Shakyamuni Buddha in the Dharma Flower Temple, in Huzhou, Zhejian province, China

Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas “Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its followers a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness”; define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Professor Paul Halsall wrote:. One core teaching of Mahayana Buddhism “is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses. One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “ highest ideal in Mahayana Buddhism was not individual enlightenment but enlightenment for everyone. The embodiment of this Mahayana ideal was the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is one who has eliminated all desires and is therefore eligible to pass into nirvana. Out of a feeling of compassion for the millions of other suffering creatures, however, the bodhisattva withholds his/her/its entry into nirvana to remain in this world and help others. The various bodhisattvas have taken vows to remain in this world until all creatures are ready to enter nirvana. They may have to wait a long time! Some textbooks liken bodhisattvas to Christian saints, but there are significant differences in the theory behind each. In practice, however, the two types of beings have much in common as objects of prayers and ritual devotion. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum ;

Mahayana Buddhism: Seon Zen Buddhism ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) ;
Wikipedia article ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ; The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Theory and Practice by Jeffrey Samuels ; Zen Buddhism ; The Zen Site ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia

Mahayana Buddhist Developments

Zen Buddhist depiction of sunyata ("emptiness")

Professor Paul Halsall wrote: “Mahayana Buddhism developed in many ways. It comprised a series of extremely complex philosophical systems and a huge variety of emotionally compelling ritual activities, all manifest in a number of different sects and schools. One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Mahayana Buddhism made extensive use of various Hindu deities. Some became bodhisattvas; others became lesser divinities.... Deities can be useful in Mahayana teaching and practice as inspirational symbols of desirable virtues or as objects of veneration to help train the mind. At the highest levels of understanding, there are no deities external to one's self (because, among other things, there is no self). For people at lower levels of understanding, however, deities can play a useful role in progress toward enlightenment. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Another development associated with Mahayana Buddhism was a theory of stages and cycles concerning the appearance of Buddhas in the world and the status of their teaching. In this theory Shakyamuni was only the most recent of a whole series of Buddhas that had appeared on earth at regular intervals. The Dharma, or Buddhist teaching, goes through three phases, which together constitute one full cycle. Specifically, 500 years after the Buddha's death (or, 1000 years in a competing version of the theory) is the period of the True Dharma. During this time, the Buddha's teaching is properly practiced, and the attainment of enlightenment is possible. Next comes a period of the Semblance Dharma, which lasts 100 years (or, 500 years in a competing version of the theory). In this stage, people practice the Buddha's teachings, but they only go through the motions without true understanding making enlightenment impossible. In the final stage, the Last or Final Dharma, which lasts 10,000 years, the teaching exists, but nobody practices it, even if only going through the motions. This stage is a time of misery and suffering on a vast scale, at the end of which, a new Buddha appears and a new three-stage cycle begins. There were other Buddhas before Shakyamuni and there will be others after him. This theory caused great anxiety in Japan during medieval times starting in the late Heian period because many feared that the world was about to enter stage three, the period of the Last Dharma. The most common Japanese term for this final stage is mappo.

Voidness and Three Types of Buddhahood

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya): 1) Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth; 2) Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body; 3) Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body. [Source: BBC]

Korean cover of the Avatamsaka sutra (c 1400)

Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “There are three types of Buddha:Samma Sambuddha (a supremely enlightened one), who gains full enlightenment [by perfecting ten qualities and gaining the magical ability to teach] by one’s own effort alone Pacceka Buddha who is fully, independently enlightened but has not developed the Ten Perfections to a lesser degree than the Samma Sambuddha [and therefore is not skilled in showing others the way to enlightenment], and the Savaka Buddha who is an arahant-disciple of a perfectly enlightened Buddha. The nirvana of the three types is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more qualities (paramitas, paramis, or perfections) and capacities which are useful in teaching than the other two types. [Source: Dr. W. Rahula, BuddhaSasana (, Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal, August 14, 2008; Grant Olson, Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University +++]

“Some people think that the Voidness (Sunyata) discussed by Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. However, it is based on the Buddha’s teaching of Impersonality (anatta) or no-self and Dependent Origination, both found in the original Theravada, Pali language texts. On one occasion Ananda asked the Buddha, “People say the word Void. What is Void (Sunya)?” The Buddha replied, “Ananda, there is no self, nor anything belonging to a self in the world. Therefore, the world is empty.” This idea was used by Nagarjuna, who wrote the small remarkable book, Madhyamika Karika. Apart from the idea of Voidness, the concept of the “store-consciousness” in Mahayana Buddhism also has its seed in Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have simply developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.” +++

Doctrine of Skillful Means

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.”

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: “Skillful Means, upaya in Sanskrit; fang-pien in Chinese; hoben in Japanese, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Skillful means, sometimes translated as tactfulness, expedients, or ingenuity, is the practice of applying awakening teaching to the diverse variety of students or practitioners. Discussed in a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras espousing the bodhisattva ideal of universal liberation, the Buddha's application of skillful means accounts for the earlier teachings of the arhat ideal of individual self-purification. The Buddha teaches skillfully in a variety of modes recommending different practices and teachings, because suffering beings have various different capacities, and must be led to the path toward awakening through appropriate approaches. [Source: Mountain Source Sangha, 2004 ]

“The idea of skillful means became crucial to the adoption of Buddhist ideas into China, and thereafter in all of East Asia. Skillful means is fully expressed and elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential Buddhist text in East Asia. Several colorful parables depict aspects of skillful means. In the parable of the burning house, a man comes home to find his house in flames and his children playing inside. When he tells them to flee the house they refuse, as they would rather play with their toys. The father finally entices them from the house with descriptions of many colorful carriages waiting outside. They exit to find only one ox cart, symbolizing the One Vehicle of Buddha's Way that can carry everyone. The One Vehicle includes all the various skillful teachings for saving beings from the flames of worldly suffering. The sutra emphasizes that the father in the parable was not lying, as he lured the children from the burning house to save them.

“Another Lotus Sutra parable tells of a caravan leader encouraging those he guides with the vision of a phantom city in the distance. When they have rested after reaching this city, which represents the early idea of nirvana as escape from sufferings of the world, the caravan leader informs them that the true goal, the universal liberation of all beings, remains ahead, and they must now proceed.

Lotus sutra from Gwangdeoksa Temple in Chenan, South Korea

“In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses skillful means based on his all-knowing eye that accurately discerns the capacities of different beings and the teachings that would benefit them. But in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, skillful means is one of ten paramitas or transcendent practices engaged in by all bodhisattvas, not only by fully awakened buddhas. These practices are often in a list of six, ending with prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom or insight. But the Avatamsaka offers four more practices beyond prajna, including upaya as one of the endless modes of liberative activity for use by all Mahayana devotees.

“The idea of many teachings and practices applied skillfully to the single aim of spiritual awakening is an appealing approach for a modern Western understanding of the sometimes confusing abundance of Buddhist schools. Moreover, skillful means might be a way of respecting the pluralism of all religious traditions in our contemporary global interconnectedness. All traditions may be equally respected for the value of their teachings as they apply to different peoples' particular approaches to ultimate religious truth, and to primary principles such as kindness and compassion.

“Skillful means was historically the approach that allowed Chinese Buddhism to incorporate and make sense of all of the Indian Buddhist teachings. The various synthesizing Chinese Buddhist schools developed systems for classifying the whole range of teachings, called p'an-chiao in Chinese. However, the Chinese schools all used the idea of skillful means hierarchically, with their own favorite sutras at the pinnacle of their sectarian classifications, for example the Lotus Sutra for the T'ien-t'ai school and the Flower Ornament Sutra for the Hua-yen. Thus skillful means could be misused in a patronizing manner toward so-called "lesser" schools.

“Western practitioners sometimes have challenged the idea of skillful means as a slippery slope in which the ends justify the means. But the overriding importance of the bodhisattva practice of vow or commitment to benefit all beings, another of the later paramitas, informs any application of skillful means, and mitigates against any harmful activity except under the most urgent and unusual circumstances.

Korean Goryeo illustrated manscript of the Lotus Sutra

Manifestations of the Skillful Means

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The doctrine manifests itself in many ways. One key feature is that skillful means assumes the ends justify the means. More specifically in the context of Buddhism, the idea is that most people are such slaves to their desires and so beset by spiritual ignorance that they will never begin walking the Eightfold Path without being bribed, tricked, frightened, or otherwise motivated into doing so. Clever means, therefore, are necessary to persuade or cajole people into living their lives more in accord with Buddhist principles. Skillful Means take on a variety of forms depending on the sophistication and circumstances of those they are meant to help. In whatever form they may take, Skillful Means are intended as provisional stepping stones to be discarded after a person reaches a higher level of comprehension. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

"Skillful Means are not only for persons at low levels of spiritual progress. Meditation and other techniques of advanced practitioners also qualify as Skillful Means. Because Buddhist enlightenment cannot really be described in words, even the Eightfold Path is a form of Skillful Means. Recall also that the Buddha’s first sermon was the first act of Skillful Means. Indeed, Buddhism itself is Skillful Means on a large scale. Buddhism, in other words, is a provisional set of teachings and practices to point seekers in the direction of nirvana. ~

“The doctrine of Skillful Means, for all practical purposes, authorizes telling lies if those lies serve noble ends. It is in this context that Buddhist preachers sometimes lectured to the masses about the realms of starving ghosts and hells. The idea was to frighten people into good (or at least better) behavior. Buddhism also developed heavens as Skillful Means, but there was a serious problem in describing heaven. If the idea is to use the reward of rebirth in paradise to lure people at low spiritual levels into better behavior, what sort of description would be appealing? How about, "If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn into a place where you can sit on a lotus flower in a peaceful state of spiritual bliss for thousands of years?" Probably not. Or, what about, "If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn in a paradise where you can be lazy, eat anything you want, get drunk every day, smoke pot to your heart’s content, have sex any time and any way you like, and beat anyone you don't like to a bloody pulp?" In fact, a few descriptions of Buddhist heavens did take this sort of approach.” ~

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: ““The practice of skillful means reminds us to listen to others respectfully, honor their differences, and recognize that others may have different needs and benefit from different teachings and practices. Following the model of the bodhisattva of compassion, we must not self-righteously cling to any particular method. We can learn various useful approaches, and as we learn to trust and respond with whatever is at hand, our skillfulness can develop.” [Source: Mountain Source Sangha, 2004 ]

Tibetan-style Wheel of Life

Wheel of Life and the Six Courses of Mahayana Buddhism

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 ~]

“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. ~

“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,” who 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 ~]

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.

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and The Ten Kings of Hell, 10th century, from Dunhuang in China, now in the Musee Guimet, Paris

Death and Judgment 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 ~]

“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 judgment 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.” ~

Starving Ghosts

Lou Ping ghost painting

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 ~]

“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.” ~

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 ~]

“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.”~

Kshitigarbha, the Judge of Hell, from Dunhuang

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.] ~

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.” ~

Rebirth in Mahayana Metaphysical, Psychological and Sexual Terms

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: It is also possible to interpret the Six Courses as a concrete image or metaphor for the more abstract process of karma-driven reincarnation. This interpretation would have greater appeal to persons at a relatively high level of religious sophistication. In this section, we illustrate the Six Courses as metaphysics by quoting extensively from Buddhist scripture. The following excerpts are all from a section called "Seeking rebirth," which states that "if you [the recently deceased] still continue to feel a desire to exist as an individual, then you are now doomed to again re-enter the wheel of becoming." [Source: "Seeking Rebirth,” Edward Conze, trans., “Buddhist Scriptures”, New York: Penguin Books, p. 229; “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Along with the metaphysical teaching of karma, we also see another important dimension: the psychological. In this more sophisticated view, King Yama is actually one’s own mind: “You are now before Yama, King of the Dead. In vain will you try to lie, and to deny or conceal the evil deeds you have done. The Judge holds up before you the shining mirror of Karma [the Soul Mirror], wherein all your deeds are reflected. But again you have to deal with dream images, which you yourself have made, and which you project outside, without recognizing them as your own work. The mirror which Yama seems to read your past is your own memory, and also his judgment is your own. It is you yourself who pronounce your own judgment, which in its turn determines your next rebirth. No terrible god pushes you into it; you go there quite on your own. The shapes of the frightening monsters who take hold of you, place a rope round your neck and drag you along, are just an illusion which you create from the forces within you. Know that apart from these karmic forces there is no Judge of the Dead, no gods, and no demons. Knowing that, you will be free! [Conze, pp. 229-31] ~

Japanese Wheel of Life

At first the recently deceased tries to delude himself or herself, denying the many evil deeds of the past life. But karma cannot be denied, and these deeds have set up desires in the person that propel him or her into a new rebirth and another round of misery. And it is all in the mind. There is really no external agent. We seek new births by our own deluded desires. By realizing the nature of this process, we can stop it. Notice that this passage offers a possible way out. In the visual depiction of the Six Courses, the Buddhist divinity within each realm symbolizes this way out. Notice also that in the view described here, we have returned essentially to the Four Noble Truths. ~

The process of rebirth continues as follows: “If you have deserved it by your good deeds, a white light will guide you into one of the heavens, and for a while you will have some happiness among the gods. Habits of envy and ambition will attract you to the red light, which leads to rebirth among the warlike [demi-gods], forever agitated by anger and envy. If you feel drawn to a blue light, you will find yourself again a human being, and well you remember how little happiness that brought you! If you had a heavy and dull mind, you will choose the green light, which leads you to the world of animals, unhappy because [they are] insecure and excluded from the knowledge which brings salvation. A ray of dull yellow will lead you to the world of the ghosts, and, finally, a ray of the colour of darkish smoke will lead you into the hells. [Conze, pp. 230-31]” ~

As in the passage on the judgment cited above, this passage also ends with a possible way out: “Try to desist, if you can! Think of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas! Recall that all these visions are unreal, control your mind, feel amity towards all that lives! And do not be afraid! You alone are the source of all these different rays. In you alone they exist, and so do the worlds to which they lead. Feel not attracted or repelled, but remain even minded and calm!” [Conze, p. 231] Again, it is karma that causes the rebirth, but since karma is nothing but our desires, we have the power to extinguish it at any time and stop the process. We make our own destiny, and the Six Courses are all in our heads. ~

“The final passage we examine connects karma, psychology, and rebirth with the biological fact that sexual intercourse causes birth. The first half of the passage describes the powerful urge to be reborn within the newly deceased: “An overpowering craving will come over you for the sense-experiences which you remember having had in the past, and which through your lack of sense-organs you cannot now have. Your desire for rebirth becomes more and more urgent; it becomes a real torment to you. This desire now racks you; . . . whenever you try to take some rest, monstrous forms rise up before you. Some have animal heads on human bodies, others are gigantic birds with huge wings and claws. Their howlings and their whips drive you on, and then a hurricane carries you along, with those demonic howlings in hot pursuit. Greatly anxious, you will look for a safe place of refuge.” [Conze, p. 231] ~

It turns out that this place of refuge is in the sex act: “Everywhere around you, you will see animals and humans in the act of sexual intercourse. You envy them, and the sight attracts you. If your karmic coefficients destine you to become a male, you feel attracted to the females and you hate the males you see. If you are destined to become a female, you will feel love for the males and hatred for the females you see. Do not get near the couples you see, do not try to interpose yourself between them, do not try to take the place of one of them! The feeling which you would then experience would make you faint away, just at the moment when egg and sperm are about to unite. And afterwards you will find that you have been conceived as a human being or as an animal.” [Conze, pp. 231-32] ~

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Some voyeuristic spirit of a recently deceased person sees a couple having sex and the passions build up uncontrollably. He or she then jumps in between the couple and ends up being reborn as their baby. Notice the underlined part. Again, the text reminds us that there is a way out of the process at any time, if only we rectify our minds by casting out the desires within them...Life is, after all, suffering. The Six Realms do indeed exist — inside our heads as psychological states. It is within each person’s power, therefore, to determine his or her own rebirth. The same goes for the attainment of nirvana, which is outside the Six Courses entirely. (Strictly speaking, Mahayana doctrine holds that the Six Courses are nirvana and nirvana is the Six Courses — but we need not concern ourselves with this matter here.)” ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, except Skillful Means, Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.