Buddhist/Asian Hell Texts

Related Topics

INTRODUCTION: The literature on hell from the Buddhist tradition is here divided into five categories, which in some small way, mirror the standard divisions of Buddhist texts. First is the Pali Canon and the Sutras, all literature that derive their authority from their ancient roots and probable association with the historical Buddha. Other Buddhist texts, the second category, are those works firmly within the Buddhist tradition, but are newer works, taken from the commentaries and rules set down at a later stage of Buddhism.

The third and fourth categories — Chinese and Tibetan texts, respectively — are separated out because of their regional differences; and finally the fifth category includes anomalous Buddhist texts.

Just as Buddhism absorbed many influences from Hinduism, later texts prove to be syncretistic as well, capturing notions from Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism.

THE SUTRAS. The sutras are part of the canonical literature of Buddhism since they purport to include the records of the Buddha’s oral teachings. Sutra collections, or canons, are generally named for the language in which they were written. The Pali canon, written in a vernacular Middle Indo-Aryan language, is the standard collection of the Theravada Buddhist tradition — the oldest surviving Buddhist school — and because of its greater age, it is considered most authoritative. It includes the Sutra Pitaka, which incorporates the Middle-Length Discourses and the Numbered Discourses.

The canon in Sanskrit, a more formal cousin to Pali, includes the Mahayana sutras, particularly the Karandavyuha Sutra, as well as the Mahavastu or Great Story.

The Chinese sutras included here, the Sutra on the Eighteen Hells and the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha, are found first in Chinese-language versions, but since there appears to be a very important tradition of translation of early Buddhist works into Chinese, it is important to consider these separately from later Chinese Buddhist texts, which are permeated with Confucian and Taoist ideas.

1. The Great Story [Mahavastu]: Maudgalyayana’s Visits to Hell (Buddhist [Sanskrit], 200–100 BCE). The Mahavastu is a biography of Gautama Buddha and was attached as an introduction to the Vinaya Pitaka, the first basket of the Tripitaka, which contains primarily rules for the Buddhist monks and nuns (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis). Unlike other parts of the Pali canon, the Mahavastu survives in manuscripts written, not in Pali, but in a language known as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

This biography of the Buddha includes some of the exploits of Maudgalyayana (also Moggallana or Mu-Lien, and Kolita — his personal name), one of Gautama’s major disciples, who possessed special powers that enabled him to communicate with the dead. Because of this power he is often connected with Buddhist descriptions of hell. The hell description in the Mahavastu is particularly interesting because already in this early text we find the segmentation of hell, which does not appear in Hindu texts until the Puranas of 300–1500 CE The Mahavastu describes eight great hells with sixteen secondary hells each, or 136 hells. The great hells are:

Mahavici (Tapana)
Tapana (Avici)
Pratapana (Pratapa)

The text runs through the names three times and each time they come out slightly different. Secondary hells include: Kukkula, Kunapa, Kumbha; and there is also the river Vaitarani. Hells are described as fortresses 100 yojanas square and high, well laid out in grids and encircled with a wall of iron, and finished with a vault of iron above and a floor of hot iron below. Each hell has four corners and four gates. The text describes the punishments particular to each place and the agents of those punishments, but all evil-doers pass through all the halls in order to regain their karma; hells are not particular to sins.

2. The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha [Majjhima Nikaya] (Buddhist [Pali], c. 200–100 BCE). These discourses was delivered by the Buddha to the monks at Jetta Grove. In them, he described the progress of a man through hell. First stakes are put through his hands, feet and belly; then he is pared with axes and adzes, dragged by a chariot across a burning terrain, forced to climb up and down a mound of burning coals and finally plunged into a burning cauldron — all before he enters the Great Hell.

The Great Hell is an enclosure of burning iron with flames bursting from the walls, floor and ceiling. Four doors, one in each wall, periodically open and close and the man runs toward each only to have it close in his face. Finally when he does escape through the eastern door, he finds himself in the Hell of Excrement where he is bored through and through by needle-mouthed creatures. He escapes to the Hell of Hot Embers, then on to the Wood of Simbali Tress, where he is forced to climb up and down through their blazing thorns. In the following place, the Wood of Sword-leaf Trees, his hands, feet, ears and nose are cut off. He finally plunges into the River of Caustic Water where he is pushed upstream then downstream, until he is rescued by the wardens of hell, who ask him what he wants. When he complains of hunger and thirst they force red hot balls and molten copper down his throat, which burn his insides and rip through his intestines. “Yet, he does not die,” so long as the evil act that landed him in hell has not exhausted its result.

The section ends with the prayer of Yama that he might return to earth and follow a Tathâgatha who will teach him the dharma.

3. The Sutra on the Eighteen Hells [Shih-pa Ni-li Ching] (Buddhist [Chinese], 100–200 CE). This work was translated into Chinese and thus preserved by the Parthian monk, An Shih Kao, at White Horse Temple (Baimasi), located near Luoyang in Henan province.

The Buddha describes hell as consisting of eight fiery hells below the earth stacked one upon the other and, introducing the Buddhist cold hells, mentions ten found where the earth meets the sky. The notion of cold hells is said to have originated in cold and mountainous Tibet, and it is a matter for speculation whether the cold hells here were in the original document or introduced by the translator who apparently came from mountainous Iran.

The Sutra’s eight hots hells are:

• Hsien-chiu-hu: where the denizens fight each other with weapons and fists for 135 billion years.
• Chü-lu-ts’ui-lüeh: a place where fighting and fire alternate to punish the dead for 270 billion years.
• Sang-chü-tu: a place where inhabitants vacillate between fire and crushing mountains for 540 billion years.
• Lou-ni-li: a red hot hell where people are burned or boiled for 1,800 billion years.
• P’ang-tsu: a hell where people are boiled, scorched, killed and revived for 2,160 billion years.
• Ts’ao-wu-pei-tz’u: a place of fire and crushing iron that lasts for 4,320 billion years.
• Tu-i-nan-ch’ieh: a place where people rush between burning fire and a filthy pit of devouring worms and spend 8,640 billion years.
• Pu-lu-tu-pan-hu: where people endure a cycle of roasting, dying and reviving for 17,280 billion years.

The cold hells include:

• Wu-ching-tu: the first cold hell begins with scorching, then freezing cold and fire again, then the people are split in two, crushed and ground. This punishment goes on for longer than the length of time it takes to remove all the mustard seeds from a mound that equals 10,240 quarts if you remove 1 seed every 100 years.
• Ni-lu-tu: the same as above except the pile of seeds has doubled.
• Wu-lüeh: the pile has doubled again.
• Wu-man: and again.
• Wu-ch: and again.
• Wu-hu: and again.
• Hsü-chien-ch’ü: and again.
• Mo-t’ou-kan-chih-hu: and again.
• Ch’ü-pu-t’u: and again.
• Shen-mo: there are now 5,242,880 quarts of mustard seed and this hell lasts longer than the time it will take to remove this pile of seeds when one seed taken away every 100 years.

Around the description of hells presented here is woven the notion of salvation, that the good person, or the person who repents while alive, does not spend time in hell, in fact may even go to heaven and be reborn as a human in the next life, while those who are bad and guilty of anything from jealousy to murder will spend time in the dark hells and be transformed into an animal or insect when they are reborn. Rebirth comes soon for vegetarians and those who do good acts. Most importantly, those who follow the way of the Buddha will go to heaven and will enjoy a good rebirth.

4. The Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on the Retribution of Sinful Karma and the Education and Transformation in the Hells [Fo-shuo tsui-yeh ying-pao chiao-hua ti-yü ching] (Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian [Chinese], 100–200 CE). This sutra enumerates the twenty different kinds of punishments that people will suffer in hell: seven of these are actual punishments, like being cut apart or burned alive, while the other thirteen are physical or psychological afflictions: ranging from blindness and leprosy to loneliness and ugliness.

5. Avalokiteswara’s Descent into the Hell Avîchi [Karandavyuha Sutra] (Buddhist [Sanskrit], before 3rd C. CE). This work is an early example of the Buddhist harrowing of hell by the infinitely compassionate Bodhisattva. At Jetavana, the Buddha and the entire community witness beams of light emanating from Avici hell, because Avalokiteswara has entered it to liberate the people imprisoned there. Avici hell is described as a huge cauldron where beings rise and sink like kidney beans amid the boiling water. The cauldron breaks open and the guards of hell and even Yama himself are disarmed by Avalokiteswara, who also frees the pretas from their city, returning the emaciated ghosts to themselves so they can again strive to reach Nirvana.

6. The Numbered Discourses of the Buddha [Anguttara Nikaya] (Buddhist [Pali], before 13th C. CE). The Buddha speaks to his monks, telling them of the hell that awaits those who are negligent in thought, word or deed while in this world. It is a hell characterized mainly by the instruments used to torture the victims. There is a five-fold gear wheel that pierces their bodies; adzes and razors that plane them; there is a mountain of coals that they are pushed up and down; and a blazing cauldron that they are plunged into; all before being thrown into the Great Hell — a hall of four walls, four gates, a ceiling and floor all made of blazing iron. There are ten hells all told, named: Abbuda, Nirabbuda, Ababa, Ahaha, Aata, Kamuda, Sogandhika, Uppalaka, Puandarika and Paduma.

One of the monks asks the Buddha how long a sinner would spend in these hells, and he provides a calculation similar to that found in the Sutra on the Eighteen Hells, saying that if a cart had twenty measures of sesamum, and one seed was removed every century, when the cart was cleared the shortest hell would be done. However, instead of doubling the number for every succeeding hell, as in the earlier sutra, the number is now increased twenty-fold, so the tenth hell totals 10,240,000,000,000 measures of sesamum, or 512,000,000,000 carts of 20 measures each.

Reflecting the Middle Length Discourses, Yama also here offers a prayer that he might return to the land of the living and find a Tathâgatha who will teach him the dharma.

OTHER BUDDHIST TEXTS. Beyond the writings of the ancients and the sayings of the Buddha, Buddhist literature also includes a variety of other works, such as injunctions for monks and nuns (the Vinaya); spiritual practices and ritual forms of worship (Tantras); systematic philosophies, such as the Adhidharma; and compilations of various other texts.

1. The Friendly Epistle [Suhrllekha] by Nagarjuna (Buddhist [Tibetan], c. 150 CE). This letter by the founder of Mahayana Buddhism and the most influential Buddhist thinker after Gautama himself, provides advice to a friend, King Gautamiputra, on the Middle Way. In warning him to conduct himself without any atom of fault, he warns him of what will happen if he fails.

Nagarjuna lists a few of the hells: Samjiva, Kalasutra, Mahatapana, Samghata, Raurava and Avici, then describes how those consigned to hell are pressed like sesamum, cut by saws, split by axes, transfixed by barbs, attacked by dogs with iron fangs, torn apart by ravens with terrible claws and beaks, eaten by numerous kinds of disgusting insects, cooked in cauldrons and finally have molten metal and burning embers forced down their throats. Nagarjuna warns that the non-virtuous man will suffer in this way for a hundred million years until the force of his non-virtuous deeds are exhausted.

2. The Systematic Philosophy [Abhidharma kosabhasyam] by Vasubandhu (Buddhist [Sanskrit], 4th–5th C. CE). This works presents a fairly straightforward and fairly sparse description of the eight hot hells from bottom to top: Avici, Pratapana, Tapana, Maharaurava, Raurava, Samghata, Kalasutra and Samjiva. It mentions that these hells are sometimes described as lying side-by-side, but this layout is rare indeed. The hells are described as “difficult to get out of, full of cruel beings…; they have four walls and four gates; they are as high as they are wide; they are encircled by walls of fire; their ceiling is fire; their sun is burning, sparkling fire; and they are filled with flames hundreds of yojanas high.”

More attention is devoted to the four utsadas that flank each of the four corners of every hell: Kukula, a place of oppressive fire; Kunapa, a mire of excrement full of sharp-mouthed creatures; Ksuramarga, the road of razor blades, which includes also Asipattravana, the forest of sword-leaves, and Ayahsalmalivana, the forest of thorns. The fourth utsada is the River Vaitarani, which encircles all hell and is full of boiling ash. Here souls are swept up- and down-river where the shores are guarded by Yama’s servants.

The cold hells are also named: Arbuda, Nirarbuda, Atata, Hahava, Huhuva, Utpala, Padma and Mahapadma. Unlike, The Sutra on the Eighteen Hells, which places the cold hells where the earth meets the sky, Vasubandhu describes the cold hells as beneath the world of men.

CHINESE TEXTS. The Chinese texts included below display considerable influences from Buddhism, but they are also permeated with Confucian and Taoist ideas. Most striking is how the bureaucracy of Chinese daily life is carried into the otherworld. We find the dead left for long hours in waiting rooms as they try to navigate their way through the endless offices to find the agent who can determine their fate, only to then be required to perform rituals of petition with all the appropriate gestures and costume before they gain any answers.

1. Mu-lien Rescues His Mother (Buddhist/Taoist [Chinese], before 921 CE). Mu-Lien (also Moggallana or Maudgalyayana, Kolita and Radish) is one of Gautama’s major disciples. His special powers, which enabled him to communicate with the dead, are first introduced in the Mahavastu, but the legend of his attempts to rescue his mother from hell are even better known.

After Mu-lien attained his powers he discovers that his mother — because of her wicked ways — was relegated to Avici hell. After conferring with the Buddha, who warns of the difficulties of getting anyone released from hell, Mu-lien sets off, visiting first his father in heaven, then the land of the pretas, then Yama, the king of hell, who sends him off to check the lists of the dead in the possession of the general of the five ways and at various other places. Finally with the help of several guides he discovers his mother in the very deepest region of hell.

The story is less concerned with the physical structure of hell than with the exploits of Mu-lien and those he meets in his journey through the afterlife. He discovers that the pretas, aimless and hungry, occupying a plain between the world of men and hell, are trapped there by a bureaucratic mix-up — they were summoned to hell because of a mistaken identity and by the time the names were straightened out their families had already performed the funeral rites. Now they have nowhere to go — neither dead nor alive. (This motif of mistaken identity — and the resulting summons to the otherworld — is also found in Christian hell stories, from Gregory the Great on.)

The bureaucratic nightmare — so obvious in Mu-lien’s being shunted from one place to the other for information and in the mistaken-identity problems of the pretas — continues as both Yama and the general of the five ways try to explain to Mu-lien how souls are processed in the afterlife and who keeps the endless records of who is where.

Magic is introduced in the form of both a magic begging bowl, which enables Mu-lien to travel back and forth, and a magic pole, which the Buddha lends to Mu-lien so he can enter Avici hell without suffering the torments there.

Current ritual practices for the dead are criticized by the denizens of hell, who ask Mu-lien to go back to the land of the living and tell their relatives to give up practices like leaving food on their tombs or decorating their tombs with precious materials. All these practices, they warn, are of no use to the dead, and they advise that instead their relatives, if they really want to be helpful, undertake good deeds in their names.

Mu-lien, himself, is unable to rescue his grievously tormented mother, but he appeals to the Buddha, who is moved to compassion by his compassionate follower. In another harrowing of hell, like Avalokiteswara’s Descent, the Buddha enters hell and dissolves it completely, transferring the damned to heaven.

2. T‘ai Tsung in Hell (Buddhist/Taoist [Chinese], before 981 CE). T‘ai Tsung, the emperor of T‘ang, is summoned to hell to answer his brothers’ accusations that he had murdered them. Mindful of his duties at home and of the youth of his son, he comes to hell equipped with a letter to the assessor from a colleague in the land of the living, requesting a reprieve.

This tale, like Mu-lein Rescues His Mother, plays with the idea of hell as a cumbersome bureaucracy and has even less interest in punishment in the afterlife. We see a world where protocols are extremely important, with proper reverence and postures required at all times, and where an emperor can give short shrift to such a petty bureaucrat as Yama, whose only power is in the land of the dead. The emperor is much more solicitous toward the assessor, a clever man from the emperor’s realm, who schemes to gain an official post for himself in the land of the living by altering a few documents for the emperor. After passing twenty offices, introducing the emperor to various officials, checking account books, checking with the office of heavenly tally and essentially bribing the emperor, messengers arrive from the land of the living telling the assessor of his appointment. He and the emperor leave hell together, but not before the assessor has drawn up a list of things for the emperor to do, so he can avoid punishment when he comes to hell again in ten years.

Besides the charges that the emperor faces for killing his brothers, he had also failed to follow any religious practices, and as a soldier and leader of the army was responsible for many deaths. Upon his return to the land of the living, he is advised, among other things, to declare an amnesty and to have the sutras copied and distributed. These works should insure him of a better outcome than he could have expected on his first visit to hell.

In Christian visions (like the Vision of Tundale), this same motif recurs with the souls of men, often soldiers, sent from hell back to life and warned to follow better paths if they want to improve their fate in the next life.

3. The Precious Record Transmitted to Men to Move Them [Yü Li Ch‘ao Chuan] by T‘an-chi (T’an Ch’e), (Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian [Chinese], before 1000). The Yu-li is both a text and a penance, and as result of its dual role, it is a constantly changing and ever prominent work. Individuals are able to mitigate or eliminate suffering in hell by spreading the Yu li. The book, which is generally illustrated throughout, is printed and distributed by a sponsor, who has the copies placed at temples in large quantities. Because these sponsors also have the opportunity to add to the text and images, the work, as it survives today, has evolved considerably from the original, which dates to before 1000.

In the usual Chinese fashion — with Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences — hell is described as consisting of ten courts. Here each is illustrated quite fully with the king of the court, his minions — generally bull-headed and horse-faced demons — and the punished sinners. The first court includes the Terrace of the Mirror of Sin, where sinners view their past life, while the tenth court includes Wheel of Fate, which directs the dead back on one of the six paths to a new incarnation.

The eight intervening courts include sixteen wards each, and the punishment meted out in each of the sixteen different wards for the eight hells (128 punishments) are individually noted, with few repetitions.

More impressive than even the punishments, which include the usual fire and ice, hacking and tearing, are the lists of sins punished in each court. Here we find people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance and people who complain about the weather. All grievous sins and crimes are also included.

Each of the courts also recommends an oath to be made on a certain day of a certain moon to renounce evil or undertake good deeds, like distributing the Yu li, or adding examples to it, or buying birds and setting them free, distributing food to the hungry, or buying coffins for the dead whose families can’t afford them.

The hell descriptions end with Mother Meng, whose assistants prepare the draught of oblivion, which they give to those about to be reincarnated.

4. Miao-shen Visits Hell by P‘u-ming (Buddhist [Chinese], 1102 CE). In another version of the Buddhist harrowing of hell, the Princess Miao-shen visits the netherworld after she is murdered by her father’s henchmen, because she refuses to agree to a marriage he has arranged for her. Her body is left in a forest, and her soul travels to the netherworld where she is warmly greeted, because, rather than being condemned for her lack of filial piety, she is praised by the ten presidents of hell for her steadfastness in the face of death. They admire, in particular, the reputation that she has for dispelling all evil when she prays, and they ask her to demonstrate her gift. She, however, will only pray for them if all the souls of hell are freed. They agree, but soon recognize that they must have a place for the punishment of wicked people, so they decide to return her to the land of the living. She soon discovers her body, still in the forest, and reenters it. Although she passes by Mother Meng before she returns to life, her memory is not cleared of what she has seen in hell. She describes it as a gloomy and dreary land, silent and without hills, trees or verdant fields; no sun, moon or stars, or houses.

As with the other hell stories from this Chinese Buddhist tradition, one of the chief features of the netherworld is its bureaucracy, with its king, ten presidents, eighteen departments, a registrar, messengers and standard bearers.

5. Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution [T’ai-Shang Kan-Ying P’ien], falsely attributed at Lao Tze (Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian [Chinese], probably from the Song dynasty (960–1279), and certainly before 16th C. CE). This treatise includes three tales associated with life in hell: “The Impious Magistrate,” “A Visit to Hell” and “Punishment Apportioned to the Crime.”

• The Impious Magistrate of the title of the first tale is an irreverent man, and with a disregard for ancestral ways, he revises many laws and particularly attempts to revive the practice of corporal punishment. After his death a relative, who makes a brief visit to a special office in hell when he falls seriously ill, recognizes the magistrate appropriately wearing a cangue — a heavy wooden yoke, or portable stock, typically used as public corporal punishment. When the magistrate's daughter asks what she can do to relieve her father's punishment, she is told that the only thing she can do is accumulate merit.

• In the “Visit to Hell” a Taoist scholar leads a virtuous man, who devotes his time to copying good works for the edification of others, into hell so he can see the torture of those who copy immoral works. A man who was an upright officer while alive, now serves as the superintendant of this region.

• In the final hell tale, a wicked man at the command of the king of hell returns from there to his wife and family and then publicly and gruesomely mutilates himself so that all can see and know what lies in store for them in hell.

6. Governor Kwoh Visits Hell (Taoist/Buddhist [Chinese], after 1573 CE). In Sichuan province on the shores of the Yangtze River at the city of Fengdu is an entrance to the underworld, whose legend dates back a millennium. Today at that place is still a ghost city that depicts the tortures of those condemned to the netherworld. In the days of Governor Kwoh such a din of shrieking and wailing emanated from the entrance-way at night, that he determined to investigate, and like Alexander the Great, built a vessel so that could be lowered down to explore the depths. About 200 feet down he hit bottom and found a field of lush vegetation. He explored further until he arrived at the nail-encrusted iron gate of the first court of hell. The Chinese god of war allowed him to enter and took him on a tour through the first four courts. In the fifth court they met Yama, who invited the governor to tea and like a good host explained the workings of hell. Yama then escorted his guest back to the great gate, and the governor was hoisted back up to the surface of earth, where he told everyone what he has seen and heard below.

7. Voyage to the Western Sea of the Chief Eunuch San-Pao [San-pao t’ai-chien hsia hsi-yang chi] by Lo Mou-teng (Luo Moudeng) Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian [Chinese], 1597. This work is largely a fictitious and fantastic account of the actual historical sea-voyages, undertaken between 1405 and 1433 through the South-China Sea and the Indian Ocean, under the command of the Chief Eunuch Cheng Ho (Zheng He).

A naval officer named Wang Ming is sent ashore to investigate a landfall and on the bank of a river he meets his wife, who has been dead for ten years. She presents Wang as her long lost brother to her new husband P’an-kuan, who offers to give him a tour of the area, and Wang soon discovers that his wife is now living on the outskirts of hell.

Hell is called Fengdu (as in Governor Kwoh Visits Hell and “Encounter in Fengdu”), but before the dead reach there they stop first at the local temple of the god of the soil (the grave) and the Temple of the Eastern Peak (T’ai Shan). Once at Fengdu, they climb the Tower of Viewing, and from there they can see their home country and cry until all emotion has been emptied from them. Another tower in this area, the Tower for Mounting, rises up to heaven, and only those who led a faultless life can ascend, after the Department for the Reward of the Virtuous prepares the proper banners and music.

Other notable sites include: Blazing Fire Mountain, the destination of cold and indifferent people; Lance and Knife Mountain; and the Dam of Despondancy, which is traversed by various kinds of ghosts from spendthrifts and misers to suicides and those with irregular teeth. The River of Blood — or Nai River — is full of creatures who devour those who fall from its bridge, which like other infernal bridges, is broad and easy for the virtuous but razor thin and perilous for the wicked.

Before Wang Ming and his new brother-in-law, Ts’ui Chüeh, begin to visit the actual hells, they stop at the Palace of Spiritual Radiance (Ling-yao chih fu), which consists of ten palace buildings, including the Hall of Yama, the Hall of the Mountain God and the Hall of the Revolving Wheel. Two side buildings contain the Appointed Office for Rewarding the Good and the Appointed Office for Punishing the Wicked. The latter has eight mansions, one for those who sinned against each of the eight virtues, where the wicked spend three years after hell, before they are reborn into the world as animals.

After a walk of about five miles, they come to a dark, icy and windy place where there is a high stone wall and a single gate that drips with molten iron — the entrance to the eighteen hells:

• The Hell of Wind and Thunder (Feng-lei chih yu), where a brass pillar with a revolving ring covered with small knives slashes apart the sinners who committed one of the ten heinous crimes.

• Thunderbolt Hell (Chin-kang chih yu), where demons beat the wicked on a millstone.

• The Hell of the Fire Wheel (Huo-chu chih yu), where souls are burned on the wheel.

• The Hell of Dark Cold (Ming-leng chih yu), which has a pond with man-eating fish.

• The Hell of the Oily Dragon (Yu-lung chih yu), where the oil dripping from a dragon’s mouth disintegrates the sinners.

• The Hell of the Basin of Scorpions (Wan-p’en chih yu), which has a deep pit full of snakes and creatures that tear sinners apart.

• The Hell of Pounding the Mortar (Wu-chiu chih yu), where sinners are pounded into a paste, then made into a ball.

• The Hell of the Saw (Toa-chu chih yu), where the sinner is sawed in half from head to heel.…

But after only eight of the eighteen hells, Ts’ui Chüeh is called away to a tribunal to hear thirty-two petitions against the Chinese expedition, presumably Wang Ming’s comrades, who have been accused of killing people during the course of their expedition.

Two features of the hells that recur in the one synopsis of The Voyage to the Western Sea, which is available in English, are the cyclical nature of the punishments and the long duration of the hells. After each punishment, by some method the wicked are restored, at least in part, to their previous state, presumably to undergo the same punishment again and again. Each sinner endures a punishment for 100 x 1,000 x 10,000 kalpas, and each kalpa is equal to 432 million years. The descriptions also make clear that Yama (or Yen-lo) presides over hell and has legions of demons who carry out the punishments in his name.

8. Strange Stories from a Liaozhai Studio [Liao-chai chih-i] by Pu Songling (P’u Sung-ling) (5 June 1640–25 February 1715) Taoist [Chinese], 18th C). This classic Chinese collection contains four tales that concern the netherworld: “The Temporary King of Hell,” “Encounter in Fengdu,” “Sequel to a Dream” and “The Filial Son.”

• The first story chronicles the brief reign as king of hell of a scholar named Li Boyan, who is given the robes and crown of his office and surrounded by the clerks and books needed to carry it out. He presides over the punishment of a serial rapist who is forced to climb a three-meter high hollow bronze pillar that is made burning hot by a fire within. Every time he arrives at the top, the smoke emanating from the cylinder forces him to slide back down, until he finally loses his shape.

Li also presides over the judgment of a relative named Wang, who is accused of stealing a woman. When Li even contemplates giving Wang special consideration, it sets the beams of the court on fire. The fire ends after Li is warned by an official against tampering with justice. Wang and his friend Zhou testify that Wang had paid money for the woman, but since it was apparent that the transaction was crooked, Wang is punished with a whipping and sent back into the land of the living with Zhou.

Li’s brief reign has ended with these two cases, and he is returning home when he meets a group of souls who died away from home and are trying to get back, but keep getting stopped at check points. They ask Li to speak to a still-living friend for them, who is about to have a worship ceremony, and who can help.

Arriving home, Li speaks to this friend, who is surprised that anyone knows of his ceremony, and he visits Wang who is still bearing the scars of his whipping. These two incidents employ motifs that are encountered in a variety of hell visions: secret knowledge, or information brought back from the otherworld of things that have not yet occurred; and physical evidence, a body bearing the marks of physical punishment in the otherworld.

• The “Encounter in Fengdu” describes a descent into hell reminiscent of the story of Governor Kwoh. An imperial inspector, Hua Gong, makes a visit to Fengdu investigating the manufacture and use of so many instruments of torture — apparently the locals are supplying the netherworld with equipment. Hua Gong takes two bailiffs down with him on a tour, but their candles are extinguished, and he eventually finds himself in front of a palace where officials in official robes are meeting. When he arrives they indicate a chair for him, saying they had been awaiting his arrival. He protests, but they have the official documents handy to prove that he is to become an official there. Suddenly a messenger arrives with news of a general amnesty in hell, so Hua Gong will be allowed to return to the land of the living. His way back is made difficult by the darkness, but a general of the underworld advises him to keep reciting the Buddhist scriptures and the path will be well lit. Unfortunately Hua Gong has trouble remembering them, but he does recall just enough to get back, although he never sees his bailiffs again.

• In “Sequel to a Dream,” the young and successful student Zeng, as a result of his ambition and arrogance, receives a warning dream where he finds that his promised future as a prime minister is shattered when the people rise up against his unjust and greedy rule. In the dream he and his wife are stripped of everything and as they are driven into exile, Zeng is murdered by bandits.

In hell he is judged by an ugly king sitting in his palace and receives three different punishments for his sins. First, for cheating the emperor and robbing his country, he is thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil; then for abusing power and mistreating others, he is thrown high into the air and lands on a mountain of knives; and finally for selling offices, bending laws and grabbing the property of others, he is forced to eat all the money he had amassed after it has been smelted into molten ore. After these punishments he is thrown on a burning wheel and reborn as a beggar girl. When she reaches a certain age, she is sold as a concubine, mistreated and eventually accused of murdering her master. She is about to be executed for this crime, when she cries aloud and wakes Zeng from his sleep.

The monk who had sent this dream to Zeng advises him to follow the virtuous path. Rather than pursue his dreams of high rank, Zeng disappears, apparently to pursue the life of a mountain ascetic.

• Xi Fangping, the filial son of the eponymous story, traveled to hell seeking justice for his father who was brought down there through the maneuverings of a neighbor, Yang, who bribed the county and prefectural governors and even the king of hell. Instead of receiving justice from these officials for himself and his father, Xi is punished, first by being tied on a burning rack, then by being cut in two, and finally by being reborn. He, however, manages to die after three days and travel to heaven where at his request, the god of Erlang summons all involved and conducts a trial. He finds the officials of hell — king, governors and bailiffs – guilty of abuse of power. He finds Mr. Yang guilty as well and has all of them taken away for punishment. He rewards Xi’s father with a long a prosperous life. On returning to the land of the living Xi opens his father’s coffin and waits for him to revive, then together they buy up all of Yang’s land as the fortunes of his family falter.

9. T’ang-cheuk’ounn Taken to Hell (Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist [Chinese], 18th C.). Justice meted out to cruel and evil officials is one of the recurring themes of the late Chinese hell tales. In this tale, a young scholar is taken from the land of the living to pay for his crime in a past life as a sub-prefect. By looking into a mirror, he is able to see his past life and is then brought before a judge and confronted by his accusers, bandits he had conspired with then double-crossed, who appear as koèi, wearing their decapitated heads hanging from their belts. They were prevented from seeking revenge sooner, because in previous reincarnations T’ang-cheuk’ounn, the scholar, had been protected by powerful family connections, but the bandits now bring a petition against him and are successful in having him condemned to hell, although, because of his current high position as a scholar, he is allowed to return to life and tell his wife what is transpiring. Her response is to burn traditional hell money for him in an unsuccessful attempt to gain his freedom.

10. Wang Hsiu’s Voyage to Hell (Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist [Chinese], 18th C.). As in the previous tale of T’ang-cheuk’ounn, Wang Hsiu is taken to a tribunal in the underworld to answer for a massacre that took place during his pervious life. Like T’ang, he also looks in a mirror, and he sees himself when he was a superior officer over two centuries ago. A judge presides over the tribunal, several witnesses appear: Wang Hsiu’s secretary who comes to defend him, the general who carried out the massacre that Wang Hsiu failed to prevent, and the 500 massacred rebels — koèi holding their decapitated heads — who have made the petition against Wang Hsui. The judge fails to reach a verdict. Saying the matter is so old that it is outside his jurisdiction, he refers it to the supreme tribunal of the most pure lord. He does, however, pass a few judgments that prevent the rebels and the general from rebirth as men for the present and specify Wang Hsiu’s next rebirth as a girl. But in the meantime, he is allowed to return to the land of the living where he finds his family hovering over his body, which has remained unconscious for a day and a night with only a warm spot around his heart. This warm spot that postpones the funeral rights is a motif also found in Christian works like the Vision of Tundale. From his visit to the otherworld, Wang Hsiu remembersof the three maxims that hung on the wall of the court: “The infernal tribunal makes no exception for people.” “Everything is calculated on a heavenly abacus.” “When the water subsides, the stones appear, and so all faults are revealed in their time.”

TIBETAN TEXTS. One Tibetan text — The Friendly Epistle by the founder of Mahayana Buddhism — appears above, but the later Tibetan hell texts, included below, form a small body that is considerably different from other Buddhist hell texts. And, although cold hells are part of the otherworld presented in The Sutra on the Eighteen Hells, it has been thought that they originated in Tibetan lore.

Otherworld visits by Tibetan holy individuals, often women, who return to tell of their experiences, are ususual among standard Buddhist texts and are reminiscent the stories of European visionaries like Thurkill. In traditional Tibetan accounts these visionaries are referrred to as delogs or deloks, and they may have their roots in archaic Bön tribal religion and Himalayan shamanism, although this literature now largely reflects Buddhist beliefs. A number of texts have been identified: Journey to Realms beyond Death is available in English translation, but most are not, including: “The Visionary Account of Lingza Chökyiâs Return from Death,” “The Story of Karma Wangzinâs Return from Death” and “The Tale of Lhamo Lhamjungâs Experiences in Hell.”

1. Nangsa Obum (Buddhist [Tibetan], 12th C. CE). Nangsa Obum, a dutiful wife and daughter, who apparently is also a dakini, endures many trials at the hands of her husband’s cruel relatives, has a heart attack and dies. The astrologer who is consulted about her death is reluctant to have her cremated and advises they wait for seven days. In the meantime, Nangsa Obum has made the journey to hell where she sees the Lord of Death separating those who has amassed virtue from those who had not, consigning the latter to the eighteen hells — nine hot hells where torture is in the form of molten iron and nine cold hells. She pleads to the Lord of Death who recognizes her as blameless and sends her back to the world of the living, advising her to practice the dharma.

2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead [Bardo Thodol] by Karma-glin-pa (Buddhist [Tibetan], 14th C. CE). In discussing hell, the Bardo Thodol focuses not on the place itself, but on the importance of breaking the chain, which begins with entering the womb that leads to the hells and to rebirth among the living. If the essence of a person does enter hell, with the songs of “negative evolution” it its ears, it will feel compelled to remain and there it will have visions of an island of darkness, a black house or a red house, black pits and black roads, where it will suffer unbearable pains of heat and cold.

3. Journey to Realms Beyond Death by Delog Dawa Dolma
(d. 1941) (Buddhist [Tibetan], c. 1930). When Dawa Dolma was a girl she experienced five days of visions, including a journey through hell. She recounts her experiences of traveling through the dark landscape of suffering continually meeting people she identifies by name, clan, family or town, noting many regions in and around Tibet. She travels in the company of Tara, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, who is described as an exalted compassionate goddess, and who explains the sins that have led to the punishments that Dawa Dolma sees inflicted here. The sins range from killing small birds, animals or even insects to showing disrespect for monks and temples to cheating in business. Also included are weapon makers, as well as those who fail to make proper offerings.

During her journey through hell she recites mantras for the denizens to help relieve their suffering, and they ask her to relay messages back to their relatives, begging them to recite mantras, tantras and sutras and to perform good deeds on their behalf. They tell her to explain how crying only makes them suffer more, while these prayers and good works might alleviate their pain and gain them an early rebirth.

Yama is the major presence in this hell, and he sits in his throne surrounded by his minions as he presides over the judgment of each individual, who arrives before him accompanied by two children: one black, who speaks of the evil karma of the soul, and the other white, who speaks of the good. A monkey in charge of a balance weighs the good against the evil, and an ox-headed creature holds a mirror, which serves as a book of deeds.

Eights hells are mentioned specifically by name: Black Thread Hell, Reviving Hell, Hell of the Swamp of Rotting Corpses, Crying Hell, Crushing Hell, Howling Hell, Hell of Intense Heat, and Hell of Constant Torment. In addition to these eight hot hells, Dawa Dolma also mentions the eight cold hells and describes the pretas and their realm.

OTHER ASIAN TEXTS. A Japanese and two Thai hell texts are discussed below. The Shinto concept of the afterlife is best refected by its name: yomi, literally darkness. Although earlier on it was considered more a placed of troublesome sprits than a dwelling place for the dead, it later was known as a place of punishment when Japan absorbed Mahayana concepts of hell.

1. The Essentials of Pure Land Rebirth [Ojo Yoshu] by Genshin [Monk Eshin] (942–1017 CE) (Buddhist [Japanese], 984). This work presents a very detailed description of punishments in the eight Buddhist hells, each with four gates and 16 secondary hells. The work is based on the Shohonenkyo, which apparently treats the hells in even greater detail. Here the hells are named:

1. Hell of Repetition
Hell of Black Rope
3. Hell of Assembly
4. Hell of Lamentations
5. Hell of Great Lamentations
6. Hell of Scorching Heat
7. Hell of Great Scorching Heat
8. Hell of No Interval

The punishments in each are related to the name of the place, but certainly not limited by it, as almost every hell or its sub-hells include most of the imaginable punishments. Each of the first seven hells are equal in size: 10,000 yodjanas long and wide; the eighth is 80,000 yodjanas long and wide but bottomless. The punishments in each hell are ten times greater than all the previous hells combined. The duration of the first hell is 9,125,000 years, which increases four-fold for each succeeding hell.

Those who destroyed life in any form are punished in the first hell, with each of the sixteen subhells designated for the retribution for killing specific creatures like birds or turtles. Even those who frighten children will find a special place here.

Subsequent hells each single out one additional sinner for punishment, beginning with murderers and adding thieves, adulterers, drunkards, those who use evil language, heretics and those who degrade nuns. The eighth hell is the place for punishing those who committed the five crimes, the four cardinal sins, and those who denied the law of karma and made light of Mahayana.

2. The Book of Phra Malai (or Malaya). (Buddhist [Thai], medieval). This popular religious text by Phra Malai, a medieval monk, includes a description of hell, where specific tortures are inflicted for specific sins and a court of Yama, who judges the dead.

3. A Thai Near-Death Experience (Buddhist [Thai], 20th C.). This brief modern description of the netherworld mentions four torture chambers. The first is for murderers, and they are beaten, chopped up and reassembled there before being fed to dogs and vultures with iron beaks. When they are reborn it will be as animals who will be killed and not live out a natural life-span.

The second torture chamber is for those with too many defilements and desires. It consists of a road of hot coals that progressively burns up the body starting at the feet. Once the body is consumed it is reconstituted, and the process begins again.

The third torture chamber is for liars and slanders and appropriately their tongues are pierced by red-hot pincers. When they seek out water to cool their mouths, the water turns to hot oil. When they roll on the ground in agony, iron nails spring from the earth to pierce them.

The fourth and final torture chamber visited, is the most populous and is set aside for opium and heroin users. They are forced to climb up niew trees — trees with spike-covered trunks — then boiled in a pot, set on fire and given acid to drink. Like the liars and slanderers they seek to cool their mouths with water that turns to burning oil, and they are also attacked by vultures with iron beaks.

Related Topics

About Asian/Buddhist Hell
Asian/Buddhist Bibliography
Asian/Buddhist Images

Comments or Questions?
rev. 02/20/2020