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Helping with death

This topic is not popular because many people consider it grim and macabre. However, it is the elephant in the room and therefore wiser for us to face it squarely. The knowledge we obtained from studying this topic may come in handy one day. So how do we help another person who is dying? Let us explore this topic from Nakula Sutta.

In this sutta, the layman Nakulapitu was seriously ill and his wife (Nakulamatu) comforted him by saying thus:

 “Don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.016.than.html

As we can see from the above, worries can be a source of unbearable mental pain for a dying person. In this instance, the wife is reminding her husband of what Buddha had taught. To have someone remind us of the Buddha’s teaching on our deathbed is considered a fortunate situation. This is because death can come unexpectedly. But in this sutta, Nakualapitu was very fortunate because he was at home and accompanied by his faithful wife, who was also a devout Buddhist.

“Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will not be able to support the children or maintain the household after I’m gone,’ but you shouldn’t see things in that way. I am skilled at spinning cotton, at carding matted wool. I can support the children and maintain the household after you are gone. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.

Nakulamatu was consoling her husband to let go of his worries about his children and family finances. And she made it a point to remind him of the core message. That is, “let go and do not worry” Buddha said so. If you wish to have a painless death. Also, we witness the mental strength in Nakualamatu. To help a dying person, we have to be calm and composed, this is because our emotions will also influence the dying person.

“Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will take another husband after I’m gone,’ but you shouldn’t see things in that way. You know as well as I, how my fidelity has been constant for the past sixteen years. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized death when one is worried.

From the above passage, we know that Nakulapitu was very attached to his wife and you might be surprised to hear that both husband and wife had gained the 1st stage of enlightenment. (Sotāpanna) The reason, I highlighted this is because we have to have a proper understanding of Buddhist enlightenment. It is really achievable and not that far-fetched. Those who have attained this level of enlightenment are pretty much like unenlightened beings, except that their sense of being is no longer built upon a delusional “I”.

As we read on, we can infer how Sotapanna is still working on their Dharma path, and what things may still influence or concern them. It is because of this that the conversation of Nakulamatu becomes relevant for us, the unenlightened disciples.

Based on the above description, Nakulapitu and Nakulamata were just married for 16 years. That means, Nakulapitu was probably around his 30s when he became severely ill.

“Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will have no desire to go see the Blessed One, to go see the community of monks, after I’m gone,’ but you shouldn’t see things in that way. I will have an even greater desire to go see the Blessed One, to go see the community of monks, after you are gone. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.

Here, Nakulamatu was assuring him of her commitment to Buddha, dharma, and Sangha. In other words, she is assuring him not to worry about her spiritual affairs. So previously, Nakulamatu guided Nakulapitu to let go of his concerns for his family. Here she is directing him to let go of his concerns about religious affairs.

In this stanza, we should also be educated to know that as Buddhists, it is important for us to keep in contact with the Buddhist community. That is how we can steadily progress in our Dharma practices.

“Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will not act fully in accordance with the precepts after I’m gone,’ but you shouldn’t see things in that way. To the extent that the Blessed One has white-clad householder female disciples who act fully in accordance with the precepts, I am one of them. If anyone doubts or denies this, let him go ask the Blessed One, the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one who is staying among the Bhaggas in the Deer Park at Bhesakala Grove, near Crocodile Haunt. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.

Here, we understand the importance of observing Buddhist precepts. Nakulamatu was assuring her husband that she was committed to the precepts. Also, Nakulamatu was telling her husband to let go of his worries and concerns about her practices.

“Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will not attain inner tranquillity of awareness after I’m gone,’ but you shouldn’t see things in that way. To the extent that the Blessed One has white-clad householder female disciples who attain inner tranquillity of awareness, I am one of them. If anyone doubts or denies this, let him go ask the Blessed One, the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one who is staying among the Bhaggas in the Deer Park at Bhesakala Grove, near Crocodile Haunt. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.

Here, we understand the importance of meditation and attaining Jhana during our practices. Again, the subject matter is to ask her husband to rest his mind and stop worries.

Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Nakula’s mother will not reach

firm ground in this Doctrine & Discipline,

will not attain a firm foothold,

will not attain consolation,

overcome her doubts,

dispel her perplexity,

reach fearlessness or

gain independence from others with regard to the Teacher’s message,’-

but you shouldn’t see things in that way. To the extent that the Blessed One has white-clad householder female disciples who reach firm ground in this Doctrine & Discipline, attain a firm foothold, attain consolation, overcome their doubts, dispel their perplexity, reach fearlessness, & gain independence from others with regard to the Teacher’s message, I am one of them. If anyone doubts or denies this, let him go ask the Blessed One, the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one who is staying among the Bhaggas in the Deer Park at Bhesakala Grove, near Crocodile Haunt. So don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.”

The above is actually a summary of a Sotapanna’s attainment when they reached the 1st stage of enlightenment. Once the delusion of “I” is broken, the dharma becomes crystal clear and no doubt will arise. The ground or base of one’s spirituality is firm and thus one will be reborn another 7 times at most. In a way, Nakulamatu is also helping her husband establish the positioning of his mind by recollecting the characteristic of a Sotapanna when she recollects the above.

While Nakula’s father the householder was being exhorted by Nakula’s mother with this exhortation, his disease was immediately allayed. And he recovered from his disease. That was how Nakula’s father’s disease was abandoned.

This is a happy twist to the plot and from the above, we should understand that worries and a troubled mind are also bad for our physical health.

Then, soon after Nakula’s father the householder had recovered from being sick, not long after his recovery from his illness, he went leaning on a stick to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “It is your gain, your great gain, householder, that you have Nakula’s mother — sympathetic & wishing for your welfare — as your counselor & instructor. To the extent that I have white-clad householder female disciples who act fully in accordance with the precepts, she is one of them. To the extent that I have white-clad householder female disciples who attain inner tranquillity of awareness, she is one of them. To the extent that I have white-clad householder female disciples who reach firm ground in this Doctrine & Discipline, attain a firm foothold, attain consolation, overcome their doubts, dispel their perplexity, reach fearlessness, & gain independence from others with regard to the Teacher’s message, she is one of them. It is your gain, your great gain, householder, that you have Nakula’s mother — sympathetic & wishing for your welfare — as your counselor & instructor.”

The above passage summarises the attainments of Nakulamatu. It also tells a fortunate situation if one has an enlightened family member. He/she can help soothe our minds when we are at our weakest moment.

I guess not all of us have the same good fortune as Nakulapitu. In fact, most of us may be the only practicing Buddhist in our family. In this case, we need to be an island unto ourselves and be firm in our practice. Besides that, we can also have Buddhist friends who are willing to help us die peacefully when our moment is near.

If we have the opportunity to help another person on his/her deathbed, it is important that we guide them to let go of their concerns and worries. Just like how Nakualamatu was doing in stanza one and two.

We should not be fearful because we do not want to spread our fear to them. We have to speak clearly and patiently. Neither should we be overcome by emotions and attachment. Our main objective is to let the dying person know that dying is a natural process. There is no need for worries or fear or sadness. Acharn Suchart recommended telling the dying person (ordinary Buddhist or non-Buddhist) that death is like going to sleep and one will wake up in a better place.

If the dying person is a Buddhist, we can help them remember Buddha’s teaching. We can remind them of their good deeds and guide them to rejoice and feel happy about their merits. The merit of taking refuge in the Triple Gems is rebirth in heaven. Stuff like that.

In other words, we want to guide them to be freed of worries and attachment to this world, be happy about their good deeds, and be confident about a better existence in the future. Be free of anxiety and fear of the unknown.

May all be well and happy.

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