Spring Ohigan 2014: Where is Hell in Buddhism?

A famous Japanese painting depicting Taira no Kiyomori having visions of Hell while suffering from a fever.
A famous Japanese painting depicting Taira no Kiyomori having visions of Hell while suffering from a fever.

Hi Everyone,

This is the twice-yearly Japanese-Buddhist holiday of ohigan (お彼岸), which falls around Spring and Autumnal equinox. Because the weather is more mild,1 people take time to visit their ancestors’ graves, pay respects, and reflect on Buddhist teachings and renew their determination.

So, for this Ohigan, I wanted to share a couple interesting views on the Buddhist notion of Hell: (jigoku 地獄 in Japanese or ji-ok 지옥 in Korean).

The first comes from an interesting quote by Professor Shigaraki from his book Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path:

The most detailed descriptions of hell in Pure Land Buddhism are found in the Essentials for Attaining Birth [往生要集] by Genshin (942-1017). There he states that the most frightening of all hells into which we must fall is the Avici Hell, which lies in the ultimate depths of the earth. He describes it as the black, dark world, which we finally reach after falling headfirst toward the bottom of the earth for two thousand years. This realm of hell represents the dark, black nature of our own hearts and minds. We can come to know it for the first time only when we bore deeply into our selves and look directly into the very depths of our own hearts and minds.

When I read this passage in my younger days, I was moved by Genshin’s profound understanding of hell. Because of what I have been taught by Genshin, I do not ask myself whether the ream of hell exists or not. To me, the question that needs to be asked is whether we are able to see it or not. (pg. 87)

Professor Shigaraki explains that our selfish nature is the source of hell for us. For me, I learned this the hard way years ago: although society and learning can make us more civilized, when these filters or restraints are removed, we can revert to a much crueler, more selfish nature.

Separately, in Ven. Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he explains the different kinds of Hell, including some that exist all around us:

Recently a newspaper reported that somewhere in Taiwan a father had abused his own daughter, locking her up in a dark room without any ventilation or sunshine. She had lived for fifteen years with neither enough food nor warm clothing and had the appearance of an undeveloped child. Not only was she pale and swollen, she did not even look human! The karmic forces of sentient beings are inconceivable! In a prosperous and busy place in the middle of the city, a person can exist in isolation suffering from such heavy retribution. (pg. 66-67)

Normally, when we hear about Buddhist Hells, we think of magical, far-away places like those described in the Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra, or such characters as Enma, but both authors show that Hell isn’t some far-off place. It can be much closer than you think.

P.S. I’ve been a little behind lately. Plus, I have a cold, so I am getting some rest and spending time with family. Apologies for late replies.

P.P.S. More on Ohigan in this old post.

1 Seattle weather is always mild (and grey), but Japan’s winters are pretty cold, and the summers hot. It always surprises me when I visit. 😉

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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.

2 thoughts on “Spring Ohigan 2014: Where is Hell in Buddhism?”

  1. Although hells can be thought of as some terrible place far away that one would generally like to avoid, I often think it is something that may be right here in front of us. Maybe the Pure Land is here too.

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    1. Yeah, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Pure Land is definitely along these lines. I can’t say I agree with it 100%, but he really does a pretty darn good commentary on the Amitabha Sutra.

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