20120501-trip to heaven Buddha_descending_from_Tavatimsa.jpg
Buddha descending from heaven
Heaven has traditionally been viewed as a stop on the way to enlightenment not an end to itself. Beings in heaven have not yet achieved enlightenment and are subject to rebirth. In the view of some they are anxious to get out. One 6th century Chinese monk wrote they “dwell in seven jeweled places, and have fine objects, smells, tastes and sensations, yet they do not regard this as pleasure...[and] seek only to leave that place."

Buddhists have different views about heaven. Some Buddhists believe that there are an infinite number of world's, each with it own Buddha and its own Mt. Meru and it own multiple heavens and hells. Other say each person who achieves enlightenment does so in their own heaven. Tibetan Buddhists believe that above Mt. Meru are 16 heavens. Members of one Buddhist sect believe in an underground paradise called Agharta that was reportedly founded by a holy man who escaped from a disaster by digging a hole in the earth and who now rules from the underground capital of Shamballah.

The Wheel of Life defines six different realms a person can person can be reborn into. See the Wheel of Life. Followers of Pure Land Buddhism believe in a primal heaven or Western Paradise called Sukhavati, presided over by a Buddha named Amitabha, where the inhabitants “desire cloaks of different colors and many hundred thousand colors, the with these very best cloaks the whole Buddha country shines." It was also described as place with no disease, no beasts, no ghosts and no women.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddhist Hells

Buddhist Hell
from Dunhuang Caves in China
In accordance with the Wheel of Life model, hell is one of six possible destinations after rebirth and, like heaven, it is a stop on the way to enlightenment. The residents of hell can escape if they move towards enlightenment. Hell itself is composed multiple hells (usually eight), located below the earth. Each hell is lower than the previous one and and is regarded as a worse place to be than the one before it. In addition to hell there are realms of hungry ghosts and beasts (See Wheel of Life), which are not pleasant places to be but are not as bad as the eight hells.

Hell is viewed as a place for sinners and evildoers and the hell one ends up in fits their sins. Buddhists believe it is possible to be banished to hell for thousands even millions of years, based on their karma, before being released. They also believe it is possible to be reborn into hell again if one doesn’t get his or her act together. Some Buddhists see these hells as real places. Others view them as symbolic.

According to one view the eight hells are (from least worst to worst): 1) The Hell of Constantly Reviving, where people who took the lives of creatures are killed in the same way they killed; 2) the Black Lines Hell, where thieves are soaked in Black ink and cut into pieces with burning saws; 3) the Squeezing Hell, where people accused of sexual misbehavior are repeatedly squeezed, burned up, crushed and cut into pieces; 4) the Screaming Hell, where people who misused drugs and intoxicants have boiling liquids poured down their throats.

The four worst hells are: 5) the Great Screaming Hell, where liars have their insides eaten out by snakes; 6) the Hell of Burning Heat, where heretics are repeatedly burned; 7) the Hell of Great Burning Heat, where perpetrators of religious sexual crimes such as raping a nun are dragged over continents with iron hook as worms eat their body and pop out their heads; and 8) Hell Without Cease, where the perpetrators of heinous crimes such as killing one’s mother suffer a torment more than 1,000 times worse than those of the other hells.

Many Buddhists believe that hell is guarded by a 12-armed demon called Yama and believe that adulterers are impaled on thorn trees and eaten by dogs and eagles in hell. Tibetan Buddhists believe there are eight hot hells and eight hot hells as well as “frontier” hells for those guilty of lesser sins. The cold hells include one where naked sinners are repeatedly submerged in waters chilled with glacier ice and another where it is so cold one’s flesh falls off like lotus pedals and is gnawed by iron-beaked birds.

Six Realms of Reincarnation and the Wheel of Life

According to the BBC: “ Buddhism has six realms into which a soul can be reborn. From most to least pleasant, these are: 1) Heaven, the home of the gods (devas): this is a realm of enjoyment inhabited by blissful, long-lived beings. It is subdivided by later sources into 26 levels of increasing happiness. 2) The realm of humanity: although humans suffer, this is considered the most fortunate state because humans have the greatest chance of enlightenment. 3) The realm of the Titans or angry gods (asuras): these are warlike beings who are at the mercy of angry impulses. [Source: BBC |::|]

Chinese hungry ghosts

“4) The realm of the hungry ghosts (pretas): these unhappy beings are bound to the fringes of human existence, unable to leave because of particularly strong attachments. They are unable to satisfy their craving, symbolised by their depiction with huge bellies and tiny mouths. 5) The animal realm: this is undesirable because animals are exploited by human beings, and do not have the necessary self-awareness to achieve liberation. 6) Hell realms: people here are horribly tortured in many creative ways, but not for ever - only until their bad karma is worked off. (Early sources listed five realms, excluding the Titans.) |::|

“The first two levels are good places to be born. The inhabitants of the next three levels all have a particular defect (hatred, greed, ignorance), and hell is obviously the worst of the lot. Interlinked These are not all separate realms, but are interlinked in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy that mind and reality are linked. Thus, although humans and animals live together in the same world, the implications of being born as a human and as an animal are very different, and they are represented as two separate realms. And a human being can experience touches of heaven when happy, or the lower states when hateful, greedy, ignorant or in pain. Someone adept at meditation will experience progressively higher heaven realms. |::|

“The realms, or states of reincarnation, of the Buddhist universe are depicted in a diagram known as the Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming. The wheel itself is a circle, symbolising the endless cycle of existence and suffering. In the middle of the Wheel are the Three Fires of greed, ignorance and hatred, represented by a rooster, a pig and a snake. These are the cause of all suffering and are shown linked together, biting each other's tails, reinforcing each other. In the next circle out, souls are shown ascending and descending according to their karma. The next ring out is composed of six segments showing the six realms: gods, humans and Titans above and hungry ghosts, animals and those tortured in hell below. The outer ring shows twelve segments called nidanas, illustrating the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, the chain of causes of suffering (explained in the following section). The wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death, who symbolises the impermanence of everything. The beings he holds are trapped in eternal suffering by their ignorance of the nature of the universe.” |::|

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Heaven, Hell and the Lives of the Buddha

Theravada Buddhists insist that Gautama, both as Siddhartha and The Buddha, was a man, not a god or myth or legend, and was subject to the same pain and suffering as other humans but sought a transcendent state beyond human life. They say The Buddha took a vow aeons ago under the First Buddha to pursue the enlightenment on his own, and was reincarnated hundreds of times in that quest before he became a Buddha. They view his death as such a complete break from material existence that is he so free from the human world that he no longer exists.

According to Theravada Buddhism. there are 31 planes, or forms of beings, 6 floors of heaven. and 7 floors of hell. They are: 1) 20 planes of Brahmas. or higher spiritual beings; 2)6 planes of Nats or Devas. or lower spiritual beings; 3) Human existence; 4) Animals; 5) Peta. Apaya beings-in-woe; 6) Asuraka. Apaya beings in-semi-woe; 7) Hell. beings-in-torment. composed of 8 floors. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information \\]

The last 10 lives of Buddha is most prominant. and many wrote about these in the past. They are: 1) Prince Taymi; 2) Zanekka; 3) Thuwunna Tharma; 4) Nay-mi; 5)Prophet Mahaw-tha-htar; 6) Bu-ri-dut; 7) San; 8)Nar; 9) Widura Minister; 10) King Weithantayar ."\\

Buddha taught the followers that there are other planets. other different types of beings. Buddhists believe that there are 5 Buddhas on this planet earth. Out of the 5. four Buddha has came. and one more is to come: 1) Kotekathan Buddha; 2) Kawnargon Buddha; 3) Kuthapha Buddha; 4) Gawtama Buddha; 5) Areinmadeya Buddha (the up-coming Buddha). \\

Theravada Buddhists sometimes make wishes to avoid certain places in their everyday prayer. They are: 1) four lower beings (hell, animal, ghost,demon); 2) three disasters (starvation, war and plague); 3) eight places one can't reach (Nivirna, hell, animal, ghost, paganism,retarded, living where no god exist); 4) Five Enemies (water, fire, king, thief, who hates); four defects ( being in nether worlds,birth defects, being in bad society, doing only the bad); 5) five great losts (lost of relatives, lost of wealth, lost by disease, lost by misbelief, lost by misbehavior). \\

Skillful Means and the Six Courses of Mahayana Buddhism

Skillful Means is regarded by some as the most important doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the religious scholar J.C. Clear: Skillful means refers “to strategies, methods, devices, targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being, so as to rescue him and lead him to Enlightenment. "Thus, all particular formulations of the Teaching are just provisional expedients to communicate the Truth (Dharma) in specific contexts." "The Buddha’s words were medicines for a given sickness at a given time," always infinitely adaptable to the audience’s conditions.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: "The Six Courses (rokudo) is a foundational concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Here, we examine the Six Courses from three different but interrelated perspectives: (1) as skillful means, (2) as metaphysics, and (3) as psychological theory. The first perspective introduces a new doctrine; the second revisits the idea of karma as energy that drives the process of reincarnation. The third perspective reveals a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, namely, its insights into human psychology. Because perspectives two and three are closely interconnected, we examine them both in the same section. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“The classic depiction of the Six Courses is a large wheel, a recurring symbol in Buddhism. The large wheel that describes the Six Courses is sometimes called the "Wheel of the Dharma" the "Wheel of Life," the "Wheel of Truth," or the "Wheel of Becoming." Regardless of its name, the wheel represents the cosmos as a whole, and illustrates the doctrine of dependent origination. ~

Wheel of Life

“The wheel's spokes create spaces for illustrating the Six Courses. The innermost circle features a snake, representing hatred or anger, a bird (usually a cock), representing lusts or desires, and a pig representing ignorance. Collectively known as the "Three Poisons," the snake, bird, and pig feed on each other, propelling the wheel around and around. In more elaborate depictions, there is a second inner ring, dark on the right side and light on the left. The dark side features a human figure in the process of spiritual deterioration. The light side features people advancing toward nirvana. Simpler depictions usually omit this second inner ring. The “outermost ring” features twelve images representing: (1) ignorance, (2) karmic formations, (3) consciousness, (4) name and form, (5) the bases of consciousness, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) yearning or desire, (9) clinging or attachment, (10) becoming, (11) birth, and (12) old-age-and-death. These twelve items are linked with the Five Heaps in Buddhist doctrine and illustrate the doctrine of “dependent origination”. But we shall not be concerned with the outer ring here. ~

Our main concern is with the Six Courses (six different realms of existence). The top half of the wheel contains three relatively favorable realms: (left) warlike demi-gods; (center) deities and Buddhas; and (right) humans. The bottom three realms are less appealing: (right) beasts; (bottom) hells; and (left) starving ghosts. Arranged as a hierarchy, the realms would be, in descending order: 1) deities and Buddhas; 2) warlike demi-gods; 3) humans; 4) beasts; 5) starving ghosts, and 6) hells. In practice, many Buddhists were especially interested in the last two realms: starving ghosts and hells. We, too, will focus our attention on the bottom two realms. There are variations in the way these realms are depicted in Buddhist art. Some wheels contain only five realms, leaving out the warlike demi-gods. Others leave out the demi-gods and subdivide the realm of beasts into two, thus maintaining a total of six. Some depictions of the Six Courses take a form other than a wheel. This deviation from the wheel format is sometimes found in Chinese depictions, which are apt to show the Six Courses in a hierarchical array, usually next to what looks like a courtroom. ~

“Returning to the classic wheel depiction, within each realm, even the three on the bottom, there is a Buddha or bodhisattva to symbolize that anyone, even a sufferer in hell, can someday achieve enlightenment. Each realm contains subdivisions. The human realm, for example, usually depicts birth, old age, sickness, and death. That of hells depicts up to eighteen different varieties of hell (and even more sub-hells, or "places"). There are also different kinds of starving ghosts. The large, half-human creature holding the whole wheel is actually turning it. Interpretations of this creature differ, but we should think of it as karma powering the cycle of samsara." ~

Skillful Means, the Six Courses and Buddhist Heaven and Hell

According to a selection from a much larger description of a classic Buddhist heaven, the “Heaven of Thirty-Three," whose main intended audience seems to have been males pursuing, or thinking about pursuing, formal religious austerities: There [in the heaven], celestial nymphs with their playfulness captivate the wearied minds of those ascetics who had, in their life on earth, decided to purchase Paradise by first paying the price in austerities. They are always in the prime of their youth, and libidinous enjoyment is their only concern. They can be used by anyone who has done the required meritorious deeds; and for the celestial beings no fault is attached to possessing them. They are in fact the choicest of all rewards of austerities. [Source:Edward Conze, trans., “Buddhist Scriptures”, New York: Penguin Books, p. 223."

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Meditate, fast, and live a life of simple poverty, because the heavenly nymphs are waiting to reward you after you die! This message might well be appealing to many men, but would it not be contrary to the whole spirit of Buddhist teachings and goals? Yes it would be contrary, and the same scripture quoted above goes on to describe a disciple named Nanda, who resumed his meditation after hearing about the heavenly nymphs "in order that he might win them one day." But Nanda's teacher warned him that the pleasures of paradise are only temporary, and "the day must come when the deities fall to earth" and wail in distress over the loss of their previous, pleasurable existence. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

In conclusion: "Recognize that Paradise is only temporary, that it gives no real freedom, holds out no security, cannot be trusted, and gives no lasting satisfaction! it is better to strive for final release." (Buddhist Scriptures, p. 224.) Because attempting to inspire better behavior by holding out a promise of heavenly delights was morally awkward and impractical, the typical emphasis in Skillful Means was on negative incentives, namely, starving ghosts and hells. Ghosts and hells were quite easy to describe — just look around at what goes on in human society.

Death and Judgement in Terms of the Six Courses

“In conceiving of the Six Courses as a form of Skillful Means, what actually happens at the time of death? In a typical description, a fiery cart manned by hideous-looking officials carries the deceased to the court of King Yama. King Yama was an infernal Chief Justice, whose court happens to be located adjacent to the realm of hells. The officials who go to pick up the dead convey her or him across a vast river and then into a waiting room. Why the waiting room? Because the court system has a vast backlog of cases pending, and it will be a while — several years perhaps — before King Yama and his secretaries get around to someone's file. In the meantime, the deceased sits in the waiting room. There, s/he does not listen to piped in music but to the screams of those suffering in the various hells. Sitting there thinking about the past lifetime of sin and shortcomings, he or she might have no desire to get on with a speedy hearing. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“But all must have “their day in court." And in all too many cases, after reading the thick file containing notations of every good and bad deed in the person's lifetime, the infernal king finds little with which to be happy. Of course, should the good deeds outweigh the bad (metaphysically: a reduction in the karmic balance or burden), King Yama smiles and decrees that the person shall be reborn into a higher realm of existence than in the previous lifetime. This rebirth could be as a higher level of human being or even into one of the two realms higher than humans. ~

“For those, however, whose the bad deeds outweigh the good, rebirth into a lower realm is required. In relatively mild cases, the deceased might be reborn into a lover level of human society. For worse cases, rebirth as some sort of animal may be in order. For the worst sort of offenses, however (like neglecting to make generous donations to Buddhist temples!), hard time as a starving ghost or in one or more of the hells will be necessary to repay the cosmic debt. As the infernal king recites the list of offenses, the deceased might protest his or her innocence. "I didn't do that! You've got the wrong person!" the defendant might plead. Justice will be done, however, thanks to a 100 percent effective video replay system, the "Soul Mirror." Forced to face this mirror, the deceased sees all past offenses replayed before his or her eyes. There can be no denying one's karmic debt, and the worst offenders are carted off to the realms of starving ghosts or hells to work off this debt for a few tens, hundreds or thousands of years — whatever is necessary. Once the debt is repaid, the person in question is reborn as a human to try it all over again. ~

“You should know that there are numerous variations in the ways this process of judgement might be described. The above paragraphs explain it in the simplest terms. In some versions, for example, the deceased endures ten trials by ten different "kings" of hell. Even here, however, the trial before King Yama and his soul mirror is the most important one. Regardless of the details, however, the basic idea of a judgment in an other-worldly courtroom is a consistent feature of the Six Courses as Skillful Means." ~

Kings of Hell

Hells in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: There were also many varieties of hell, each for a specific type of offense. One guilty of many offenses might have to spend time in several different hells before burning off enough acquired karma to be reborn as a person again. The whole realm of hell is a massive operation and requires a large staff of hell wardens and attendants to keep the place running and to ensure that residents stay on task. There are clients in need of being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and smashed with various types of objects, burned up by various types of flames, and so forth. This is hard work, but the dedicated staff is up to the task. Indeed, they seem to love their work, no doubt because they know they are making the cosmos a better place with each crack of the whip or swing of the iron rod."Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“In both China and Japan, artists exhausted their creativity making detailed paintings and drawings of the hells. Buddhist monks would often display them to popular audiences (most members of whom would be illiterate) and describe the horrors of each hell in vivid detail. Did these monks really believe that specific places called hell really existed? Were these hells really part of proper Buddhist doctrine? As Skillful Means, yes; as literally real, external places to which one goes, no. In other words, at higher levels of Mahayana teaching, hells did not exist (nor did starving ghosts) as specific, separate entities. If portraying them as such would help frighten the ignorant masses into better behavior, however, it is the duty of the Buddhist clergy to help the masses by doing so."~

Specific hells exist for mothers who neglected their children, those who were corrupt government officials, anyone who killed a living creature on purpose, and enemies of the Buddhist religion, to name a few. The following is a description of the Hell of Shrieking Sounds, which is for Buddhist monks who tortured animals: “Many monks for such cause arrive at the Western Gate of this hell, where the horse-headed demons with iron rods in their hands bash the heads of the monks, whereupon the monks flee shrieking through the gate and into the hell. There, inside, is a great fire raging fiercely, creating smoke and flames. The bodies of the sinners become raw from burns and their agony is unbearable." ~

The following excerpt is a description of several of the many hells from a tenth-century Japanese Buddhist work: “Outside the four gates of hell are sixteen separate places which are associated with this hell. The first is called the place of excrement. Here, it is said, there is intensely hot dung of the bitterest of taste, filled with maggots with snouts of indestructible hardness. The sinner here eats of the dung and all the assembled maggots swarm at once for food. They destroy the sinner's skin, devour his flesh and suck the marrow from his bones. People who at one time in the past killed birds or deer fall into this hell. Second is the place of the turning sword. It is said that iron walls ten yojanas in height surround it and that a terrible and intense fire constantly burns within. The fire possessed by humans is like snow when compared to this. With the least physical contact, the body is broken into pieces the size of mustard-seeds. Hot iron pours from above like a heavy rainfall, and in addition, there is a forest of swords, with blades of exceptional keenness, and those swords, too, fall like rain. The multitude of agonies is in such variety that it cannot be borne. Into this place fall those who have killed a living being with concupiscence. Third is the place of the burning vat. It is said that the sinner is seized and placed in an iron vat, and boiled as one would cook beans. Those who in the past have taken the life of a living creature, cooked it, and eaten of it, fall into this hell." [Source: Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, comps., “Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. 1" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), p. 194." ~

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and The Ten Kings of Hell, 10th century, Dunhuang, Musee Guimet, Paris

The following excerpt describes some of the activities of the hell wardens: “With a fish-hook the wardens pull [the sinner] out [of the great Caustic River], put him on dry land, and ask him: 'What then, my friend, do you want now?' And he answers: 'I am hungry, Sir!' On hearing this, they prize open his mouth with a red-hot iron crowbar, and push into his mouth a red-hot ball of copper, all afire, aflame, and ablaze. And that burns his lips, mouth, throat, and chest, and passes out below, taking with it the bowels and intestines." ~

Starving Ghosts

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Starving ghosts have a grotesquely distended belly, but the rest of the body is emaciated. The neck and throat in particular is extremely thin. These creatures are wracked by a constant hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. They roam the earth (but are normally invisible to ordinary people) constantly seeking things to eat and drink. In their desperation, they will consume nearly anything, even putrid material and excrement. These pathetic creatures are desperate for assistance and succor, but, being invisible, go unnoticed and ignored. The only creatures that notice the starving ghosts are various demons, who enjoy tormenting any ghosts they may encounter." [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“To better serve the purpose of frightening people into good behavior, Buddhists developed a list of specific varieties of starving ghosts. For example, there were Carrion-Eating Starving Ghosts. Those who were monks in a previous life but violated their monastic rules (by eating food intended for the needy, for example) are reborn as this type of ghost. They wander around graveyards, constantly seeking out rotten flesh and bones to eat. “Excrement-Eating Starving Ghosts” consist of those who refused to give donations to Buddhist monks out of greed. They constantly seek out feces and urine for their sustenance. Vomiting Starving Ghosts, in their former lives, were heads of households who denied food and other necessities to their wives and children out of greed, despite living well themselves. They are repaid by becoming ghosts whom demons force constantly to vomit. And there are many other varieties, each tied to a specific moral offense. ~

“As Skillful Means, a Buddhist might portray” the realms of Starving Ghosts and hells “as places "out there" into which a sinner falls. In fact, however, they are "in here," that is, in our heads. Consider the grotesque appearance and life of a starving ghost. In terms of the Four Noble Truths, what is a starving ghost? It is the embodiment of desires, in all their ugliness. Through our desires, we make ourselves into starving ghosts, and we put ourselves into numerous hells." ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Skillful Means

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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