The Hell Realm (Bhavacakra Pt. II)


“The first major hell is called Thoughts. The second is called Black Rope. The third is called Crushing. The fourth is called Moaning. The fifth is called Great Moaning. The sixth is called Burning. The seventh is called Great Burning. The eighth is called Unremitting. The Hell of Thoughts contains sixteen smaller hells. The smaller hells are 500 square yojana in area. The first small hell is called Black Sand. The second hell is called Boiling Excrement. The third is called Five Hundred Nails. The fourth is called Hunger. The fifth is called Thirst. The sixth is called Single Copper Cauldron. The seventh is called Many Copper Cauldrons. The eighth is called Stone Pestle. The ninth is called Pus and Blood. The tenth is called Measuring Fire. The eleventh is called Ash River. The twelfth is called Iron Pellets. The thirteenth is called Axes and Hatchets. The fourteenth is called Jackals and Wolves. The fifteenth is called Sword Cuts. The sixteenth is called Cold and Ice”” (wikipedia).

So does one Buddhist text describe the horrors of the various hells. Hot hells. Cold hells. Hells are, as one might expect, brutal. But whereas a monotheistic perspective imagines hell as a place of punishment, where one may be sent after judgment, there is no external being, or god, who sends one to the realms of hell in Buddhist understanding.

In my introductory post to the Bhavachakra, or Wheel of Life, I mentioned how the Wheel of Life is understood in terms of rebirth into various forms of existence. It is also understood in relation to our daily lives and the suffering we may experience. So if one is not sent to the hell realms by some omnipotent divinity, how does one get there? How does one find oneself in the Hell Realm?

Simply put, karma. And since the Hell Realm is situated in the lower half of the Wheel of Life, bad karma specifically. (For a “non-American” understanding of and exploration of karma, see my previous post, iKarma). In other words, our own actions and our own thoughts can result in, or lead us to, the Hell Realm.

So if the realms in the Bhavachakra are a means of teaching about the nature of our experience, of what does the Hell Realm teach?

untitled6In short, the Hell Realm is the experience of rage and anger. In other words, while one is in a fit of rage or anger, one is present in the Hell Realm.

Rage and anger, and acting out of rage and anger, can lead one further, deeper into the various levels of the Hell Realm, where the tortures become more extreme.

When looking closely at the images of the Hell Realm, we see the beings stuck there are depicted as being tortured by others…

images1…The idea being that when we get into such emotional states, we often do so because someone else did images3something to us that we are angry about. Ever scream at the “asshole” who cut you off? You are angry because of what he or she did…


Not according to the Wheel of Life. Not according to the Buddha. As discussed in my introductory post to the Wheel, the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion rest at the center, meaning those three poisons, the defilements of an unenlightened mind are constantly at “work” in our experience. We, however, often don’t see as much. We must ask ourselves, says the Wheel, how these three poisons are operating in an experience of suffering in order to understand the nature of the suffering.

The root of these three poisons is delusion, signified by the pig. We are ignorant, or deluded, so the teaching goes; as such, those stuck in the Hell Realm, their angers and rages, are deluded about their experience. So if delusion is the root, the starting point, what is the delusion of those stuck in the Hell Realm?

Part of the answer will relate to the particular experience, the causes and conditions in which the anger/rage arose and thus will be “case” specific.

But, there is more. As mentioned above, we often like to blame others for our angers. “You made me angry,” we might say. Again, the Wheel of Life depicts those stuck in the realm as being tortured by another. This is the central delusion.

No one can make us angry. Sure, causes and conditions might help bring it out, the operative phrase being “bring it out.” Causes and conditions bring out what is inside–anger, rage. If we get angry we do so because it is inside of us. The danger, of course, is that such can lead into further suffering for ourselves and to inflicting suffering on others.

As a product of delusion, the Hell Realm is of our own making.

In each of the six realms, a Buddha or Bodhisattva (“Enlightenment Being”) resides, holding a key to understanding the nature of being free from each realm’s respective suffering. In the case of the Hell Realm, Yama, Lord of Death, is sometimes depicted.

Sometimes the Buddha or Bodhisattva holds a flame, symbolizing the light the Buddha’s teaching offers.  Other times the Buddha, Bodhisattva, or even Yama himself holds up a mirror.

A mirror–that is, one stuck in the Hell Realm must stop blaming others and look at oneself. Again, the idea being that the anger/rage is inside one, that the Hell Realm is one’s own creation. And if the three poisons operate, as the teaching goes, in all our sufferings, we must ask ourselves, in looking in the mirror, how and in what ways are greed, hatred, and delusion at work in our angers and rages.





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