Several years ago I asked Thrangu Rinpoche, who has taught extensively on the bardos, this question: “If a Buddhist realized they only had a year left to live, what practice should they emphasize?” He replied, “Pure Land practice.” His answer may surprise students of Tibetan Buddhism, where pure lands are rarely mentioned.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says that as death approaches, the main deity we should relate to is Amitabha, the principal Pure Land buddha. Pure Land practice is important because if you don’t attain enlightenment in the bardos, the next best thing is to gain rebirth into a pure land.

There are a number of reasons for doing this.

Five Reasons to Gain Rebirth into a Pure Land

First, pure land rebirths, while not yet nirvana, are outside of samsara. They’re free from the aging, sickness, and death of samsaric existence. There is no overt suffering.

Second, they are non-retrogressive. Once you’re born into a pure land you’ll never fall back to samsara, unless you do so voluntarily.

Third, spiritual progress is rapid in a pure land. It’s like being born into a country where everyone is a lama and everybody practices the dharma. The developmental center of gravity is so high that you have no choice but to evolve.

Fourth, this spiritual progress allows you to develop powers of super-cognition. With these abilities, you’re more effective in helping others. Going to a pure land is not getting out of your bodhisattva vow to benefit all beings—it is fulfilling it more rapidly. It’s like going to graduate school instead of staying back in kindergarten.

Fifth, birth into a pure land is your last rebirth before attaining enlightenment.

The most famous pure land, and the one at the heart of the Pure Land tradition, is Sukhavati, the “land of bliss.” Sukhavati is generally regarded as the only pure land where ordinary beings like ourselves can be reborn.

Almost all the other pure lands require the attainment of the first bhumi, which is a lofty level of realization.

The Tibetan tradition, whose approach to the pure lands differs from traditional Korean, Chinese, or Japanese Pure Land practice, is centered on a tenet that we will return to frequently: the mind leads all things. By cultivating pure states of mind in this life, that will lead us to a pure land after death.

Kalu Rinpoche says:

By the orientation given to our mind [in this life], once in the bardo, we become conscious that we are dead and we see Amitabha coming to welcome us. We will recognize him, and wish for rebirth in his pure land. This thought is enough to make us go there immediately.

Four Principal Meditations to Cultivate the Conditions Necessary for Rebirth in Sukhavti

The first is to contemplate the details of Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha who created this pure land for us, and of Sukhavati itself. This is done by studying the descriptions found in the Longer Sukhavati Sutra, or the progressive visualizations of the Meditation Sutra. At the moment of death, mindscape becomes landscape.

Second, accumulate merit. Even though the transfer of merit from Amitabha is a principal force in our rebirth in Sukhavati, we need our own merit.

Third, develop the mind of enlightenment, or bodhichitta. Tulku Thondup says, “[Y]ou must vow or be determined to lead all mother-beings, without exception, to the Blissful Pure Land without any selfishness, and you must put that aspiration into practice through meditation and beneficial deeds.”

Fourth, dedicate the merit you have gathered for rebirth in Sukhavati, and make heartfelt aspirations to be reborn there. Ascertain that you are dedicating merit exactly as your forefathers did on their path to enlightenment. These dedications and aspirations are like a steering wheel that guides our merit toward the goal of rebirth in Sukhavati.

All four causes are based on faith in Amitabha and his pure land. This is the most important factor for entry into Sukhavati. We have to really believe in this pure land and in the power of Amitabha to help us at the moment of death.

These four factors are encapsulated in the famous Sukhavati Aspiration Prayer by Karma Chagme Rinpoche. There are Amitabha meditations, and many other aspiration prayers, but this is the most widely practiced liturgy for Tibetan Buddhists.

Tulku Nyima Rinpoche describes an Amitabha practice to do every night. As you lie down to sleep, visualize Amitabha on top of your head; recite his mantra OM AMIDEWA HRIH three times; dissolve the visualization of Amitabha into your heart; feel his bliss and light; then go to sleep with Amitabha tucked into your heart and mind.

Vajrayana students practice an esoteric form of Pure Land Buddhism with meditations on sacred outlook, or pure perception.

This is the “Pure Land of the Present Moment,” as Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it.

Sacred outlook is an important preparation for the bardos because a key instruction, while in the bardo, is to see everything as perfectly pure. This shifts our relationship to whatever arises. It erases our tendency to poison experience with passion, aggression, or ignorance. These three root poisons are the spark plugs that drive the engine of samsara: I want it (passion); I don’t want it (aggression); I couldn’t care less (ignorance). They define our existence. The three poisons transform an inherently pure world into the impure land of daily life. In the bardo, this impure perception hurls us into an impure birth.

Because Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism emphasizes pure mind, it’s easy to dismiss the exoteric schools and their emphasis on Pure Land.

Many people dismiss the Pure Land tradition as easy or lazy Buddhism. They denigrate it as being for those who can’t handle the rigors of “real” Buddhism.

Some writers say the pure lands are for beginners.

For others it sounds theistic: Amitabha sounds like God and Sukhavati sounds like heaven.

But the Buddha taught on Sukhavati, and some of the greatest masters in Tibetan Buddhism wrote extensively about it. They spurred their disciples to engage in the practices to get there. Even though there is no Pure Land sect in Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong Pure Land orientation.

It’s also tempting to regard Sukhavati as merely symbolic. But Sukhavati is just as real, or unreal, as this earth. It’s a place, created by the merit of Amitabha, for people like us. We should take it seriously. For most of us, going to Sukhavati is the best thing we can do after we die.

Source: Holecek, Andrew. Preparing to Die. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.