Buddhist Hells

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on March 7, 2016.)

Inside a "hell hall" at Daxingshan Temple, Xi'an

It's hard to visit a temple of any kind without some awareness of the phenomenon translated as "hell." Many temples have incinerators in which one burns "hell money" (sometimes inscribed with the words "Bank of Hell"), as well as other goods for one's deceased loved ones. At some temples the smoke from these offerings is thicker than that of incense!

This phenomenon is a combination of the concept called in Sanskrit naraka and the folk Chinese diyu. The name "hell" is a result of cross-cultural confusion upon the arrival of Christian missionaries.

As one makes decisions in life, the consequences of these actions (Sanskrit karma) accumulate. Thus karma is not based on any judgment by an external force, but it is simple cause-and-effect (though folk tradition has added the idea of "judges" in hell, a topic for another day).

When someone with a negative accumulation dies, he or she is reborn in a place where the results of these actions can be worked off. This is more like the Catholic idea of purgatory than hell, because naraka is not forever: once consequences have run out and the karma is "purged," the entity is ready to be incarnated in another realm again.

Like the Christian hell, naraka is said to be located under the earth. Unlike it, however, the Buddhist hell is made up of thousands of separate levels, fine-tuned to ensure that the "punishment fits the crime."

Some temples have wonderfully grotesque and graphic images of the torments of the (temporarily) "damned." There are whole catalogs of them, as well as of the demonic characters who carry them out, like the escorts Ox-head and Horse-face.

Another scene at Daxingshan Temple, Xi'an

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