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Whenever I write about a religion, I always like to include a little about my religious background to offer some insight into my bias or perspective on any given religion and to pay respect to people who are faithful followers of the religion I am writing on. I was raised Catholic but do not practice the religion nor any religion formally. I have studied religions from all over the world, including the very ancient religions now long gone to very new religions popping up around the globe for decades. I have a deep respect for people of faith and try in my reporting and discussion of a particular religion to remain cognizant that scholarship is not the same as faith, as religious concepts run much deeper and more personally when a practitioner experiences them. With that said, the reason I have devoted a great deal of my life to studying world religions was both out of intellectual fascination as well as my own spiritual quest. Buddhism is particularly close to my heart, as I have found its teachings have brought a great deal of healing, sanity, and support to my day to day life.
Buddhism began in India roughly in the middle of 500 BC. From there, it spread throughout Asia, where it is still practiced in large numbers. Buddhism then spread to Europe and America beginning with Asian immigrants in the late 1800’s and then rising in popularity with westerners during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Today, Buddhism is all over the world though still primarily practiced in Asia. Buddhism, like Christianity, has many sects like Tibetan, Zen, and Pure Land. Like Christianity, the major aspects of Buddhism and Buddhist hells are generally in agreement throughout the various sects. However, early (pre-sectarian) Buddhist hells do differ from later Buddhist hells. The religion of Buddhism has evolved from its very early days of having relatively modest bands of followers of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). Over time, the writings, temples, imagery, and rituals have become more complex and ornate than the very early days of Buddhism. “Descriptions of the hells, their horrors and length of time supposedly spent there, became increasingly lurid as time went on.” (The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikuya by Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, 1995, p. 40) In fact, in a very early, pre-sectarian Buddhist scripture, the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha is quoted as saying, “When the average ignorant person makes an assertion that there is a Hell under the ocean, he is making a statement that is false and without basis. The word ‘hell’ is a term for painful bodily sensations.” (The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikuya by Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, 1995, p. 40) Interestingly, the pattern of hell becoming more literal and vivid over time is also seen in western religions during roughly the same periods in history.
By the time we get to codified, formal sects of the Buddhist religion with monasteries, texts, and followers, we have a very intense and grim hell system. However, before I get to the basic breakdown of the various hells and what is in store for anyone who finds themselves there, I will say a very important element to Buddhist hells and, really, Buddhist thinking. In essence, no one stays in Hell for eternity. Hell is one of the six spokes of the wheel of life that continually goes round and round until one becomes enlightened and can fully exit the wheel of life. The six spokes on the wheel or Six Realms of Existence are (in ascending order): Hell, Hungry Ghosts, beasts (animals), asuras (demons—which are not as evil as demons in western religions like Christianity—they are a little more neutral), humans, and gods. Depending on how one lives their life (Karma) after death, all unenlightened beings will land on one of those realms. It is important to note to all who view themselves as do-gooders, in Buddhism, it is made very clear that all of us have landed in hell (many, many times) and, most likely, will find ourselves there again.
In Buddhism, there are a lot of hells and they do vary slightly from one sect to the next; however, they are so similar that it is worth giving the basic schematic. To start there are the Eight Great Hells. These are what a westerner would recognize as the classic fire and brimstone hells. They include a lot of intense, lava-like heat and torture with iron pokers, chains, hammers, tongs and nails. A lifetime in this hell, while not permanent, does last a long time: one medium kalpa (336 billion years). The body you are born into Hell with is very large, naked, and extremely sensitive to pain and fear, making the hell experience all the more agonizing. “With the roughest, rudest sort of treatment, they [beings that torture you in hell] join in tormenting him by beating and cutting his body and piercing it with sharp weapons. Finally, he can take it no longer and falls into a swoon due to the intense pain. It is almost as if he had died. He loses consciousness but is revived by a voice from the sky that says, ‘Revive,’ and is touched by a cold wind that brings him back to life again.” (The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception by Deshung Rinpoche [tanslated by Jared Rhoton], Wisdom Publications, 1995, p.83)
The second group of hells is called the Peripheral Hells. They sit on the periphery of the Eight Great Hells and after a being has done its time in the hot hell, they must go through the peripheral hells. There are four kinds of periphery hells and each one gets worse as you go: the hell of hot ashes, the hell of hot corpse feces, the hell of sharp weapons, and the hell of the boundless river. (The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master by Venerable Yin-Shun, Wisdom Publications, 1998, p.66) Additionally, there are the Eight Frigid Hells (these are the names): blisters, burning blisters, atata, hahava, huhuva (the last three are named after the sound one makes when they face the extreme cold), blue lotus, red lotus, and great red lotus (the last three are named according to the color of the beings’ cracks and blisters they receive in the cold hells). The fourth category of hells is the solitary hells which are found in the human world. One suffers from total isolation, whether in the middle of a city or far out in the woods—they are doomed to live their life alone. (The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master by Venerable Yin-Shun, Wisdom Publications, 1998, p.66)
It is very important to stress again that in Buddhism, every one of us has visited all of these hells many times as we have been gods, animals, demons, and hungry ghosts countless times. The human incarnation is considered the best and very rare as it is the only spoke of the wheel or realm in which a person can become enlightened. The logic is that when we are in hell, we are suffering far too greatly to seek wisdom and do the work to become enlightened. When we are born into the god realm, we are too happy and comfortable to want to walk away from the material world and seek enlightenment. The human realm is a balanced mix of good and bad—bad enough to see through materialism and good enough to focus on seeking enlightenment. One can take the Buddhist logic on incarnation and the six realms from both a literal viewpoint and a metaphorical standpoint and still benefit from the wisdom it offers.
At the most basic level, almost childlike level, one can say the Buddhist incarnation system of having some pretty horrible existences like hell and some pretty marvelous existences like the god-realm to be a basic lesson on the reality of karma or our behaviors. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. However, in Buddhism, they quickly squash this moral formula by insisting that Everyone goes round and round the wheel until they finally are fortunate enough to be both born human and to have access to Buddhist wisdom and teachers to help one become fully enlightened. Easily, one can see that most humans within their own lives go through the spokes of the wheel of life and find themselves in horrifically painful patches (hell), patches of great wanting whether it be money, fame, beauty or love (hungry ghost), patches where we are solely focused on our basic survival (animal), patches of intense anger, jealousy, or lust (demons), patches of ordinary everyday life (human), and patches of great joy and vigor (gods). For me, one can believe in the Buddhist doctrine of hell both literally and metaphorically—it does not matter as the true redemptive property of hell remains either way.
You see, Buddhist hells are not redemptive because they scare us into being better moral beings. Rather, in meditating on all of the countless beings who are currently suffering intense agony in hell, one can open up a heart of great compassion, which is one of the keys to becoming enlightened. “If you are in tune with the sufferings of hells, you might wonder how you can smile anymore. Even hearing the possibility of such sufferings for anyone, whether yourself or someone else, should awaken feelings of great compassion and pity for all beings who might experience them. Any compassionate thoughts or prayers that these reflections evoke in you are very much in keeping with the spirit of this meditation.” (The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception by Deshung Rinpoche [translated by Jared Rhoton], Wisdom Publications, 1995, p.83)
Note: if you like the topic of hell you can read my other piece "Hell in Western Culture" here.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.