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There are two concepts fundamental to the Buddhist view on the nature of reality, or the world as we experience it.  The first is that all things have no inherent existence. They are Empty; they have no eternal nature.  Secondly, that things appear to be what they are because of our own conditioning.  

To explain this second principle, Vasubandha (Asanga's brother, 3rd century CE) used the example of the wardens of Hell.  If the demons, who see to the appropriate torture of those whose karma has led them there, take rebirth in the hells because of their karma, then wouldn't they also experience the suffering?  How could they oversee their work if they were subject to the torments of the hells, along with their charges or "victims?" 

Vasubandhu says that the wardens of the hells merely proceed from the minds of the ones who are there suffering in torment.  They are projections, just like many other features of existence.  Hell is a kind of hallucination.

Hell R Us

In the Buddhist world, between the 4th and 5th century there appeared The Sutra of the Remembrance of the True Law which presents the subject of the hells as a journey into the self.   

In the Chinese Buddhist community where The Sutra of the Remembrance is well-known, it is no laughing matter to say things like, "Mother, you could die tomorrow without having . . .  ."  Such remarks can be taken to allude to matricide.

The hells (Jap. Jigoku) are viewed as a creation of the mind, filled with self-deception and egocentrism.  The first 4 in the descriptions that follow are consequences of physical actions, the 5th is the result of crimes of speech and the last 3, the result of mental faults or imperfections -- stains, really -- called the kleshas.

The purpose of this grotesque portrayal is to initiate the individual seeking enlightenment into the horror chambers existing within himself where he can identify with the faceless anonymous sinners suffering immeasurable torments in the depths of the hells.      (Matsunaga 78)

The first hell is the realm of murderers.  Here suffer those who kill for pleasure or desire.  It is the Hell of Repetition where those who kill for pleasure or to fulfill some desire end up.  These murders brag about their actions, having no appreciation of the value of life.  This is not the destination of those who kill as a consequence of some other goal.

The next destination is known as Black Rope Hell.  Here we find those who have killed during the commission of some other crime.  The point is made that, though people may commit crimes as members of a group, they must suffer the consequences as individuals.

Great black birds chase the wrong-doers and pluck out their eyes; demons pull out their tongues and entrails.  They are forced to drink molten copper, and suffer multiple stabbings.

Certain types of killing, or stealing along with sexual indulgence, lead to the Crowded Hell.  Having improper attitudes to physical love leads to Fire-jar Hell where self-proclaimed monks, or those who misuse their  office are tormented with fire at the organ that caused the wrongful behaviour.  For example, those who cling to the vision of a desirable woman will have their eyes burnt.  Their ears will burn if their wrong-doing is a result of their attachment to a woman's voice or her laughter.

Screaming Hell is the destination for those who misuse intoxicants. This is the destination for those who seduce people using alcohol or other drugs, who trap animals in a similar way or cause people to be under their power through the selling of drugs.

The Great Screaming Hell is the place for those whose misdeeds are via sound or the voice, generally.  Those who use language to confuse or to sow discord will find themselves here.  Here the body may be infested with vipers that need to chew their way out; with each lie, another nest of snakes is created.

Those who hold false views can experience the Hell of Burning Heat.  They who deny that a law of cause and effect [karma] is in operation and hence, by extension, deny the existence of good and evil can know the Diamond-beak Hornet Hell.  There, hornets sting so that blood spurts out which the sinner must then drink.  This induces great hunger but the victim has only his own flesh on which to feed.

The seventh Hell is related to the sexual defilement of religion.  It is called Burning Hell of String-like Worms.  Those who seduce nuns or monks are tied up and pegged to the ground where a demons stuffs worms up their anus which travel up through the alimentary canal eating everything in their way until they crack their way out of the head of the sinner.

The last of the 8 hells is the Hell of No Interval.  This is the destination of those committing the 5 most serious crimes:   1.  pre-meditated murder of one's mother 2.  pre-meditated murder of one's father 3. pre-meditated evil intent to harm an Enlightened One and to rejoice in that action  4. pre-meditated intent to harm the Buddhist community or sangha  5.  pre-meditated murder of arhats or bodhisattvas.  

The view among many teachers is that these descriptions of the hells remind Buddhists of their aspirations, the precepts they have taken, and of the imperfections that are common to human nature.  The hells serve as metaphoric mirrors.

How Many?

The hells may number 8 as above, or 10 or even 136 depending on the tradition.  Tibetans generally consider that there are 18 "Kingdoms of the Demons," and 2 types of Hell -- the hot and the cold.  

Here are some other well-known references:

Lotus Sutra 3:  

"After their lifetime's end they will enter the Avici [un-spaced, no interval] hell for a complete kalpa.  Reborn at each kalpa's end, they thus go on revolving unto innumerable kalpas.

When they come out of hell, they will degrade into animals such as dogs or jackals with lean-cheeked forms, blue-black with scabs and sores, the sport of men.  Moreover by men hated and scorned, ever suffering hunger and thirst, bones and flesh withered up.  Alive, beaten with thorns; dead, with shards and stones.

By cutting themselves off from the Buddha seed, they receive such recompense."


  • About Hekija, as depicted in 5 scrolls at the Cleveland Museum: He who dips evil-doers in sauce before biting off their heads.

    Sutta-Nipata 672-76:  

"Then the man of unwholesome deeds boils in water infested with worms. He cannot stay still--the boiling pots, round and smooth like bowls, have no surfaces which he can get hold of. Then he is in the jungle of sword blades, limbs mangled and hacked, the tongue hauled by hooks, the body beaten and slashed. 

Then he is in Vetarani, a watery state difficult to get through, with its two streams that cut like razors. The poor beings fall into it, living out their unwholesome deeds of the past. Gnawed by hungry jackals, ravens and black dogs, and speckled vultures and crows, the sufferers groan. Such a state is experienced by the man of unwholesome deeds. It is a state of absolute suffering. So a sensible person in this world is as energetic and mindful as he can be."

The Mahayana aspiration is to help all beings everywhere, therefore certain heroic bodhisattvas may determine to go to Hell to help the suffering beings there.  Kshitagarbha who is generally depicted standing with his jangling staff, is one of those.

The Kshitagarbha Sutra has that bodhisattva explaining to Queen Maha-Maya who is Buddha Shakyamuni's own mother:

Sacred Mother, there are different Hells within the Mahachakra-vala. Besides the eighteen big Hells, there are some five hundred others to be found with different names, and still another thousand Hells. 

Avici Hells are hells reinforced with iron surrounded by iron walls, eight millions miles wide and one million miles high. These Hells are fully filled with burning flames and are jointly linked up together with other Hells of different names. 

Among them there is one Hell by the name of Avici. The area of this Avici Hell is eight thousand square miles.  The whole of this Hell, with iron walls, is packed with burning flames. Iron snakes and dogs with hot fire in this Hell run from the East to the West. Also, there is an iron bed and when one is cast there, he can see his own body filling it. Therefore, all beings are subjected to punishment according to their sins. 

Then, there are the yakshas (demons) with eyes like electric bulbs and hands in the shape of steel claws to scratch the sinners.  These yaksas pierce the sinners' bodies, throw them into the air and the fall kills them. 

There are also iron eagles which hook the eyes of sinners, and iron snakes which curl round sinners’ necks. Long nails pierce the sinners’ limbs, their tongues are pulled out by iron tongs, and their intestines are sawn up. Molten metal is poured into their mouths. Hot iron wires are used to bind their bodies. 

Sinners suffer according to their evil actions by encountering innumerable births and deaths for kalpas and kalpas without any hope of escape. When this world comes to an end, sinners will be transferred to another world, and in the new world they endure more punishment. 

Those subjected to punishments in the Avici Hell belong to the following five orders: 

Sinners to be punished throughout the day and night for kalpa [eon] after kalpa without any break. This is suffering without any time limit. 

Sinners to be spread over the "Bed of Punishment" in one form or other with no limit as to space. 

Sufferings with no limit as to weapons for punishment, for example:  the iron-fork, iron-sticks, iron-snakes, iron-eagles, iron-foxes, iron-dogs, iron-saws, iron-hammers, iron-pans, iron-wires, iron-ropes, iron-asses, iron-horses, iron-balls and melted-iron, as well as various other kinds of iron weapons.

Whether they be males or females, civilized or not, old or young, rich or poor, devils or spirits, or even devas - all must suffer according to their karmas for their unforgivable sins without any distinctions or difference. 

{They are] To be cast into this Hell for kalpas and kalpas to suffer different kinds of punishment, day and night endlessly, i.e. life without any break, and with no means of escape until their retribution or payment of their karmic debt comes to an end. 

Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva told Queen Maha Maya, "This is but a brief description of a visit to Hell. To quote the names of the hells, the types of punishment and instruments used would take a period of one kalpa." 

In the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha explains how karma determines rebirth, so that 

When they have more emotion than thought, they enter the animal realm. With heavier emotion, they become fur-bearing beasts; with lighter emotion, they become winged creatures. 

"When they have seventy percent emotion and thirty percent thought, they fall beneath the wheel of water and are bordering on the wheel of fire where they experience the full force of the raging blaze. In the bodies of hungry ghosts, they are constantly burned to a crisp. Even water harms them, and they have nothing to eat or drink for hundreds of thousands of eons. 

"When they have ninety percent emotion and ten percent thought, they fall through the wheel of fire until their bodies enter a region where wind and fire interact. With lighter emotion they are born in the intermittent hell; with heavier emotion they are born in the un-intermittent hell. 

When they are possessed entirely of emotion, they sink into the Avici Hell. If in their minds they slander the Great Vehicle, defame the Buddha’s pure precepts, irrationally speak dharma, are greedy for offerings from the faithful, recklessly accept the respect of others, commit the five rebellious acts and the ten major offenses, then they are further reborn in Avici Hell throughout the ten directions. 

Although one receives one’s due according to the evil karma one has created, a group can undergo an identical lot, and there are definite places where that occurs. 

From Tenzin Sherab, a Gelugpa monk:

In regard to hell, the best outline that I have found of all of the different hells plus their corresponding sufferings and causes is the chapter on the "Worse States of Wandering Rebirth" from An Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice by His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Junior Tutor in His previous incarnation, and compiled by Geshe Nawang Dhargey.  It is available from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives collection (LTWA) and available in hard or soft cover from Snow Lion.

It is a rich Lam-Rim text, with the entire path.  Also, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by Pabonkha Rinpoche also has the entire Lam-Rim in a compact, readable format and would also have teachings on the lower realms.  You can also get this through Snow Lion.  

In general, there are hot hells which are the result of extreme anger, and cold hells which are the result of cold-heartedness. The Buddha is so thorough; He has told us about each hell realm in great detail, what it is like and how one ends up there.  For example, there is a cold hell realm named after the sound of the blisters popping on the bodies of the poor wretches trapped  there. 

It is necessary to know about all of the lower realms to scare us out of complacency and get our butts in gear! I am reminded of the story of two young and mischievous monks who didn't want to practice and their Teacher showed them the cauldrons of hell and the beings boiling in agony and they quickly changed their attitude and became highly realized practitioners through their motivating fear and their great diligence!   ~ the kagyu.elist


But Hell Does Not Exist

Khenpo Karthar, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, has said that "From the Buddhist perspective, such a thing as a hell does not exist in absolute reality."  Nevertheless, he continues, alluding to the law of karma,  "As long as we have serious patterns of aggression,  no matter how strongly we might like to believe there is not such a realm or psychological state, we will still experience it because we have the cause for the consequences."   

Khenpo Karthar goes on to say that it is similar to beings in other realms trying to understand the human one.  It is difficult to accept because their existence [their kind of suffering] seems real to them, and ours does not.  

At least in the human realm we have the possibility of seeing the nature of illusion; for those in the hells, experience is " ... so continuous, so intense and claustrophobic, that it does not even give them a break where they could think, 'Maybe this could be different.' "  

And, a transcript of a teaching by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen (Drikung Kagyu):

"There is no special place called 'vajra hell.' It is no different from the hell realms described earlier. This is simply terminology used in the Vajrayana system for emphasis. You will see things like vajra master, vajra disciple, Vajrayana, vajra samaya, and vajra seat. Don't take these things so literally. "  ~  courtesy Ani Trinlay

The Word, Hell

The English word hell is derived from the name of a northern European goddess of the underworld whose name Hel means The one who covers [things] up.  

There is some reference in the Old Testament to a hideous place called Gehennah [>Hebrew: gehenom] but scholars generally believe that the idea of a hell did not make its way from Asia to Europe until early in the second millennium, as a cultural consequence of the Crusades.  It was not until Milton's Paradise Lost with its description of Satan and Pandemonium, and Dante's poem called The Inferno,  that the idea of a fiery place smelling of noxious brimstone [sulphur] entered the consciousness of the West.  

Ironically, it is the Western word hell that is now generally used, even in eastern traditions, to refer to the destination where, after death, a wrong-doer is punished.  For example, paper money burnt as an offering to the dead is called Hell money even by Chinese Buddhists.  



Dinh, Quan Xuong. Research paper, May 1995.

Japanese Buddhist Hells in "Kami and Buddhas." Online May 27, 2000.

Karthar Rinpoche, Ven. Khenpo.  A Teaching on the Chenrezik and Amitabha   Sadhanas. KTD:  1991.

Law, Bimala Charin.  Heaven and Hell in Buddhist Perspective. Calcutta: 1925.

Matsunaga, Daigan. The Buddhist Concept of Hell. New York: 1972.

Shurangama Sutra  online, May 27, 2000.

World Scripture Hell in Christianity, Islam, Taoism etc. May 27, 2000.


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