Vietnamese Buddhists Prepare for the Next Life 
Bates College, Maine
This is a study of the practices that Vietnamese lay Buddhists make to prepare their next life. It recounts two personal stories of my parents, whose deaths reflect the two traditional practices among of ordinary Vietnamese Buddhists. As a result, the stories of my parents’ deaths mirror the major issues that Vietnamese Buddhists in general face in their preparation for the next life. Their lives and religious practices not only underline some of the teachings generally seen in East Asian Buddhism, but also reflect the basic beliefs of Pure Land Buddhism which widely practiced in
Through a long term practice, a person becomes a serious, devout Buddhist practitioner. He takes refuges in the Three Jewels, receives and observes the five Buddhist precepts. In his whole life, he follows the religious way and cultivates meritorious deeds for his final moment on earth with a calm and focused mind. He also studies Buddhist teachings and helps other people in various ways, without wanting to be rewarded or praised. People who falling into this kind could be categorized as sincere Buddhists, as they have a good knowledge of Buddhist teaching and self-discipline in their practice. With these traits and profound belief Buddha Amitābha’s vows and power, they can face death with some ease.
With a short term practitioner, the person has long been so busy with her life. Although she conducts meritorious deeds, goes to Buddhist temples a few times a year during special occasions, she has never become a true Buddhist. She does not take refuges in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and does not receive any precepts until old age, not long before death. She believes in the common religious knowledge and concepts, such as karma, reincarnation and afterlife, and practices some remembering the name of Buddha Amitābha, yet she is not totally devotional and serious as those in the first category. The people in this second category sometimes need a good spiritual friend to introduce or initiate them to the religious path. Since their religious practice was not solidly strong, and their belief in Buddha Amitābha is not profound, when they were lying in deathbed, they utterly need the monks’ assistance, and rely totally on the supreme power and compassionate vows of the Buddha.
As a person who was born and grew up in a Vietnamese Buddhist family and community, I lived and witnessed these two trends not only within my own family but also my community at large. Also as a former Buddhist monk trained in the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and lived a large temple in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), I encountered many families that fall into these two general practices. Moreover, after nearly a decade, I was in charge of Vietnamese Buddhist communities in three large areas, counseling and helping them during the hospice period, as they stayed at home waiting to die. Thus in this paper, on the subject of the deathbed, which studies how Vietnamese Buddhists prepare for the next life, I will speak from my cultural background, religious experience, give my personal insight, and reflect on some Vietnamese Buddhist teachings and writings closely related to the subject. Furthermore, in order to provide concrete information on more current trends and practices among many Vietnamese Buddhist communities, both in
My father’s story
I was born into a Buddhist family in
To this day, whenever I concentrate my mind on that tragic event, I can still hear him chanting Buddha Amitābha with a calm, confident voice. From the very moment he stepped out of the door, I heard him reciting Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật meaning “Homage to Buddha Amitābha,” with a very calm and single-minded voice. As he walking from the house to the front gate, I can remember, his recitation of Amitābha became louder and louder with clear voice. It was as if he were trying to calm us as we were looking out from the window with horrible fear. When they took him near the front gate, I heard the three guerillas arguing with each other for a while. Then I heard them shoot three times. None of us, including my mother, dared to go out to see what happened. As a young boy, I was terrified. Yet, at the same time, I was wondering why my father, when facing the very last moment before death, was so peaceful, so calm, and without any fear. Now looking back and recalling the tragic event, I know that all the years of his religious practice, and his total belief in the vows, and the power of Buddha Amitābha had prepared my father for the last moment of his life.
Viewed from an objective perspective, my father was shot to death at close range when he was sixty-six years old. It was certainly an untimely death which was a great loss to the living members of his family, his relatives, and his community at large. He was a victim of war, as were many hundred of thousands of people in
My father, like many Vietnamese pious Buddhists, diligently cultivated religion throughout his life. Ultimately, his understanding of Buddhism prepared him to live the life of a lay person and to view life as a journey and death as a home coming. He took refuge in the Three Jewels, and received the five precepts from the head monk, Thích Chánh Trực of temple headquarters of Quảng Trị province, when he was very young. Throughout his life, he kept a vegetarian diet four days a month, and two full weeks during the fourth and seventh months of lunar calendar. He made a daily practice of chanting the Amitābha Sūtra or the Diamond Sutra alternatively every night. He went to a village temple on the days of new and full moons to participate in the repentance ritual of prostrating 108 times in front the Buddha’s altar. Since there was no resident monk at the village temple, sometimes he took a turn leading the group chanting. On some occasions, he acted as a “spiritual friend”, advising the elderly in the village, and chanting the Amitābha Sūtra at the funeral service for the dead. My father strongly believed in accumulating meritorious deeds for a future rebirth into the
Two important teachings on the Pure Land Buddhism
My father’s religious cultivation, particularly the Pure Land practice, closely reflects some of the main teachings of two masters, whose works are known to the Vietnamese monks.
The Five Essential Meanings of Enlightened Mind (Vietnamese Ngũ Chủng Bồ Đề Yếu Nghĩa), an important work written by Chuyết Công (a Chinese monk who lived, practiced and helped revitalize Vietnamese Buddhism in the seventeenth century) on the subject of Pure Land, and has a great impact on Vietnamese Buddhism. In this short treatise, he teaches the five essential steps leading to rebirth in the Pure Land of Buddha Amitābha. These steps are: 1) taking refuge in the Three Jewels; 2) observing the five basic precepts; 3) making repentance; 4) taking great vows; and 5) reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha.
For Chuyết Công, before invoking the name of Amitābha, one must first start with taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The first step initially changes a common individual into a lay Buddhist. He states that even the amount of the seven precious jewels that cover the entire world does not measure up to a single remembrance of the Three Jewels. By taking refuge in them, one could eradicate all defilements and would not be reborn into the realms of hells, hungry ghosts, and animals. The second step is to observe the five basic precepts for lay people. He argues that taking refuge in the Three Jewels and not observing precepts is like a house without its master or a country without its ruler. Hence, there would be nobody to take care of the house or to govern the country. The third step is to confess all the sins created by anger, greed and ignorance through repentance of one's body, speech and mind. He compares the body with a dirty vessel which needs to be cleansed before using it. Thus, the method of repentance is like the water used to clean a vessel.
The fourth step is to take vows to be born in the
For the advanced practitioners, Chuyết Công teaches they should purify their bodies and minds by eating vegetarian food, and observing moral precepts, and should sit facing the West, close their eyes, and visualize Buddha Amitābha with his golden body sitting on the lotus throne in the seven-jeweled lake, radiating the light from the white hair between his eyebrows. The practitioner should continue to visualize Amitābha until he could see the Buddha in his dreams. If a devotee can practice and achieve this method, surely he will be reborn in the
For an uneducated person or one of low intellectual capacity who cannot visualize Amitābha and the
Since Chuyết Công was from Ming China, his teaching was influenced by Yunti Zhuhong (1535-1615), a prominent monk who revised the
In general, Chuyết Công’s teaching on
Chuyết Công's writing and teaching on the subject laid important groundwork for Vietnamese monks and nuns to help at the deathbed, as we see later in the second part of the paper. Of course, some other Buddhist teachings and literature, as well as religious training and traditional practice, were integrated into counseling the dying, as well as members of the family.
The second master whose writing and teaching have a great influence on
Their mouth should always recite the words of Buddha, their mind should yearn to see the Buddha’s qualities, and their body should aspire to be reborn in the Buddha’s land. Day and night they should make the effort to cultivate without remiss. After they die, due to these wholesome thoughts, they will be reborn in the Buddhaksetra. There they will be taught the Buddha’s dharma, they will attain enlightenment, and enter Buddhahood . . . The lowest level of intellect should consider Buddha recitation as the first step of a ladder, zealous effort (virya) as the ladder itself, (and) accumulate wholesome deeds and make vows to be born in the Buddhaksetra. With diligence, without idleness, and their mind well cultivated, at the deathbed, depending on their wish, they will be born in the Buddha land. Once born in the Buddha land, their body will never perish.
At another passage in his book, Trần Thái Tông emphasizes that:
Learners of today, if not cultivating this human body and three karmic conditions [of deed, speech and thought] to practice Buddha-name recitation and make vows to be born in Buddha-land, what would be more difficult? We should start with those of lowest intellect concerning Buddha-name recitation. Why? Because they should be able to concentrate on the Buddha-name recitation. Like constructing a building of three stories, if you do not start with the ground floor, can it be built?
Here, we learn that King Trần Thái Tông repeatedly reminds the faithful of lowest intellect and intelligence, that if they practice the Buddha-name remembrance without remiss and make vows to be reborn in the
My father, as many Vietnamese Buddhists I know and surveyed, followed the religious paths that were laid out by Master Chuyết Công and King Trần Thái Tông. They took refuge in the Three Jewels, observed the five precepts, performed the repentance rite, vowed to be reborn into
My mother’s story
The next group of people whom I will discuss are those who needed great assistance from monks, spiritually good friends, and family members when on their deathbed. The experience of my mother represents the second major category of how Vietnamese Buddhists prepare for their next life. Her death was with the help of the monks, nuns, and of a chanting group from a nearby temple, and family members.
Unlike my father’s death, my mother passed away in her old age and in her own bed surrounded by the sound of monk and nun live chanting. She died peacefully after a week staying in bed and consciously bidding farewell to all her relatives. The most important thing was that she took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Jewels) and received the Five Precepts from the abbot of Thiên Mụ temple in Huế. She also silently recited the name of Buddha Amitābha until her last breath. The abbot told me that my mother had experienced a very good death without physical pain and without any sign of psychological sorrow or suffering. Her face was very calm and happy.
Unlike my father, my mother was not a true Buddhist. She considered herself a supporter of the Buddhist community, and sometimes she donated a little money and food to the temple in the province. A few times, later in her life, she invited monks and nuns to have meals at her house. However, she did not take refuge in the Three Jewels, or receive the five precepts early in her life, but waited until a week before she passed away. She did not follow the strict path of a true Buddhist: such as going to Buddhist temple on a regular basis being a vegetarian even two days in a month, or reciting Buddhist sutras and mantras on a daily basis.
Like my mother, many Vietnamese people I surveyed, interviewed, or encountered over the years, did not take refuge in the Three Jewels until just before their death. The general consensus is that they are afraid that they could not strictly and fully observe the five precepts, that they could not be a vegetarian even a few days a month, and that they could not visit their teacher and listen to dharma talks. In some cases, the lay people could not find a monk or nun with whom they take refuge. In the case of my mother, she could not read and write, thus, she could not chant any Buddhist sutras. When my father was still alive, she told me that it was a man’s job to go to temple, do the chanting, and pray for the whole family, which contrasted with the data gathered from my general survey conducted at five Vietnamese Buddhist temples, which found that the majority of people who go to the temples are women, not men.
The Buddhists of the second group, like my mother, need a “spiritual friend” to initiate them in the religious path. In my mother’s case, she started invoking Buddha Amitābha in 1994, when she was seventy-two years old, because of her love for her own son. I taught her the simple way of chanting and explained to her about the Buddha and the
On my last visit to her in February 2005, I had a feeling that she would pass away soon. At that time, she was very weak but her mind was very sharp and clear. Before returning to the
Several important things were carefully arranged in her room when her doctor told the family that she would not live long. Nuns from a nearby temple came and helped set up a small altar with a picture of welcoming Amitabha. Her monk teacher came and performed the repentance rite for her, reminding her of all the meritorious deeds she performed in her life. With two of his assistant monks, and members of a chanting group from the nearby nuns’ temple, he led an hour session chanting Amitābha’s name. After he left, he advised that family members continue chanting. Also once in a while, they should remind her of the good deeds she had done in her life, while they should stay calm and show no sign of sadness or emotional attachment. The abbot also told my mother to keep thinking and concentrating on the image of Amitābha, set her mind on the Buddha and pray to be born into the supremely happy realm of the
In the following section, I will explain some procedures and Buddhist texts, as well as some rituals that the monks use to help dying people. Generally speaking, for helping patients on their deathbed in Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there is no a single ritual guidebook, written manual, or religious treatise to guide the monastic community and lay people, nor is there a single standardized practice. Those who aid the dying on their deathbed often employ their work experience and the religious training that they have received. All the Vietnamese Buddhist chanting books, even the most modernized ones, do not offer even a chapter on this subject, though important sutras related to the theme are included. In general, it is customary in the Vietnamese tradition that when someone is near death, family members would go to a Buddhist temple to donate money and ask monks to pray for their sick relative. They would also invite them to come to their house to comfort, give short dharma lectures, and chant sutras for the dying.
In general, there are four major steps when helping the dying. They are: 1) a short dharma talk reminding them about the concept of impermanence and helping them to remember virtuous deeds they did in this lifetime; 2) performing a repentance ritual to help them purify their minds and assist them to feel no fear, worries, or guilt and to
be at ease and release any feelings of fear, worry or guilty; 3) a short ceremony of reciting the Three Refuges if they were already Buddhists, or transmitting the Three Refuges if they have never taken them; 4) and reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha.
Short Dharma Talk
When a monk or nun visits a dying person and is informed that he or she will die within a few days, or a week, the clergy first will give him or her a short dharma talk. The concept of impermanence and virtuous deeds are two major themes often mentioned. The clergy would remind the dying person that everything in this world is subject to change and will perish. Nothing remains constant for even a short moment. Everything, every phenomenon, passes through a period of birth, maturity, transformation, and destruction/death/emptiness. The dying person should grasp that a physical change operates from these four states, and understand that all things are governed by the law of change, and characterized by impermanence. His very own body is bound to this universal law, and thus death is inevitable.
Helping a dying person to understand the concept of impermanence would ease his mind and encourage acceptance of impending death. In the end, everything is a part of the cycle of birth and death. If there is birth, naturally, there will be existence for a certain period of time, and then decay and death will eventually come. Death is thus an evitable event that nobody on earth can escape. No matter how great a person’s achievements in life, such as fame and wealth, high positions in society, or family happiness: at the end he will bring nothing with him to the next life but his own mind. As a true Buddhist, he should be able to realize this fact. One can live a long life, say a hundred years, yet it passes by in a flash, like lightning streaking across the sky, like a flower’s blossom, like the image of the moon at the bottom of a lake. Life is within the length of a breath; breathing in without breathing out, one can pass away. Even in her own dear body, one cannot maintain her youth, health, and vitality forever because it must endure inevitable sufferings, deterioration, old age, sickness, and death. Everything in life is impermanent, artificial, dream-like, and transient like a bubble in water. As a Buddhist, she should remember the impermanence of all things.
There are many sutras that teach this concept. Among them are the three sutras used in the chanting book from the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist tradition: The Sutra of Impermanence, the Discourse on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, and the Diamond Sutra. A monk who tries to help the dying person sometimes recites a few passages from some of these sutras. He may also recite a passage or more from famous writings on this subject. For example, the first realization from the Discourse on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, is a very useful in reading for the dying person. It reads:
The First Realization is the awareness that world is impermanent. Political regimes are subject to fall. Things composed of the four elements are empty, containing within them the seeds of suffering. Human beings are composed of Five Aggregates and are without a separate self. They are always in the process of change – constantly being born and constantly dying. They are empty of self and without a separate existence. The mind is the source of all confusion, and the body the forest of all unwholesome actions. Meditate on this, you can be released from the round of birth and death.
Or the monk can read a short passage from The Diamond Sutra:
Just examine the various conditioned dharma, it is no different than a bubble or dewdrop; observe and realize everything is impermanent, births and deaths are like lightning flashes. 
By reminding the dying person of the concept of impermanence, he comes to know that death is an evitable fact and he would thus accept it with some ease. This is normally the first step in preparing his mind ready for the next step.
After giving a short talk on the concept of impermanence to the dying person, a monk should then make him remember some important virtuous deeds, or charitable acts, or meritorious works that he did during his lifetime. If a dying person is a regular member of the Buddhist temple, the monk would know some of the virtuous deeds and would easily remind him. Often, the clergy would sit down with family members and ask them the best virtuous deeds that the dying person did in her lifetime. Together, they sit down next to the dying, make her remember her good works, and have the family members recall all the positive deeds that she performed in her life. This would help the person die with peace, and with a virtuous consciousness. Hopefully she would have a pleasant death without much physical pain and suffering, without sorrow or a resentful mind.
A person could accumulate meritorious deeds in various ways. They are the results of good deeds, acts or thoughts that a person can carry to her next life, and could contribute towards a better rebirth. It is believed that the meritorious works and virtuous deeds that a person cultivated in her lifetime could help her transcend this current life and enable them to get a better rebirth in the next life.
Merit, stated simply, is positive karmic effect that could also stem from different acts. For example, taking refuges in the Three Jewels and observing precepts (five precepts, eight precepts, ten wholesome precepts, or Bodhisattva precepts) can create positive deeds. Donating money or material for building temples, printing sutras, and giving food and necessary items to the members of the Sangha are also counted as meritorious deeds. Being a vegetarian, even for a few days a month, releasing live creatures, comforting the old, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, listening to the dharma, sitting meditation, chanting sutras, performing repentance rituals, and participating in one-day retreats can also generate meritorious deeds. By helping the dying person remember her virtuous deeds, the monk would assist her to generate a virtuous conscience, thus preparing herself before passing away into the next life.
In a related preparation for the seriously ill person, chanting repentance texts, sometimes called “scriptures,” and performing penance prostrations were designed to help the dying person eliminate their worrying mind. It is one of the ways to help the mind focus on the name of Buddha Amitābha and to achieve a good rebirth. By performing the appropriate repentance ritual action, monks came to serve as indispensable guides to the dying in their journey from death to rebirth. The original intention of such rituals, issuing from the Buddhist compassion for sentient beings, was to bring spiritual benefit to the dying person, and to help the living as well.
In Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, the repentance ritual is an important part of the deathbed practice. It is believed that that the dying person may feel guilt, sorrow, or regret for whatever wrongdoings he committed in this and past lives. These may be lingering in his mind and not let him die peacefully. After the monk gives a dharma talk, and family members remind, review, and recall all the meritorious deeds that the dying person had done in this life, the monk then recites, on his behalf, the repentance texts, loud and clear, so the dying person can follow, either verbally or silently. If the dying person cannot say the words, at least one member of the family, on behalf of the patient, repeats after the monk with the name of the dying person.
The first four verses which the monk recites three times, and are then repeated by the dying person with the help of the family members, and are as follows:
In the past I had committed all unwholesome acts,
motivated by indefinite greed, hatred and ignorance,
and channeled through the body, speech and mind,
I am now sincerely repenting them all.
After reciting these four verses, the monk continues:
Offenses arise from the mind; use the mind to repent.
When the mind is forgotten, offenses are no more.
Mind forgotten and offenses eradicated, both are empty.
This is called true repentance and reform.
This repentant ritual, though short, is an important part of the preparation for death. The eight common verses mentioned above are considered the essence of repentance. Chanting them again will help the dying person have peace of mind.
A person who is seriously sick may take a long time to pass away. In this event, close members of the family will invite Buddhist clergy from the local temple to perform a longer version of the repentance rite. It is a common belief that the dying person is burdened with so many unwholesomely defiled karmic deeds and as a result his body endures the pain and suffering. His mind is confused and full of regret and sorrow. Thus his “consciousness” is not ready to leave his body. In this case, one of the two followed repentance texts is performed.
The first text that is often used is called The Samadhi of Compassion Water Repentance (Chinese Cebei sanmei shui chan 慈悲三昧水懺). It is short and can be performed three times, from an hour to two hours each time, depending on the length of the chanting and prostration. Many times, family members and chanting group from the local temple participate in the chanting.
The Water Repentance deals particularly with many important concepts of life and death. The text is very sincere and moving so that it may help the dying person listening to have a peaceful death. The whole book has three chapters, with many small sections combining repentance literature and prostrations. After chanting each section, the ritual leader and all participants must stand up and make prostrations, paying homage to the Three Jewels, to the seven Buddhas of the past, and to the major bodhisattvas.
The first volume explains the reasons for repentance and why one must perform the repentance ritual. It also explains the means of repentance, such as thinking about the Three Jewels, impermanence and the suffering of bad karmas and realizing unwholesome deeds and sins, defiled elements, and all bad karmas created by the body, such as murdering, killing, stealing, and sexual misconducts, and six faculties. After repentance, the chanter must take refuge in the Three Jewels, and vow to practice the seven bodhicita deeds. In this way, he can eliminate all the bad karmic deeds, and defiled elements, both old and new. Also with a sincere mind, speech and body in performing the repentance, the person would gain virtues in this life time.
The second volume encourages the reader to contemplate on the causes and origins of bad karma and advises him to visualize the golden, brilliant body of the Buddha. It further explains that defiled obstacles and unwholesome deeds created by the body include killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, the unwholesome deeds created by speech including lying, divisive, harsh or irresponsible speech and the six unwholesome deeds created by the six faculties, and that now is the time for sincere repentance.
The third volume encourages the reader to repent the bad karmas which he committed against the Three Jewels, because of his superstition, drunkenness, arrogance, deceive of others through trade, wasting money and resources, and committing ruthless acts. The person who recites the text should sincerely repent all the unwholesome deeds previously mentioned. At the same time, he should be aware of the suffering of being reincarnated into the six realms, the suffering of being condemned into various hells, and the suffering of being born as animals, hungry ghosts, bad spirits, and evil deities. If he would be born into a human being, the bad karmic residuals may cause him continued suffering. Thus, now than more than ever, it is a time to repent. Two short passages are translated here to have sense of this text:
If an ordinary person does not have a good spiritual friend to guide him on a religious path, he may commit many unwholesome deeds. When his life is going to end, terrible scenes of hell would appear in front of him. Now, his mind is confused, full of sorrow, and regret that when still young with an able body he had never conducted any virtuous deeds. Now his sick body does not allow him to do any good deeds, even to prostrate in front of the Buddha altar. As a bad person, he will fall into hell alone after he dies.
Therefore, we must be careful in life as we do not rely on young age, money, power which could make us too lazy to cultivate religious practice. Death does not discriminate between the young or the old, the rich or the poor, the high class or the low class. Death suddenly comes without warning. Life is impermanent like the morning dew, breathing out without breathing in, one will pass into another life. Why are we wasting time without performing the repentance ritual? 
The Water Repentance is not only known for its beautiful and sincere repentance literature, but is also popular for a story of its composer. The text is believed to be written by the National Master Wuda of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In the preface, it says that during the reign of Yizong (857-873) of Tang dynasty, monk Zhixuan (Master Wuda’s name before becoming famous), lived at a small temple in the national capital. Once, an old Indian monk named Kaniska was very sick with skin diseases, as his body was covered with foul smelling sores which made everyone disgusted. For two years, only Zhixuan took care of him. Before leaving, Kaniska told Zhixuan that he would run into a most terrible ordeal in the future. If this would happen, he should remember the old monk. Years later, he became famous, even bestowed him a title “National Master” and also received a throne made of sandalwood. Because of his arrogance, Wuda’s past evil karma had a chance to manifest in a form of an ulcer on his knee which looked like a human face. The ulcer caused him so much pain and suffering day and night that one night he silently left his resident temple and went to the south in search for Kaniska. He found the old monk’s temple under two tall pine trees and asked for help. Kanisha told him that Wuda could use the water in a stream to wash away the pain and heal the ulcer, which represented past karmic retribution. When his ulcer was healed, Wuda stayed in the area and compiled the Water Repentance so that people of later generations could also have an opportunity to repent their past unwholesome actions.
This repentance text has been widely used within Vietnamese Buddhist communities and is one of the main texts used for public chanting during the summer retreat. Before the first half of the 20th century, Vietnamese monks chanted in Han, a Vietnamese way of reading Chinese text. After 1960s, it was translated into the modern Vietnamese language, entitled Từ Bi Thủy Sám Pháp, and gradually became very popular. Also during this period, Thich Nhat Hanh, who now is a famous Vietnamese monk in the west, fictionalized the story of National Master Wuda, into a short story called “The Giant Pines.” His story further publicized and validated the text and the repentance ritual. The whole text was later chanted and recorded by the Reverend Thích Chơn Thức, a ritual master in Huế who had a deep, sincere and moving voice which has become the best recording ever made of the text. His record has become popular and it is still widely used it today.
The purpose of this repentance text is to resolve hatred and conflicts with others, to repent one’s own past faults, and to cultivate the path toward enlightenment. When one repents, one must pray sincerely and reverently to the Buddhas of ten directions and to all sages to be one's witness. The act of repentance is to ask for forgiveness for past errors and to reform and prevent future transgressions. One should repent so completely that all evil acts done in the past never arise again. By leaving the bad habits forever and upholding the precepts prudently, one can purify his own mind and obtain wisdom. It is believed that if the ritual is properly performed with a sincere mind, one’s own past sins could be cleansed. Thus, by having monks performed the ritual on behalf of the dying person in the last days or hours of his life, it is believed that the sincere dharma words of The Water Repentance, cleanses his deluded mind and leaves behind all the worries. When their mind is at peace, the dying person can then concentrate on the name of Amitabha Buddha and vow to be reborn into the
The second text, The Jeweled Repentance of Emperor Liang (Chinese Liang huang chan, or Liang huang bao chan, Vietnamese Lương Hoàng Sám: Từ Bi Đạo Tràng Sám Pháp), is occasionally used for dying people. This text is approximately four times longer than the first one and requires a lot of prostrations in front of the Buddha altar. As mentioned earlier, before the 1960’s only monks who could read Chinese were able to perform this text. However, it became popular and was widely used after the text was translated into modern Vietnamese in 1962 by the venerable monk Thích Viên Giác, and was edited by a famous tripitaka monk Thích Trí Tịnh. This translation is still widely used for public chanting and has been reprinted many times both in Vietnam and abroad.
The Jeweled Repentance has ten chapters and is divided into forty sections, devoted different themes. The first chapter admonishes the reader to take refuge in the Three Jewels, eliminate all doubts about Buddha and Dharma, and explains the meanings and significance of confession and repentance. The second chapter encourages the readers to aspire to bodhi mind, to take great vows, and to transfer all good merit to sentient beings. Chapter three explains the definition and concept of the cause and effect of karma. Chapter four continues the karma theme with a long explanation on the condemnation and the suffering in hells. This chapter also encourages the readers to diligently perform religious practices and cultivate compassionate deeds in order to liberate themselves from the suffering of being born into the realm of hells. Chapters five and six explain how the practitioners use the repentance ritual to cleanse their minds, untie the karmic knots, and remove unwholesome affiliations from their past and present lives. Chapters seven, eight and nine express the practitioners’ happiness at being able to meditate on the Three Jewels, to take the bodhisattva vows, and thank the contribution of the sangha (assembly) in helping the practitioner progress in their religious cultivation. Of these three chapters, there are twenty sections dedicated to paying homage to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on behalf of heavenly beings, the immortals, Indra, Braham, Mara, good deities, nagas/dragons, ruler and his successor, parents in this life and parents in past lives, the principal spiritual teachers, monks and nuns in ten directions of the present and the past, denizens in Avīci (the lowest level of hell realm), denizens in hells of frozen rivers and hot irons, denizens in the hells of drinking copper liquid, hungry ghosts, animals, and sentient beings in the six realms. The last three sections of chapter nine encourage readers to contemplate impermanence and transfer good merits to other beings. Chapter ten explains different methods of transferring virtuous merits, and encourages readers to take great vows related to the six body faculties. The chapter then concludes by entrusting the responsibilities of performing repentance ritual to future generations, as well as transferring virtuous merits to all sentient beings.
Historically, the The Jeweled Repentance was compiled in the sixth century under a direction of Emperor Liang Wudi (502-549), the first Emperor of the Liang Dynasty in
Both of these Buddhist classic texts provide an avenue to repent one’s past negative actions. The Water Repentance stresses washing off past hatred with the "Samadhi Water." It uses the image of compassion water to wash away all the sins that one has created not only in the past, but also during the present life time. It is from a personal confession and repentance. While the second text, The Jeweled Repentance, is dependent on the power of the whole sangha to perform the repentance ritual on behalf of the dying. Both texts stress that all living beings, from the timeless past to the present moment, have been constantly obstructed by the grave offenses of the three karmic actions and the six sense-faculties and thus they neither meet a Buddha, listen to his teaching, nor have a good spiritual friend. They are always bound into the cycle of birth and death, and they could never be liberated from suffering. When using the body and mind to repent all the sins committed in the past, and cleanse all unwholesome deeds, defiled residue still lingers in one’s mind. The person can then focus his mind on observing percepts and generate loving kindness and compassion. Now, by prostrating in the front of the Buddha image, he sincerely and single-mindedly pays homage to the Buddhas of the ten directions, repents and reforms.
By proper performance of the repentance ritual, it is believed that dying would eliminate all the unwholesome karma, which could endure the potential sufferings in purgatory or hells and with the purified mind, he can be reborn into Amitābha Buddha’s
Taking Refuges in the Three Jewels
The third step in helping the dying is to take refuge in the Three Jewels. Similar to the second step discussed earlier, taking refuge in the Three Jewels is vitally important for the dying to prepare herself for the next life. It is believed that if she cannot concentrate single mindedly in reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, at least by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, she would not fall into the lower realm of hell, hungry ghosts, or animals and would be reborn as a human being. All the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist chanting books and manuals always include the section of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. The short versed version strongly encourages a person chanted the verses loud and clear:
I take refuge in the Buddha, the enlightened being.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of enlightened beings.
Taking refuge in the Buddha, I will not fall into the realm of hells.
Taking refuge in the Dharma, I will not fall into the realm of hungry ghosts.
Taking refuge in the Sangha, I will not fall into the realm of animals.
This is the most common practice. A true Buddhist or a person who grew up a Buddhist family, but never took refuge in the Three Jewels, often takes refuge in the Three Jewels before he dies. It probably traces back to the early practice of Buddhism. In the Discourse on the Teachings to Be Given to the Sick, Sariputra and Ananda visited the layman Anathapindika when the latter was seriously ill. Their first advice to the lay person Anathapindika was to practice the meditation on the Three Jewels. The scripture reads:
Friend Anathapindika, if you meditate in this way on the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the beneficial effects are beyond measure. Meditating in this way, you can destroy the obstacles of wrong deeds and the afflictions. You can harvest a fruit that is as fresh and sweet as the balm of compassion. A woman or a man practicing an upright way of life who knows how to meditate on the Three Jewels will have no chance of falling into the three lower realms but will be reborn as a human or god.
Chanting Amitābha Buddha
The final step is to chant name of Buddha Amitābha. Normally there are two different phases recitation of Amitābha’s name. The first phase is a chanting of the six-character formula Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật, when a dying person is lying on his deathbed. The chanting would last an hour or two for each session, and it could continue for a few days, a whole week, or whatever time needed until the person dies. It is usually a melodic intonation metering with the soft sound of a wooden fish, struck by one of the chanters and conducted by the clerics, members of a chanting group, or family members. Once in a while, the recitation is punctuated by a sound of a small bell. It is most important that during the recitation period the chanters must utter the six-character formula with sincerity and in unison. The chanters must completely believe that their oral and mental recitation of the name of Buddha Amitābha will aid the dying person concentrate her mind on the Buddha; and with the continuous chanting for a good period, it also would help the dying person’s wondering and distracted mind return to concentrating on the Buddha. The chanters must also wholeheartedly believe that by their sincere and devotional act, the dying person would attain a rebirth in the
In addition to a live chanting at the deathbed, audio devices — cassette, CD, and MP3 players — playing different recordings of the Amitābha chants have been more recently used. In case of my mother, her grandchildren played her favorite tape of chanting which she listened daily. I want to emphasize it must be the same chanting sound which she was familiar with, which helped sooth her mind.
The second phase involves invoking the final chanting with ten words Nam Mô Tiếp Dẫn Đạo Sư A Di Đà Phật. It literarily means that we pay homage to the Buddha Amitābha who is coming to welcome and guide the deceased into the
In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, the preparation for the next life is considered to be one of the most important steps in life. Some people start their life-long journey when they are still young. Some people begin their preparation for their next life voyage when some special circumstances or incidents happen in their life that acts as a wake-up call to ignite them to travel into the religious path. Sometime they need a good friend, or a compassionate teacher to encourage and instruct their thinking, studying and practicing for the preparation of the next life. Ultimately, whether ready or not, they must face the final moments of life to begin their journey into their next life.
The Vietnamese lay Buddhists, in general, follow the traditional Buddhist practice during their lives, either in the long or the short term. Strongly influenced by the synthesized form of the Ming Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhists combine the practices of chanting sutras, invoking mantras, sitting meditation, reciting name of Buddha Amitābha, participating in a short term retreat, attending monthly or special repentance rites, and performing meritorious deeds. A majority of them believe in Amitabha Buddha and his
For people like my mother, the monastics’ roles became important in assisting the passage their last moments. Although there are general teachings from scriptural texts, and literature on the subject of preparation for the next life, the clergy must smartly integrate a few important teachings for the lay Buddhists, whom I generally labeled as the second category. The clergy remind them that this very dear body is subjected to decay and death and that death is a transformation from one life to another. Thus in preparing for this journey, they must think of all the wholesome deeds they did in lifetime that could transcend their mind with a virtuous consciousness at the last moments. By giving them the final repentance ritual, they help them dissolve and clean all evil karmic deeds and prepare their purified mind. Their mind should be clear from all worry and clinging to nothing but the
 This paper was delivered at the Rebele Conference entitled Buddhist at the End of Life, organized by University of California, Santa Cruz, May 1-3, 2009. I would like to thank Professor Raoul Birnbaum for organizing the conference; and also James Doran and Mary Hastings for going over the paper.
 From 1966 several people in my village were asked to prepare for a week of provisions to go to jungle. None of them ever came back (Author’s note).
 His facing death with a calm and concentrated mind on Amitābha reminded me of two verses he often recited in the chanting book, saying that when person is dying “his mind should neither be emotionally attached to anything nor be upset. But his mind must enter into the mindfulness of Amitābha.” Nghi Thức Tụng Niệm, p. 20.
 Vietnamese “sống gởi thác về” is very common expression for those who believe that their life on earth is only temporarily, but their true home is the
 In Vietnamese tradition, there are two practices of being vegetarian: a lifetime or few days a month according to the lunar calendar. If two days a month, it must be the days of the new and the full moon. Those who keep vegetarian four days a month are to practice on the two mentioned days, plus the days before the new moon and the day before the full moon.
 The Ngũ Chủng Bồ Đề Yếu Nghĩa was reprinted in 1726, the seventh year of Bảo Thái era, by Chân Nguyên, a spiritual grandson of Chuyết Công, and the abbot of Quỳnh Lâm Monastery. Chân Nguyên (1674-1726) was a prominent monk who revised the
 NCBDYN, pp. 4a-7a.
 Ibid., pp. 8b-9b.
 Ibid., pp.19a-20a.
 James C. Dobbins. Jodo Shinshu; Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, note 57, pp. 182-83, citing Amitabha’s nineteenth vow in the Longer Sutra: “Were I to obtain Buddhahood, and yet if I were not to appear surrounded by my host before sentient beings of the ten directions at the time of their death even though they gave rise to the aspiration for enlightenment, performed virtuous deeds and established a vow with sincerity of heart desiring to be born in my Pure Land, then I would not accept true enlightenment”.
 Dobbins, ibid., p.183, note 57. Dobbins studies Japanese Pure Land, therefore he cites Shinran as the expounder of virtuous deeds. I deliberately replace
 Trần Thái Tông teaches that for the highest level of intellect, mind is Buddha, there is no need to cultivate any more; for the middle level of intellect, thought after thought the practitioner should concentrate on wholesome thoughts till all evil thoughts are eradicated, then he will find the four blessings from Nirvana Sutra (eternity, bliss, selfhood and purity in Tathagata’s nirvana-realm).
 Translated by author.
 Translated by author.
 In May 2005, I could not go home to attend my mother’s funeral. I talked to the abbot by telephone during her deathbed period, and three times after my mother’s death. I also met him again for three hours in May 2008 to thank and ask him about my mother’s death and her funeral.
 This was recorded on video tape, documented by a camera man, a friend of my younger brother (author’s note).
 In the Vietnamese tradition, it is believed that if parents died peacefully at home without any illness and suffering, and also if they would die on an auspicious hour and date, it would be a blessing for their children. The opposite is an unlucky death and would cause the children some difficulties.
 The two most common ceremonies included in any chanting book of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist tradition are “Nghi Thức Cầu An” (Praying for the Well-Being, or Ceremony to Support the Sick) and “Nghi Thức Cầu Siêu” (Praying for the Deceased). For the Vietnamese reference, see Nghi Thức Tụng Niệm, pp. 25-41 and 65-88; see also Chư Kinh Nhật Tụng (Daily Chanting Book), pp. 67-120 and 199-258. For the modified and new English version, see Thích Nhất Hạnh, Chanting from the Heart, pp. 223-228 and 246-256.
 From my own religious training and experience as well as from my interviews with five Vietnamese Buddhist monks, the most common topic that always come first is impermanence (anicca, or anitya). The interviews were conducted with senior monk Thích Tịnh Diệu and Thích Tịnh Từ, abbot of Kim Son Monastery, Watsonville, California; Reverend Thích Giác Như, abbot of Từ Quang Temple, San Francisco; Thích Trí Tựu, abbot of Thiên Mụ Temple, Huế, Vietnam; and the abbot of Long-Sơn Temple, Nha Trang, Vietnam.
 Taisho 779; Nghi Thức Tụng Niệm, pp. 261-
 Thích Nhất Hạnh.
 The Diamond Sutra, p. ?
 The two popular repentance texts (chan 懺 in Chinese, sám in Vietnamese), composed by Chinese Buddhist monks, when translated into Vietnamese, the word kinh or sutra was added to make it more sacred.
 This is the most common four-versed gatha used in the repentance ritual. One can find them in all Vietnamese Buddhist chanting books of the Mahayana tradition. Thích Nhất Hạnh translated slightly differently and added his own interpretation.
All wrongdoing arises from the mind.
When the mind is purified, what trace of wrong is left?
After repentance, my heart is light like the white clouds
That have always floated over the ancient forest in wisdom.
For the original text, see Nghi Thức Tụng Niêm, p. 61, see also Thích Nhất Hạnh, 2000, p. 36.
 Cebei sanmei shui chan 慈悲三昧水懺 or Cebei shuichan 慈悲水懺 Vietnamese Từ Bi Thủy Sám), Taisho numbered 1910, volume 45, pp. 967-978. The text was first translated from classical Chinese into modern Vietnamese by Monk Thích Huyền Dung in the early 1960s, entitled Từ Bi Thủy Sám Pháp. The whole text was retranslated by a famous monk Thích Trí Quang, with a shortened title Thủy Sám. The first translation has been widely used for chanting, though the second translation is more eloquent.
Translated into English by the author.
 See Thích Nhất Hạnh. The Pine Gate. White Pine Press,
 The text was first published in 1962 by Department of Vietnamese Buddhist Nuns in
 For the original text, see Taisho 1909, Vol. 45, pp 922-967; for other texts mentioned about The Jeweled Repentance associated with Emperor Liang Wudi and his wife Empress Xi, see Taisho 52, pp. 1-361; Lidai xanbaoji, T. 49, pp. 94-101; Fozu tongji, T. 49, pp. 321; 348-353; Related to Master Baozhi, see Taisho 51, pp. 429-430; and T. 49 pp. 348 and 544
 Thích Nhất Hạnh.