About Buddhist Hell


Segmented Hell

Hell and Reincarnation

Sin, Punishment and Remission

Related Topics

INTRODUCTION. From the earliest Buddhist texts, hell is described as a segmented place where sinners are punished in specific ways for specific sins. Here sinners move from hell to hell before rebirth. Clearly many Buddhist ideas of hell, like so much else in Buddhism, derive from Hinduism. In Indian, Tibetan, Japanese and most other Buddhist texts these elements are consistent; but Chinese hell texts combine Taoist influences with Buddhist concepts, creating certain permutations.

SEGMENTED HELL. While the surviving texts vary somewhat in their enumeration and naming of the Buddhist hells, from the earliest examples there is a clear indication that Buddhist hell was conceived of as a series of eight hells, one above the other, each with sixteen secondary hells, four at each of the four gates of the great hells — or 136 hells in total. Tibetan traditions add another eight major hells, layering eight cold hells above the eight standard hot hells, all having sixteen secondary hells — or 272 hells.

While the names may vary among texts, the most common names for the hot hells are descriptive of the places and from top to bottom are:

Samjiva (hell of constant repetition)
Kalasutra (hell of black wire)
Samghata (hell of stone slabs)
Raurava (hell of lamentation)
Maharaurava (hell of great lamentation)
Tapana (hell of scorching heat)
Pratapana (hell of fiercely scorching heat)
Avici (hell without interruption)

The cold hells beneath the realm of the living, but above the hot hells, are named for the way the body responds to the varying degrees of cold:

Arbuda (hell of swelling)
Nirarbuda (hell of shrinking)
Atata (hell of chattering teeth)
Hahava (hell of shivering tongue)
Huhuva (hell of shuddering mouth)
Utpala (hell of blue-lotus colored patches on the skin)
Padma (hell of crimson-lotus colored patches on the skin)
Mahapadma (hell of great-crimson-lotus colored patches on the skin)

Chinese texts, on the other hand, and several Chinese hell recreations (e.g., the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore, the necropolis in Fengdu, the sculpture gardens at Baodingshan and the Beijing Temple of the Eighteen Hells, described by Ann Swann Goodrich), combine Taoist and Buddhist ideas and present a ten-court hell, named simply First Court of Hell, Second Court of Hell, etc. The first court is actually a place of judgment on the life just ended and the tenth a place for reassignment to the new life about to begin. The eight other courts (2–9) each contain sixteen wards with particular punishments for different sins, often defined by elaborate lists. Chinese descriptions include a Tower of Reflection at the first court, where the dead look back on the past life, and a Wheel of Transformation in the Tenth Court, followed by the Terrace of Oblivion, where the individual is cleansed by Mother Meng of all memory of everything to that point.

HELL AND REINCARNATION. In Buddhism, in all its various forms, reincarnation is an essential principle, and hell serves as a place of purgation, where individuals suffer for unimaginable periods of time, before they are reborn in a new identity.

For instance, the Sutra on the Eighteen Hells describes the length of suffering in one hell, Lou-ni-li, in this way: the place is red hot iron so the people are burned. They go to smaller places where they are boiled until their flesh drops off. For many, many years they are not allowed to rest or lie down. When they are nearly dead they are revived and the process goes on for countless years, in which each day is equal to 30,000 earthly years. Souls are sentenced to this hell for 80,000 such years and that means 1,800 billion or 1.8 trillion years.

SIN, PUNISHMENT AND REMISSION. The range of sins punished in hell is much greater in Buddhism, where each rebirth is expected to be a further step along the path to enlightenment. In Christianity, for instance, where each individual has one chance to lead a good life, the system is much more forgiving of small faults. But perfection does mean getting everything right, so that anything from casting fleas into the snow to throwing a bottle in the street merits its long, long punishment in hell.

As mentioned above, sins and punishments are paired, and certain hells are for the punishment of certain sins. Consequently a sinner may pass right through some hells, when they bear no guilt of certain sins. The sins and punishments are not, however, always mapped to one another, and certain punishments are applied again and again, no matter what the sin.

There are, however, certain punishments that have preserved their specific function, such as the sword-blade trees. A work from Japan, The Essentials of Pure Land Rebirth describes a forest of these trees and their punishment of those governed by sexual passion: “Sometimes the hell wardens seize the victims and put them into a forest of sword blades. As they look up to the top branches of the trees in this forest they see beautiful and well-dressed women, indeed the faces of those whom once they loved. This fills them with joy and so they try to climb up the trees, but when they do so the branches and leaves all turn into swords, which lacerate the flesh and pierce and pierce the bones. Though they are terrorized by this, their evil karma still drives them on in their desire and, defying the swords, they climb on. But when they reach the top they find the object of their desire below on the ground luring them to come down, and each one saying to the lover on the tree: ‘Because of the karma created by my passions for you I have come to this place. Why do you not come near me and embrace me?’ Thus each one from beneath the trees allures her victim till the latter, in his infatuation, begins to climb down the tree again. But as they descend the leaves of the trees, which are made of swords, turn upward and thus lacerate their bodies. When they are about to reach the ground, the women appear on the tops of the trees. Then the victims, overcome with passion, again climb up. This process goes on for ten trillion years. The cause of being thus deceived in this hell by one’s own heart and the consequent suffering is one’s own evil passion.”

Some texts, more than others, focus on the deeds that will alleviate or eliminate punishment in hell. These texts fall into two categories. The first are works, found especially in the Tibetan tradition, that describe the journey of a living person, usually a woman (a delog or delok), into the realms of hell, meeting there the punished sinners, who send back messages to their living relatives through the visitor, asking them to undertake good and charitable works and recite mantras for their benefit. Often the visitor is also asked to tell the relatives to stop mourning: the tears that they shed become a rain of blood falling on the sinners.

The second are works like the Precious Record, a Chinese text that specifies the sins that are punished in each hell and the ways to avoid those punishments. For instance, specifically for the Sixth Court of Hell: “all dwellers upon earth who on the eighth day of the third moon, fasting, register a vow from that date to sin no more, and on the fourteenth and fifteenth of the fifth moon, the third of the eighth moon, and the tenth of the tenth moon, to practice abstinence, vowing, moreover, to exert themselves to convert others — these shall escape the bitterness.”

One prominent way to avoid these punishments is to undertake the printing and distribution of these very texts so that they serve as a warning to all. People are encouraged to expand the works for the greater edification of the living with the result that in later texts sin is piled on sin in each of the hells.

For instance, the Second Court in a late version of the Precious Record enumerates the following sins and sinners: “Those who lead astray young boys and girls, and then escape punishment by cutting off their hair and entering the priesthood; those who filch letters, pictures, books, etc., entrusted to their care, and then pretend to have lost them; those who injure a fellow-creature’s ear, eye, hand, foot, fingers or toes; those who practice as doctors without any knowledge of the medical art; those who will not ransom grown-up slave-girls; those who, contracting marriage for the sake of gain, falsely state their ages; or those who in cases of betrothal, before actual marriage, find out that one of the contracting parties is a bad character, and yet do not come forward to say so, but inflict an irreparable wrong on the innocent one.”

In these hells there are punishments involving every imaginable thing: from ropes to knives, swords, chains, bamboo, tridents, brushes, needles, iron pincers, thorns and axes; dogs, birds, snakes and maggots. There is hail and sleet, snow and ice, fire, burning oil, burning rivers and putrid stuff of all sorts. All manner of cutting, trampling, force-feeding, dismemberment, drowning, burning and crushing are employed. It is a seemingly endless parade of tortures.

Comments or Questions?
rev. 06/24/2012