Hell in a Buddhist temple

On the surface, Christianity and Buddhism seem like polar opposites. One believes in an all-powerful god; the other dismisses gods as unimportant. One tends to preach that it’s the only “correct” religion; the other doesn’t like to push itself on anyone. While Christians pray for an afterlife in heaven, Buddhists expect to be reborn on earth. Surely the fire and brimstone associated with Christian hell has no place in Buddhism, right?

As it turns out, the Buddha spoke about hell in jarring detail — and it doesn’t look so different from the Christian version as you might expect. In Nan up in Northern Thailand, 700-year-old Wat Phumin depicts Buddhist hell as a bizarre realm of demonic chicken-men and horrific torture. If you thought Buddhism was all wishy washy “awaken to your inner soul” and “peace and love” stuff, think again.

Looks peaceful from here, but wait until you have a poke around.

One of Nan’s most historic temples contains several beautiful Buddha images along with some exquisite murals created centuries ago. Among the artistic scenes of everyday life in this former autonomous kingdom known for its peacefulness, the murals diverge into some rather disturbing imagery.

It’s not uncommon for Buddhist temple murals to touch on death, pain and decay — all objects of meditation that can lead to wisdom or even enlightenment (or so they say). Sometimes you’ll even find a real human skeleton strung up in the corner, but depictions of torture are rare. We assume they were painted at Wat Phumin to convince the local people to do good rather than evil, or pay the price. Sound familiar, Christians?

Wandering outside, we noticed an ancient-looking stone building with a rounded top in a corner of the complex. “Probably a secondary shrine room, perhaps containing the relics of some former abbot,” I thought. After stepping inside, we realized that Wat Phumin has a thing for hell. Viewer discretion advised.

So. We’ve got a torturer who appears to be pulling another guy’s tongue out; another about to lay into a guy’s head with a machete; a man, pig-man and rooster-man all trying to plead their way out of being boiled alive (good luck with that); another rooster-man and red buffalo-man looking ghoulishly happy and standing guard while clutching bones; a couple of folks who appear to have seen better days, hung upside on jagged trees, torturers prodding them with spears as vultures gnaw at their ankles; a guy lying on a table with his guts being pulled out; a cool-looking master of ceremonies (the one King Yama we presume) chillin’ in the back with his pitch fork like this ain’t no thing; and finally a serene-looking Buddhist monk gliding above a scene that would have made Dante feel at home.

Oh yes, and these two chicken-people who are either performing some kind of sick ritualistic strut, or doing a commendable job of avoiding the boiling pot. Don’t think that Yama, Lord of Death, is going to forget you two for long (bwahahahahahaha).

Isn’t Buddhism a peace-loving religion? Didn’t the Buddha talk all about compassion and nonviolence? Why is that monk yawning up top like a bystander who can’t be bothered to help an old woman whose being mugged? Well, the Buddha said clearly in the Devaduta Sutta that “heedless” people are subjected to a “five-fold imprisonment.” First …

“The hell-wardens lay him down and slice him with axes. Then they hold him feet up & head down and slice him with adzes. Then they harness him to a chariot and drive him back & forth over ground that is burning, blazing, & glowing. Then they make him climb up & down a vast mountain of embers that is burning, blazing, & glowing. Then they hold him feet up & head down and plunge him into a red-hot copper cauldron… And as he is boiling there with bubbles foaming … he feels painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil kamma is not exhausted.”

(Good thing the Buddha pointed out that this guy “feels painful.” It would have been tough to infer that given the lack of details.)

And that’s just the introduction! After “the passing of a long stretch of time,” the heedless bastards have their flesh burned yet again as they approach a gate that they think will get them the hell out of hell. But just before they get there, the gate slams shut and they’re cast into “excrement hell,” where …

“Needle-mouth beings bore into his outer skin. Having bored into his outer skin, they bore into his inner skin… his flesh… his tendons… the bone. Having bored into the bone, they feed on the marrow … Right next to the Excrement Hell is the vast Hot Ashes Hell.”

And this sicko King Yama is only getting started. After making it this far, you’ll still have to pass through the “sword leaf forest”; a river where you drown again and again for “a long stretch of time”; a kitchen where you’re served glowing hot balls of copper for another “long stretch of time.” And THEN, “the hell-wardens throw him back into the Great Hell once more.”

Most Buddhist art evokes a sense of peace, but the actual teachings are a major reality check.

Yes, loving-kindness is a key aspect of Buddhism. But as the old saying goes, karma is a bitch. Like Christianity, Buddhism says that those who do bad stuff will go to a horrific hell. And unlike in Christianity, you can’t do a bunch of bad stuff and then proclaim the Buddha as your savior to get out of it. Do the crime, do the time.

But there is one advantage to Buddhist hell; unlike the Christian version, it’s not an eternal damnation (phew). In fact, the Buddha spoke about a whole bunch of different levels of hell and heaven and everything in between, all of them except the pinnacle — nirvana — being temporary.

So don’t fret too much if you’re out there being a bad mothafucka. Yama will let you out of Buddhist hell after a nice long lifetime of being boiled, prodded, sliced, burned, drowned and gnawed at by vultures. Then you’ll probably be reborn as an ant that gets cooked by a seven-year-old who found a book of matches. Then you might be a rat. Either way, you’ll be on your way back up the ladder until one day you might even become a fully enlightened buddha.

Think it’s time for my meditation …


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