Yama and the Ten Judges

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Sep 25, 2017.)

Souls are purified before Yama, the
Fifth Judge, at Zhiyuan Temple, Jiuhua Shan

The popular bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (in Chinese, Dizang Pusa) has vowed to save all souls out of the Six Hells assigned to each of the Six Realms of Existence.

This is Buddhism, pure and simple. But in East Asia, another layer of tradition has been grafted onto this one. These are the Ten Judges of Hell, presided over by "King" Yama (Ch. Yanluo Wang). (Kshitigarbha is also sometimes called Dizang Wang, though neither of these figures is technically a "King of Hell.")

Yama's original was a god of death and the underworld in India--though, peculiarly, his father is said to be Surya, the Sun. Some Indian traditions say Yama was the first mortal to have died, and he thus became the ruler of the place where the dead go. Perhaps that is why he is sometimes called "king" in the east.

However, the figure is associated, not with ruling, but with judging, the dead. In time, the court grew to include nine others (Yama is the fifth), so that some traditions say the deceased is judged once every day up until the 77th day, with a different judge every time.

Though this is a folk belief, it has been grafted onto Buddhism (a religion often associated with rituals for the dead) and the Ten Judges of Hell are found in a host of temples. This "hell" should not be confused with the Christian one, however; it is not a place of eternal punishment, but is more like the Catholic concept of purgatory, where the dead work off their bad karma before being reborn. Sometimes, then, the Ten Judges Hall will portray gruesome details of the dead being "purified."

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