In the ‘Sutra of Golden Light,’ Guatama Siddhartha, the Shakyamuni Buddha, invites anyone experiencing misery and affliction, bad health, poverty, loss, abuse, ill will, fear, nightmares, or any other harm to hear his words. He states: “To these sentient beings I shall reveal this sutra called ‘Sublime Golden Light,’ which rids one of every harmful misdeed, and expounds upon the profound.”
During his discourse, Guatama gives testimony to the life of Lord Ratnashikhin, a Buddha from an earlier Æon. He tells us Lord Ratnashikhin vowed “ . . . at the time of death, whoever in the ten directions hears my name, may they transmigrate from their world and be reborn in the heaven of the Trayastrimsa. There, may they be equal among the gods.” Guatama goes on to discuss, in some detail, how he used the name of this earlier Buddha to save a community of fish whose pond was drying up. What is unique about this premise is not that this community would be reborn in a better world, but that they would be reborn in a world were a grand equality of being is recognized, were fish are “equal among gods.”
In Buddhist cosmology, the ‘Trayastrimsa Heaven is an extraterrestrial paradise in this ‘world system’ where inhabitants enjoy magnificence and pleasure for life spans of many centuries. The “Buddhist cosmology (or universe) is distinctly different from that of other religions which usually only recognize this solar system, with Earth as the centre of the Universe, and the only planet with living beings.” This position is contrary to the Buddhist perspective, which recognizes ‘life is the rule not the exception’ in the universe.
The ‘Trayastrimsa Heaven’ is named for the 33 people who were reborn there after doing selfless acts of charity on Earth. It is said inhabitants of this world, the ‘Trayastrimsha gods,’ visited Shakyamuni Buddha during his lifetime to receive the dharma.
. . . In Practice
The English poet Lord Byron called “Death, the sable smoke where vanishes the flame;” though most cultures are less romantic about it. In fact, almost globally, humans fear death. Still, it comes to us as a great teacher.
When we encounter those who are dying, or have just passed, we have an opportunity to engender Lord Ratnashikhin’s vow. Simply chanting or saying this sutra: “Namu Sugata Ratnashikhin,” over those who are passing will help them to be reborn into the ‘Trayastrimsha Heaven.’ Don’t worry about getting the pronunciation correct, like many spiritual matters, it is the intent that counts most.
In fact, it takes very little to help those who are passing. All Ratnashikhin’s vow requires of us is a small amount of presence, the intent to help, and the ability to act. Three qualities that if cultivated regularly, would improve everyone’s lives.
The most profound aspect of this practice is that it is not limited to humans. Guatama’s own example saves not a village of people, but a community of fish. More and more the natural world is at odds with human culture and we encounter dying animals with much greater frequency. The ability to help them pass on to a better world is quite possibly the best gift we can give them until we can engineer a less caustic human world.
For a moment, let’s get back to the three qualities needed to enact Ratnashikhin’s vow. ‘Presence, Intent, and Action:’ an adept spiritual practitioner will see these qualities are nested in the core of every deep tradition. By bringing them into our death practices, we engender the act of dying with the dignity and wisdom of life.
Ratnashikhin’s vow engages the living as well, as the dying, in the act of passing on, transforming fear & loss into an opportunity for compassionate action.
This Sutra was taught to me by the late Rev. Madeline Ko-i Bastis a priest in the White Plum lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. Ko-i was ordained in 1993 by Matthiessen Roshi. She was the founder of The Peaceful Dwelling Project, an educational organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those with profound illness & caregivers working with terminal and profound illness. Her books ‘Peaceful Dwelling: Meditations for Healing and Living’ & ‘Heart of Forgiveness: A Practical Path to Healing’ are among those I recommends highly to students.