What is the soundscape of the deathbed? Most often, for Chinese Buddhists, it has involved the sound of human voices chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha. According to the core Pure Land scriptures, Amitābha vowed to save all those who called on him, ensuring that after death they would be reborn in his Pure Land, a place of comfort and ease.
Scriptures associated with this tradition describe the wonders and pleasures of Amitābha’s Pure Land in detail, from its luminous ground and lotus ponds to the birds that sing Buddhist teachings in the trees. One of these scriptures, The Sūtra on the Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life, also categorizes believers into nine ranks based on their level of devotion. It is most beneficial to devote one’s entire life to Amitābha, and such people make up the highest ranks. Those who sin during this life and fail to practice are in the lowest ranks, but they can still be born in the paradisiacal realm of the Pure Land if they meet a good teacher prior to their death. This teacher is said to provide basic instruction in Buddhism, and, more importantly, guides the dying to call out Amitābha’s name in their last moments. This is enough, the scripture claims, to ensure salvation.
For each of these nine ranks, the scripture also describes the deathbed experience appropriate for each level of practitioner. For those of the highest rank, Amitābha himself attends them at their deathbeds, accompanied by his two bodhisattva assistants and an assembly of heavenly monks and other beings; they escort the dying to the Pure Land. For those in the middle ranks, Amitāhba merely appears to them on their deathbeds, while those of lower ranks can only expect to see him after their rebirth in the Pure Land. As a consequence, when someone reports seeing Amitāhba on their deathbed, it is confirmation to the living that their loved one will have a good rebirth. The alternative is rebirth as an animal or suffering the tortures of purgatory.
As a form of communal practice, Pure Land Buddhism began with the religious society formed by Huiyuan (334–416). According to his biography, the monk gathered fellow clergy and lay Buddhists, and together they vowed to seek rebirth in Amitābha’s Pure Land through the recollection of the Buddha. In this early period, to recollect Amitābha was either to bring him to mind through visualization of his physical form or to recite his name. Over time, recitation came to the fore, with followers marking the number of recitations through rosaries and other counting devices. Now, recitation is at the core of Pure Land practice, yet something of the other early usage remains, as ideally saying the name is more than simply producing sound; it also brings one’s attention to the Buddha. As with all karma-producing deeds, the intention behind the recitation matters for Buddhists, not just the act itself.
People recite Amitābha’s name throughout their lives both for help in this life and to prepare for the next rebirth. But recitation at the deathbed is particularly important, as it sets the stage for rebirth.1 Based on the scriptures, this is the last possible moment to call on the saving power of Amitābha, and it is also the moment when visions might affirm for the dying that their lifetime of practice would soon bear fruit. From early medieval times, Buddhists in China have collected tales relating to miracles associated with deaths of Pure Land practitioners, a practice that continues in the present.2
In most of the tales and anecdotes centered on Pure Land practice, the deathbed—the scene of chanting Amitābha’s name and waiting for his appearance—was at home, and those surrounding the dying were their closest family (and perhaps servants). But these deathbed scenes have changed in the 21st century, with many more people dying in hospitals, with more limited deathbed companionship, and with electronic or digital technologies playing a larger role. We see this mix of old and new in the story of a woman who died from cancer in the summer of 2000 in rural Hubei province. Her teacher recorded her story shortly after her death, to document the efficacy of faith and recitation, and it was later included in a collection of similarly miraculous accounts.3 As the woman lay dying, she had a series of preparatory visions. In one case, she reported that when she closed her eyes she saw a multicolored ground that glowed with rays of light. Two days later, the woman exclaimed that she had seen someone, but that he hovered in the air, just out of reach. When asked who this person was, the woman pointed to a nearby statue of Amitābha. The anticipation of his reappearance gave her time to prepare for her final moments. It was not just the dying woman who had visions; the daughter who stayed by her side reported seeing a Buddha on a golden throne approaching the window, and knew that this was Amitābha coming for her mother. Her mother died a few hours later and allegedly did not decay for over three days in intense heat.
In the story of this woman’s last days, recitation was both performed by humans and heard through a recording. The woman’s teacher lived close by, as did some members of her family. Other family members lived abroad, and the teacher kept in touch with them by phone, as they discussed plans for the final days. Through these conversations, the teacher learned that a granddaughter recited Amitābha’s name on her behalf, dedicating the merit generated thereby for her grandmother’s rebirth. For her, chanting was a way of being with her grandmother at a distance, and the granddaughter reported that she could see beams of light with each recitation. Sight and sound reinforce each other, with radiant visions reflecting the power of the sound of Amitābha’s name. That the granddaughter recited an ocean away points to the adaptations of deathbed practices when families live far apart. In such circumstances, recorded recitations can take the place of family members at the deathbed. The recorded sound of recitation was also a great comfort to the dying woman; she requested it over the teary goodbyes of her sister. Chanting, in different forms, eased her way.
One of the technological innovations of contemporary Chinese Buddhism is the Buddha-recitation device (念佛機), a small plastic box about the size of a deck of cards, whose sole function is to play an electronic recitation of Amitābha’s name in different tempos and sometimes the names of other Buddhas.4 These devices can be used in various settings, but for the dying they cannot take the place of a good teacher or family members surrounding the death bed with the sound of their chanting; the recitation produced through electronic means lacks the intention, and thus efficacy, behind the chanting of the living. Nonetheless, it still contains the power of Amitābha Buddha’s name. Words, especially names and mantras, have power of their own, but Amitabha’s name also carries with it the power of his vow. The special nature of this power is manifested in the exclusive form of the Buddha-recitation device: it does only one thing, but that is the only thing that needs doing. When it is not possible for family members to be at the bedside, or when the dying person has no one close to take on this role, the Buddha-recitation device helps to shape the deathbed experience into one that will lead to a good rebirth. The sounds provided by the device ideally help the dying person to focus their attention on Amitābha, avoiding distractions that might interfere with their rebirth.
The sound of chanting is a way of evoking family and community at the deathbed. Isaac Weiner has observed that hearing is “socially constructed, mediated by and expressive of a range of culturally specific values.”5 The recorded chanting of Amitābha Buddha’s name can be a reminder of human recitation at other times, and in other places. The sound of Amitābha’s name signals his power at the moment of death, and sound too elicits a vision of the Buddha and his welcoming entourage. Whether human or mechanically produced, sound of this special type marks the transition from this life into the next, and sound makes it so that one doesn’t die alone. Chanting and hearing Amitabha’s name creates a soundscape specific to the Pure Land Buddhist deathbed, part of the complex sensory experience entailed in dying, and in accompanying the dying.
- For a useful overview of how the recitation of Amitābha’s name has been theorized, see Charles B. Jones, “Methods of Nianfo in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism,” in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019), 127–47. Return to text.
- For a selection of premodern tales, see Daniel B. Stevenson, “Death-Bed Testimonials of the Pure Land Faithful,” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 592–602. Return to text.
- I have translated this and other stories in “Contemporary Pure Land Miracle Tales,” in Pure Lands in Asian Texts and Contexts, eds. Georgios T. Halkias and Richard K. Payne (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019), 477–95. Return to text.
- Natasha Heller, “Buddha in a Box: The Materiality of Recitation in Contemporary Chinese Buddhism,” Material Religion 10, no. 4 (2014): 294–315. Return to text.
- Isaac Weiner, “Sound,” Material Religion 7, no. 1 (2011): 110. Return to text.