But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.
–Shinran, Tannisho, section II
Hell is a subject in Buddhism that is talked about much, just as it is in the Western Religions. In Buddhism, we are taught about the different states of rebirth that happen, based on one’s karma, from highest to lowest:*
- The Heaven Realms (birth as a deva, or god-like being)
- The Human Realm
- The Realm of the Fighting Spirits (Asuras)
- The Animal Realm
- The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Peta)
- The Hell Realms
As with Western Religions, the descriptions of Hell are vivid and include all manners of pain, torment, and creative punishment. In his book, The Way to Buddhahood, the Venerable Master Yin-Shun describes some of the hell realms like so:
The four kinds of periphery hells are, first, the hell of host ashes, a glowing hot pit filled with ashes; second, the hell of corpse feces, a manure pit inside of which there are worms with sharp mouths similar to maggots; third, the hell of sharp weapons, which consists of roads covered with knife blades, forests of sword-like leaves inhabited by fierce dogs, and forests of iron thorns inhabited by big birds with iron beaks…and fourth, the hell of the boundless river, a river of boiling ash-water that fries beings like beans in hot oil.
Hell, like other realms is not permanent, but one can be tormented for eons and eons. Devadatta, who betrayed the Buddha and tried to kill him, is said to dwell in the lowest of all Hell realms, the Avīci, or “Never-ending Hell”.**
However, there is another way to look at Hell in Buddhism. When you read these descriptions, some might think that Hell is just a medieval fantasy designed to scare people straight, but when you look around us, there are those living in Hell as we speak. Here, I am speaking of life itself.
Among many Buddhists is the notion that Hell and other realms of rebirth aren’t just physical states of rebirth, but are mental states as well. This dovetails nicely with the notion that there is no permanent self. The mind and the self constantly shift between states, with no permanent state of mind:
- Elation and joy – the Heaven realms
- Reason – the Human realm
- Anger – the Realm of the Fighting Spirits, Asuras
- Satisfying basic needs – the Animal Realm
- Powerful cravings – The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts
- Hatred, Pain – The Hell Realms
In this view of Buddhist cosmology, one shifts between the various mental states (i.e. the various realms) regularly depending on what’s going on your life right now.
In either case, Nirvana is seen as liberation from this aimless wandering between the various realms, to a state that is steady, peaceful and stable. It is liberation from the stresses of constantly shifting between states, both mentally and physically. In Pure Land Buddhism, we equate the Pure Land with Nirvana (which is a blog subject in its own right), so when we take refuge in Amida Buddha, and long for rebirth in the Pure Land, in the end, we believe we will experience Nirvana as well.
P.S. Been busy lately, and I’ve been writing this post bit-by-bit for five days. Finally done! 😀
* – However, the Buddha also pointed out in the Pali Canon that the outcome of one’s rebirth depends on a very complex array of factors, not just a single act, or set of acts. Karma of past lives, and additional karma in the current life all tie into this rebirth.
** – In the Lotus Sutra though, the Buddha predicts that even Devadatta will one day become Enlightened and a Buddha. He also states that in a past life long ago, they were good friends.