make use of the death process, unlike for someone who has not had such experiences.

Ven. Dhammavuddho in his talks (I couldn’t quote one specifically) often goes into the description of how the mind becomes stronger and clearer during the death process as it starts to let go of the five senses.
We can also possibly corroborate this with Near Death Experience (NDE) research, which seems to suggest people’s faculties can be so clear that their experience is described as “more real than real”.

Another great resource on these topics is Analayo’s book “Mindfully Facing Disease And Death”.

One final clarification:
According to the Suttas, reaching enlightenment is not necessarily a multi-lifetime process. This seems to be a later development that is emphasised in later traditions (Paramis, Bodhisattva vows etc…).
Obviously, if one did cultivate diligent practice during previous lifetimes, his faculties in this life would reflect this, as we know from Dependent Origination.
But in the Suttas there are many examples of very misguided people who later became arahants. The important thing is to cultivate the path, no matter one’s past! :smiley:

I hope this helps, much metta to you :pray:

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@Giovanni
This is great! What a detailed explanation. Thank you so much for taking your time to answer! SN 55.3 and 55.54 are the ones I was after. I will also have a look at the book.
Yes, cultivating the path is the most important thing on the whole journey.
I am a strong believer that once one came in contact with the Dhamma one will find it again - that’s why I chant to (my) animals :blush:

@turntables
Great Suttas! Thank you.
You are right, this path is a process and much effort has to be put in to be successful one day :grinning:
@ZawNyunt
This book sounds interesting. Thank you for that :blossom:
@stu
I haven’t read this sutta before. :slightly_smiling_face:

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