Preparing for the Pure Land

(Apologies in advance for the relatively esoteric nature of this article! I’ll attempt to give some background at the end for those of you who are interested.)

While I was staying with Sue Hulley in November, it was becoming apparent that the chemotherapy was not working to reduce the tumor – she could feel a lump growing daily in her side, and later tests confirmed this. When I first asked her how long she thought she had left to live, she speculated two years, but within a week she had revised that down to a matter of months. Not long after, it was only weeks. She accepted her rapidly shrinking lifespan with her characteristic calm and good humor.

Sue was all about cherishing others, and in very practical ways. Something I wrote at the time gives a glimpse: “On Sunday morning I woke at 7am to find Sue attempting to bake for the Tuesday night meditation class. She couldn’t stand up, much less reach things, so this was going to take all day… instead I offered to be her hands and we made a rather nice cake. If anyone has an excuse to beg off baking duties and be unhelpful, it is Sue. But cherishing others is what she does – she is going to die as she lives and live as she dies.”

Sue was not sentimental about her death. Her last email to her fellow Teacher Training students, people she had been close to for 15 years, was factual, let everyone know that she could no longer receive visits or phone calls, and ended simply with: “I look forward to studying with you in Keajra. Love Sue.” She also wrote some Christmas cards not long before she died, on which she wrote messages like: “Merry Christmas. Have a great rest of your life! Love, Sue.”

Our conversations

The most important thing we talked about during my ten-day visit was preparing for her death and next life. Our conversations started in the car, like this:

Me: Where are you planning on going when you die?

Sue: Hmmm, well, I was talking about this with someone the other day, and we concluded that we would like to go wherever Geshe-la wants us.

Me: Where do you think that is?

Sue: I suppose Keajra? (the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini).

Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?

Sue: I suppose I am.

Me: I think if we want to go to Keajra, we have to start believing that we are in Keajra now. I don’t think it works to assume that we’ll just suddenly go there if we haven’t gotten used to being there ahead of our death.

Sue: (goes very thoughtful). Yes, I have been thinking of it more along the lines of “I’ll keep my nose clean and then with any luck go to a Pure Land. It is a bit dualistic. I’m putting it off.”

Me: That dualistic view is quite natural for us, and perhaps it is like some people’s idea of a Christian heaven. But in Buddhism we have to put our mind where we want it to be – it is not a question of being rewarded sometime in the future.

We have to have no reservation either. We have to really want to be there, more than anything else. (This point is at least implicit in the first of the so-called “five forces”, aspiration – we do have to know clearly what we want and actually want it!) If Buddha was to appear right now and say to you: “Sue, I am going to give you a choice. You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!

Sue: (laughing) Good point. I would want to hang out here with my friends for another 20 years and then go! But I have to want it MORE than this.

Me: Yes, and the only way that’ll happen is if we’re thinking about it all the time, and what it actually means to be in the Pure Land. As you know, it is not a real physical place with lovely fountains and whispering trees (looking a bit like Marin!) that we are going to magically turn up in sometime in the future if we create some vague aspirations and causes for it now. It is, of course, primarily a state of mind. We have to practice being there until we are.

Then, there will be no contradiction between being in Marin and being in the Pure Land 🙂 For example, when the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa was asked in which Pure Land he attained enlightenment, he pointed to his empty cave.

We can describe the Pure Land as like heaven, but it is not really the same as many Christians’  or Muslims’ notion of heaven (depending, I suppose, on what they mean when they say “heaven on earth” ?!)  We are not buying into this human life and using it to garner a reward, or a “promotion”. We want the Pure Land now. It seems to me that if we don’t want it now, it means we still have attachment to a more ordinary life, and these are stones around our feet that will prevent us from leaving samsara. Do you agree? To go there, we have to want it more than this. And we have to want it now. There is only now.

Sue and I then had several discussions about what state of mind Keajra or the Pure Land was, and Sue spent a lot of time focusing on this. As a result, she said that death no longer felt like such a “big deal” to her, more of a seamless transition, and she found a deep peace with it. There is a description of sincere Tantric practitioners in the Root Tantra of Heruka:

For such practitioners, death is just mere name –
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.

Death is smoother if we are already living as if we are in our next life. Less “bells and whistles”, less of a “razzmatazz and production”, as Sue put it, with accompanying wand gestures. Our friend Marsha Remas had been telling us about the title of a book she was reading, “This IS your next life!” Sue loved that.

There need be no contradiction between living this life and preparing for the future if we are now putting our mind where we want it to be in our next life.

I think that a Pure Land has basically three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. This will mean different things to different people, including those in other spiritual traditions. For me, in brief, and for Sue, faith means a profound feeling of closeness to my Spiritual Guide, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, holding them all in my heart. Motivation means renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom) and bodhichitta (the wish for enlightenment for the sake of all living beings), which keeps me very close to others, free from attachment, also holding them all in my heart, even when the fleeting appearances of this world and body dissolve away. View means the wisdom realizing the empty dream-like nature of all phenomena, inseparably mixed with the clear light mind of bliss. (Tantric practitioners can combine these three with self-generation, you can find out more about that in Modern Buddhism).

It seems to me that this is the best way not to be separated from those we hold dear. With faith, motivation, and view, we lose nothing when we die. There is nothing to fear. We are where we want to be, for our own and others’ sake.

When Sue and Bill dropped me at the airport, in what turned out to be Sue’s last “outing”, she said: “This was not a dead flower visit. This was very ‘real’.”

When Sue died, her family stayed with her for an hour and a half, and then left her alone for another hour and a half. When they returned, her left hand, which had been by her side, was over her heart, and her mouth, which had been open, was now closed in a peaceful half-smile.

Your turn: Where are you planning on going when you die, and what are you doing now to get there?

Some background information

We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

The Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.) The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and controlling our own mind. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

32 thoughts on “Preparing for the Pure Land”

  1. Hey Lucy. Wonderful post, really, really enjoyed it, thanks. To me, the same difficulty keeps coming back when faced with a question like the one you asked: “You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!”. How do I get both? 😀 How do I stay with my son AND abide in Keajra? The son I perceive is the one I love and, yes, am so attached to. So, when I lose the attachment and manage to abide in Keajra who/what is he then? I’ll love him without the attachment, sure, but what does that mean; and as I don’t know what it means, it’s really difficult to chose. I can hear you say “which is where faith comes in” and I hope I one day will have that deep, pure faith. Until then, how do I learn to make that choice, to let go, not to feel I am losing anything? This is hard.

    1. The best bits about your relationship with your son are the love bits, not the attachment bits. You stand to lose nothing in your relationship with him by getting rid of the attachment and keeping the love. Doorways will open in the mind also to love everyone as much as you love him — imagine if you could do that, how much joy there would be given how much joy your love for your son gives you? If we keep our attachment, we will definitely lose its object anyway sooner or later, because attachment is based on inappropriate attention and is not grounded in reality. But we never have to lose the objects of our love. He will be with you one way or another in Keajra, you will feel very close; but you simply cannot stay together forever, or even for very long at all, if you stay in samsara.

      1. Yes, I can understand that but my reality is that the son I love is the one that appears as inherently existent. And so in my mind, leaving that IE son that is a mere illusion and object of attachment is like losing the son I love; especially as I do not know what it will be substituted by, if you see what I mean. Ok, so I’ll be blissful in Keajra but not with him. And writing this, I realise that separation will come anyway and that’s where it really, really sucks. So if the pain will come, why not postpone it? As your friend said – she’d rather stay around a bit longer before going to Keajra. So, I need to convince myself that it is by reaching Keajra that I will be able to maintain that bond as I will no longer be hindered by self-grasping and inherently existent appearances. Does that mean I am more motivated to attain liberation and reach Keajra out of attachement than fear of future suffering?? Or am I just completely off track, here (which wouldn’t be surprising)? 😀

        1. Sorry to come back but I guess the hard part is to distinguish love from attachment. Added to that is the fact that we/I often feel guilt for not feeling attachment. I have had recent death in my family and had a few comments that I didn’t seem to care. Of course I did and do but I probably displayed less attachment than those who made the comments. It seems there’s the need for a complete redefinition of love, not in words (these, we have in VGL’s books) but in how I live it. It’s very hard. It even feels like not being human as it seems to involve not feeling as much; feeling differently and more distant, less involved in the situation. More inside, less outside. Ok, it’s late, I’d better leave it there. 😉

        2. more excellent questions — i only have a few minutes but 2 things spring to mind for u to try out (1) start the other way round, see your son as the nature of your mind and go from there, as opposed to from starting point that the son you normally see doesnt exist (2) bear in mind that if u go to the Pure Land before death you will still also be in this world, just not of it. And when u die you will be losing this particular karmic appearance of your son regardless of where you go next.

          Will have more time later for this discussion …

  2. Hi Luna

    Remember me? Ohana. I’m interested about Pure Land.

    I have visited a high lama & he told me that my son was still at Bardo state at that day & with help of the holy High Lama he attained enlightment; he told me that Tristan is in Pure Land now. Thus our connection as mother & son have been severe.

    Now, what came in my mind, according to Tibetan Book of Death, one just can be at Bardo state fot maximum 49 days, then he will be automatically reborn according to his karmical seed in certain realm.

    My son has already passed away for 1.5 years, so how could he be still at Bardo? How does this actually works? I mean to find someone based on his picture (not actual state of his physical at death) & send him to a Pure Land.

    I would like to hear your idea about this.


    1. It could be that he already took a rebirth and then was in the bardo again after 1.5 years because you are right that the bardo lasts for 49 days usually. You yourself can do transference of consciousness for Tristan by following the book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

      1. Thank you Luna for sharing your point of view.

        Is there any possibility that one could wait longer than 49 days in Bardo in order to take certain rebirth due to a very strong karmical connection? Or got trapped in bardo because of a strong attachment? I’m afraid that my son was under shocked that he got separated from me. He surely could see me, but he wouldn’t be able to talk to me. Also, I’m afraid because of such strong attachment & even if he had reborn, he took a rebirth again because his mind seeked back his past life.

        I read about Pure Land, a place full of bliss where no suffering. Are those people in Pure Land born like us in human world?

        I’m afraid to do powa by myself. Besides, if he has reincarnated, will it harm him?

        For me, it’s most important that he is happy & healthy aka free from suffering now, no mattar where he is

        Thank you Luna.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful inspiration and sharing! Hopefully many come to read this.

  4. Very beautiful and powerful. Thank you Sue for the inspiration and Luna for the wisdom. May all the merit ripen on Sue and her family and may we follow her to Keajra. Dxxx

  5. Well said Kelsang Gamo … there is still so much regarding death that is hidden in the western world … so it’s great that 2 such experienced practitions as Luna and Sue are able to share their conversation and experience with us all. It’s been a real eye opener for me … after having worked with bereavement counselling at a hospice for some yrs before I retired it’s very refreshing to find such open hearts and minds. Thanks again to all who are sharing in this way.

  6. I love how frank your conversations with Sue were. It is so nice to be able to talk with other practitioners about death in this way. But these conversations were especially meaningful because you two are such experienced meditators. It seems like right now I have many friends and family who are living with serious illness. I can’t wait to share this article with them! Maybe we can then have some conversations like these and help each other deepen our practice. May everyone live in Keajra, right now!

  7. Amazing, thank-you so much. May we all take to heart and put into practice this precious teaching.

  8. Wanting to go where Geshe-la wants us to go, love that. Don’t think you can really go wrong within that thought can you?

    It certainly sounds like Sue died the right way and ended up ‘somewhere good’, if we don’t get out before death, I think that is the best any of us can hope for. Meaning that the somewhere good is higher than ‘just another samsaric rebirth’ of course.

    The feet of stone thing and, to paraphrase, being half-hearted, is ringing a bell for me personally. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’. I have found that old saying to be very true in life in general. If you decide, simply, ‘I WILL..’ about anything, the generally you will find that things unfold to make that prophecy come true. The greatest thing is to apply that principal to the highest goals within Buddhism, one being to get to a Pure Land! To get going in such a way that we are never going to go backwards, that we keep going forwards in freeing ourselves and every other being from suffering. And, as you say, we need faith/belief that there is a pure place to go – before our will can manifest – and, to paraphrase again, to start ‘acting as if’.

    Luna, your words above are something I need to contemplate deeply and apply to myself.
    Thank you to you and to Sue for inspiring me and others.

  9. Stop making me cry with every single article that you write, please! 😉

  10. Wow. (3x, 7x, 21x) Yes! (1000x)
    Please don’t stop this stream of nectar. You are amazing and I am so grateful for your sharing this with us. During this retreat month, I have been and continue to include you in my mandala offerings. For so many reasons, you have helped me stay on my path.
    I still see Geshe-la so vividly holding his hand up at his forehead during the Summer Festival, saying (re: Keajra): “It is THIS close. Not far. This close.”
    Thank you for connecting us with Sue’s journey. So precious – and keeps her practice of GIVING alive for us all.

    1. And … thank you so much dear dhidakini for reminding me/us of dear Geshe-la’s words – what a gem …. the pureland is this close, I can see his hand slowly opening out …. so now with faith …. if we simply open our wisdom eyes so amazing what we will see .. Dra-ma x

  11. WOW .. exactly what I needed to hear, how wonderful for everyone to hear, such clear advice … what a wonderful teaching. Thank you both so much … so much to reflect on during our January retreats and indeed beyond into our daily lives … talking about opening the hearts and minds of us all. How fortunate, and so kind … K Dra-ma

  12. I have been reading your blog regularly since you started, and all of them are excellent. But this one stands out as a priceless gem, in my view some of the best Dharma I have ever received. Thank you very much for this!

  13. Okay… here’s a stab. I had a couple of attempts at this and it still sounds far more esoteric than it feels to me but here goes.

    Like many others like me, I’ve lost people I loved and some of those losses felled me. I’ve also discovered that grief in adulthood feels a lot like the abject fear I felt as a child, because also like many others like me, my early life was less than ideal.

    I think of death as any experience that strips away the illusion that life is anything but groundless. If I can accept groundlessness then this acceptance dissolves away the duality of life and death, in all of its iterations. In the fleeting moments when I do pull this off… well, then I’m right where I ever want to be. It’s when I feel most alive and present and most in touch with reality. That’s pure land to me because in those moments it feels like that’s all there is and it’s enough.

  14. mariatonella

    ur not foolish but u
    need to put in some more flying hours
    just like i need to do
    keep trying and enjoy !
    oh! n make haste there is no time to lose …i may die today
    love n prayers

  15. Thanks so much for writing this! I know Sue appreciated your visit so much. She told us about this conversation w/ you of being in Keajra Land now- it was a meaningful reminder to her. Sue also co-lead a group discussion on Guide to Dakini Land in our TTP class after your visit. She was very weak and could barely sit up in a chair. She could only speak very softly- but, her mind was so sharp! You could see the inspiration in her eyes! It’s so true she was always cherishing others. So much so that when people asked her what they could do to help her after her diagnosis- she said “please do something for the center”.

  16. Ever since I started practicing in the New Kadampa Tradition, I have had the feeling, sometimes, when meditating, that I am sitting on the grass, just outside the Yiga-Chodzin palace, on the right hand side of the palace….Which curiously looks a great deal like the Temple at KMC Brazil.

    If where you feel yourself to be is where you are going to be, then I think I know where I’ve chosen…

  17. Dear Luna,

    This is such a wonderful article. I know Ace is always saying that the Pure Land is here. Not separate from our mind. We need to remember it trying to keep a happy mind all the time. Then if we practice it enough it will appear. It is wonderful that you could talk to Sue about this and help her remember where the Pure Land is. Thank you!


  18. Brilliant. For some very strange reason I didn’t really think the pure land was something we have to make now and take it with us when we die. Probably just too attached to this life to want to create anything different now.

  19. Thank you Luna for such an inspiring article…. the question “If Buddha was to appear right now and say to me that he would give me a choice for living another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or that i can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would i choose…?
    Hopefully i would choose rather to be right now in Keajra….
    Then i thought on what you said…about the three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. ..
    Luna…i want the Pure Land now….so this means i have to be practically there right now? If this is like that…why i forget to be there all day long? Why i am not able to remain generated as a deity?
    i know why…. because i am a foolish….!
    thanks a lot Luna, what a great story!

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