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Reflection from DDM LA:
“Death is neither a celebration, nor a tragedy, it is a serious Buddhism ceremony. ”

Flash back to September 2009, almost 10 years ago, I was facing the first big challenge after I embarked my journey of studying aboard in U.S. Soon upon arrival at the school, I learned that I was declined for a field placement at a local Elementary school. Forgive me for not being able to dive into the reasons of why and how it happened. But I did remember vividly how I felt like when I found out about my alternative field placement. Rather than the word “disbelief”, I think “anxiety” is more fitting in describing how I truly felt inside when I realized I was placed as a Hospice Social Work Intern.

Coming from a relatively closed local culture in China, death has always seem to be a taboo subject. In my memory, people avoid talking about death, as if mentioning the word “death” alone may jinx one’s fate. At that time, I have only been living in U.S. for one month. With no spiritual belief of any kind, nor experience of working with terminally ill patients, I began my humble journey of learning. I didn’t know where to begin. But soon enough I found out, that one can hardly avoid the discussion of spirituality or existential distress when death comes close.

In spite the absence of spirituality, or better yet the lack of knowledge of spirituality and religion while growing up, I somehow always believed in causality and karma. It is only after I’ve studied more about Buddhism, I came into the realization that may be it was from that time, I started to tap into the karma of my previous life. Master Sheng Yen has mentioned in his autobiography. “When one has done spiritual practice in a previous life, you could say that a seed has been planted. In this life, if given the opportunity, the seed sprouts”. It is also through the learning and acceptance of causality and karma, one can then truly gain the wisdom of life. My own inquiry and question of spirituality began to sprout at that time.

I pondered on the importance of religion in one’s life, especially its irreplaceable meaning to patients who have only 6 months or less life expectancy. I studied the cultural diversity in death and dying. Yet, due to the absence of my own spirituality as well as the specific focus of social work practice, it was difficult for me to fully grasp on the role of spirituality in different stages of hospice care, which generally include planning for end of life care, spiritual and emotional care, help at home, inpatient care and bereavement support. Years later after I graduated from my master’s program, I had another opportunity to work for a hospice care agency for 2 years. It was during that time, through numerous patient and family contacts, I come into acceptance of the peace and comfort spirituality can bring to someone who has lost faith or hope of life, and to the families who suffer greatly during their family member’s dying process.

With this seed secretly planted in my heart, I came to the two day Training Program held by Dharma Drum Mountain Los Angeles Center. Much to my surprise, a complete DDM Buddhism end-of-life care program include seven different stages, which are Buddhism consult and education, Care of the dying patients and their family, deathbed chanting, bereavement support, Buddhism offering, funeral recitation ceremony and follow up spiritual support. The importance of the comprehensive end-of-life care program intend to address fear and uncertainty of those who are dying, remove barrier to enter the Pure Land of those who had already departed and provide emotional and spiritual support to their family members throughout the process. It is completed through Buddhism chanting, recitation, Buddhism funeral ceremony, as well as Buddhism centered spiritual counseling and education.

Much of the work mentioned are done by Chanting Supporting Group(助念組) that is totally voluntary and self-organized, while some portion of the service can be lead by the monastics. It is beneficial for those who participate in chanting and recitation for the dying, as in the concept of “Benefit others and you benefit yourself.”. One can accumulate good karma, while simultaneously reduce bad karma by practicing kindness and compassion for others. Yet Ven Chang Xue (常學法師), presenter of the course reminded audience the correct attitude when participating in DDM Buddhism end-of-life care program: 1) One shall give selflessly. As a devoted Buddhist, one shall relieve the suffering for all sentient being regardless of closeness of relationship, economic or social status; 2) One shall cultivate Bodhicitta and keep Bodhicitta motivation long lasted. Participation in the chanting group is not only a respectful act towards self, family of the deceased, it is more so a respectful act towards the sanctity of the Pure Land.

Before and after a death, chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha is the primary key to helping the deceased to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. During the course, Ven Chang Xue explained in detail how to engage properly throughout the seven stages of services, showed audience the correct standing position for deathbed chanting as well the order and etiquette of arriving and leaving during funeral recitation ceremony, he also pointed out the proper way to use Buddhist ritual instruments in addition to the appropriate tune and pace of deathbed chants. Often, the Chanting Supporting Group will take turns in offering deathbed chanting for 8 hours, some may even last for 12 hours. Family members are encouraged to be participated of the chanting and recitation process as well. Through the collective effort of Buddhist chants and vows during funeral ceremony, participants help the dying in completing the one last most important act of living, which is dying with dignity and respect. As Master Sheng Yen said “death is neither a celebration, nor a tragedy, it is a serious Buddhism ceremony. ” Through the video teaching and understanding of death and dying process guided by Master Sheng Yen, many participants of the course, including myself, found out death is not something to be fearful or frightened of. By being present for the deceased, it can remind us the uncertainty of life, as death itself is unavoidable and unpredictable after all. We shall cherish each living moment and live our life to the fullest. May the seed from this DDM Buddhism end-of-life care course continue to grow and nourish the mind of those who participated, like how it had with me. Amitabha. Namaste.

Written By: Yan Xin, DDM LA Center
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“Death is neither a celebration, nor a tragedy, it is a serious Buddhism ceremony. ”