Buddhism and HELL

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:*

  1. The Heaven Realms (birth as a deva, or god-like being)
  2. The Human Realm
  3. The Realm of the Fighting Spirits (Asuras)
  4. The Animal Realm
  5. The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Peta)
  6. 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! πŸ˜€

* – 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.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

12 thoughts on “Buddhism and HELL”

  1. This is a good post (they all are good but some bring me a new understanding or clarification).

    It is an interesting way to look at the different realms. A person may me in some sort of tormented mental illness, schitzophrenia or other mental disease and that could be considered a hell realm. If that is kind of how you explained it, it is a very interesting interpretation.


  2. Thanks Tornado,

    That is definitely one way of looking at it. The Chinese Master cited above actually alluded to things like this as well, so I may not be alone on this. In any case, Buddhism, like any major religion, has multiple strains of thought ranging from the literal to orthodox, and everything in between. πŸ™‚

    My opinion does not necessarily reflect all of Buddhism, but then again, it probably shouldn’t. πŸ˜‰


  3. Just as a question (and not a crticism) how do Buddhists reconcile their teaching that no “self” or “ego” or “soul” exists and yet there is something that exists (apparently after death), such as a soul, which consciously experiences different levels of hell?

    I am very interested in Buddhism and I find that the four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha are an accurate reflection of reality.


  4. Hi Mike,

    The notion of “no-self” is somewhat misleading. The Buddha was not a nihilist, but rather he taught that there was no-permanent-self. The mind, and it’s components, are a conglomeration of things that arise and fade, arise and fade. Karma and craving kept them coming, over and over.

    So, when the body dies, the craving and karma help these components arise again in another form, another place, another identity.

    If this sounds far-fetched, just watch your own thoughts. Thoughts arise and fade, constantly, in a seemingly endless stream. That’s the “stream of consciousness” that is often used to describe a person. It’s like dominos where one thought leads to the next, but there’s no permanent “thinker” behind the thought. Craving and such keep the chain going over and over again, even after death.

    Hope that helps.


  5. Hi Mike,

    Don’t feel discouraged. Buddhism isn’t something you take on faith. The teachings sound foreign at first, but as you practice and let things sink in, you’ll just see it for yourself sooner or later. Buddhism and the Dharma are supposed to reflect reality. The Dharma is like the Law, in the sense of the Law of Gravity. Whether you believe it or not, it exists and functions in a certain way. Ours is to simply grasp and accept it. πŸ˜‰

    In any case, the whole point of Buddhism is to awaken the mind from it’s own self-centered dream, but this doesn’t happen right away. It’s very much a gradual process, but it’s a wonderful growth process as well. πŸ˜€


  6. So being an animal is worse than being asura?!? Well, at least asuras have more free will, aka the ability to choose, than most animals I bet.

    Even then, some animals, like the elephant and the dolphin, I wonder if they are more on our plane than the animals’ because of the many stories, legends, myths, and anecdotes that claim of their superior intelligence to almost all other animals.

    As is, we can never for sure what life is like beyond our body’s physical death till we realize it.


  7. Hi Jersey,

    I could be wrong on that one. Sometimes I’ve seen the two reversed, and in some “lists”, the asuras are left out altogether. As you can imagine, there’s no complete consensus on the subject.

    I think the Chinese master above said it best though that for most animals, they have spend their life in raw survival (eat or be eaten), so it’s not an easy life. Of course elephants and dolphins are at the top of the chain, so there’s a wide area of variance, just as the Hell realms and Heaven realms vary. Heck, even among Humans, our lives vary quite a bit. πŸ˜€


  8. I am hoping to become a Shin Buddhist very soon. I have had bipolar disorder all my adult life, which has thus been pretty much wrecked. I am unable to find what Shin Buddhism teaches about mental illness, especially long-term serious illness that has led to suicide attempts. I found a very clear dharma teaching about suicide; what is taught about mental illness in this life, about this particular kind of suffering that takes away one’s judgment, one’s ability to think, one’s balanced perspective?


  9. Hi Dinah, and welcome.

    I should warn that I am not a medical or religious professional, so the advice below is quite amateur. Please take it with a grain of salt.

    Anyway, the subject of Bipolar Disorder and Buddhism is a tough subject. At heart, Bipolar Disorder is a medical condition, and I known people over the years who’ve had it. So, first and foremost, a Buddhist clergyman/woman would strongly suggest seeking medical, professional help first to stabilize the moods. I spent the evening looking for a good quotation I read on the subject recently, but failed to find it. The quotation said in essence that meditation cannot solve issues of mental disorder, and should not be used for this. Nor would other Buddhist practices either. Only after someone has stabilized through professional assistance, can they safely take up Buddhist practice. Same with someone, say, whose severely diabetic or other issues. They have to manage the physical, medical side of it first. πŸ™‚

    I do have another quote, though, from a certain Zen book which I think helps:

    As we review these regulations of the monks’ hall, their meaning becomes clear. In other words, by regulating one’s behavior, one’s mind is also regulated. The Zen patriarchs were well aware of this.

    I think this is true of life in general, as the mind is not separate from the body. One must regulate and manage the body, and only by doing so will the mind become stable and regular. In the context of bipolar disorder, I imagine this means getting medical attention first, then living a regulated lifestyle that avoids the triggers that would cause it to onset again. Not an easy task, but a lifelong work.

    But I think there is another side to the issue too: learning to live with it as a person. As I can imagine, aside from the actual medical problem, it also leads to feelings of self-doubt, frustration and so on, which are only natural. What I can say is that Buddhism helps people to understand who they are better, and it’s important to realize that you are not your illness. We live as composite beings, who are a product of our environment, and so on. It’s why you speak English, not French, for example, and why you might vote a certain way, and not for the other side.

    In the same way, we a composite of mental habits, some positive, some negative. We cannot rightly see ourselves as “bad” because we have bad habits, but also we can’t entirely take credit for our “good” habits either as we owe them to positive mentors and such. As you look at your own life, stand back and try to see the whole picture, including the positive traits you have. Reflect on the positive influences in your life, and seek to strengthen them further, or perhaps turn the favor outward and benefit others.

    But again, bipolar disorder in and of itself cannot be cured by Buddhism or any religion. Be very, very careful of anyone who promises otherwise. There are plenty of frauds and such out there. Instead, focus on managing the medical side of things, and once done, then take up religion as a way to learn to be at peace with yourself as you are. In this regard, Jodo Shinshu or “Shin Buddhism” is very much inline with this approach. If medical help didn’t work yet, please find a second or third opinion. That’s true if you have cancer, or any other serious issue. πŸ™‚

    Best of luck to you, and my prayers are with you. πŸ™‚



  10. I hope my taking up Buddhism doesn’t have to be put off until my bipolar stabilises? since it has been worsening steadily over 25 years and will not likely stop. I just want a community, some core beliefs, a confidence that the life of service I’ve led will lead to some sort of peaceful afterlife, and no more need for anger and hatred at the people who’ve harmed me because I know Amida is, in a colloquial phrase, very much on top of them. Have I come to the right place?


    1. Hi Dinah,

      Certainly! I would definitely encourage you to visit a temple and get to know people. I wasn’t sure from your last post what you actually sought and I’ve seen and read how some people try to use Buddhist practice as a means of actually fixing the medical problem which of course doesn’t work.

      But the social aspect and the teachings are very much open to people and I hope they do provide some comfort.

      Again this is all my unprofessional opinion and your best bet is to just visit a temple in your area and get to know people. Some things are hard to explain over the Internet.

      Best of luck in any case. πŸ™‚


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