Note: A large version of the Wheel of Life
Mandala which depicts the six realms (Hell is on the
bottom!) can be seen at:
From Preparing for Tantra: The Mountain of
Blessings by Tsongkapa (Je Rinpoche Lobsang
My body and the life in it
as the bubbles
In the sea froth of a wave.
Bless me first thus to recall
The death that
will destroy me soon;
And help me find sure
That after I have died
The things I've
done, the white or black,
And what these deeds will
bring to me,
Follow always close behind,
certain as my shadow.
Grant me then
Ever to be careful,
To stop the
Wrongs of many wrongs we do,
to carry out instead
Each and every good
many that we may.
By now I have told the story of our pilgrimage so
many times that it is losing its bloom. Overall, the
pilgrimage left me with a deeper appreciation of and
attachment to the Dharma, and that has led to new
reading and study. The fearful deeper questions give
rise to religion in the first place. One of the foremost
is contemplation of mortality and its aftermath: is
there a hell? And if so, what, if anything, can one do
to avoid it? Is hell permanent, or can you accumulate
merit even there, and regain a precious human life with
sufficient leisure to practice Dharma? What is the
Buddhist perspective on these questions?
For those just scanning the article, I will give the
answers to these universal, terror-inspiring questions
in handy Q&A form. Then I'll provide illustrative
commentary for those who are curious.
Q:Is there a hell?
A:Yes. In Tibetan
Buddhism it is described as a hell realm. It is indeed
a realm of ceaseless suffering.
Q:What can one do to avoid it?
one's full attention and efforts to spiritual
Q:Is hell permanent, or can one accumulate merit
and work one's way out?
A:One can work one's way
out through karma. This is the subject of another
article, and believe me, it would be a long article.
But, yes, one can work one's way out.
I did not grow up fearing some eternal Hell. My
mother raised me as a Christian Scientist--a
compassionate philosophy with many parallels to
Buddhism. In Christian Science, hell is separation from
God and this can be conquered through changing one's
thoughts to see correctly God's omnipresence and
omnipotence (two words which thrilled me in childhood
and which I still appreciate.) This instills a sense of
the universe as nurturing and safe, run by a
So I was spared a childhood of threats or fears of
damnation. This made me confident, but lazy. There was
no spur to self-improvement.
Now I am at least two-thirds of the way through the
mortal journey, or maybe more. We do not know, really,
despite insurance companies and actuarial tables, how
long we have. The only constant is change and an obvious
truth is impermanence. Through study of religions,
particularly Buddhism, my complacency is shaken.
Despite such a positive philosophy to comfort me in
my early days, there was the nagging awareness of evil
and negativity in the world. If I was not particularly
suffering, others were. War, disease, child abuse...what
was the solution ? Why did a benevolent God allow this?
Then, later on, I experienced suffering in my own
life and this, as with so many other people, turned me
toward religion for comfort and answers. I found out my
suffering--moods, insecurities, broken
relationships--was created by what Chugdud Tulku calls
"the whims of ordinary mind" and I turned to Dharma to
relieve reliance on the mind that had proven so
fallible, and to find something more reliable.
From Gates to Buddhist Practice by
Chugdud Tulku Rinpoche:
We don't understand that we're
experiencing results that we ourselves have brought
into being and that our reactions produce more causes,
more results--ceaselessly. ...
Some people think the remedy for suffering lies
with God or with Buddha, somewhere external to them.
But that's not the case. The Buddha himself said to
his disciples, "I have shown you the path to freedom.
Following that path depends on you."
To this point, Tsongkapa quotes "The words of the
omniscient (there's that word!) Buton:
You are not long in this life--
You step ever nearer to it
every moment that passes,
Moving like an
Dragged to the slaughterhouse.
Your plans for today
Your plans for
Will never all be filled;
Let go all
your thousand plans,
Devote yourself to one.
You will be summoned into
The awesome presence
of Lord Death;
The end is lying on your bed,
breathing stops, the life is gone.
And on this day,
My Rinchen Drup,
Is any help to you.
Many other sages make this point.
Of course one could become a fatalist, dissolve into
depression, and conclude that any effort is futile.
Similarly, one could take the hedonist view that life is
too fleeting to allow for anything except
self-gratification. Why not?
Why not, according to Tsongkapa's teachings, is
because either fatalism or hedonism would mire us more
deeply in karma. They are temporary escapes at best. In
fact, if one accepts the premises presented, including
the premise of another life after this one, the only way
out is Dharma. This is not a threat to keep us in line.
This is a practical conclusion drawn by the many
scholars who have examined the situation of fleeting
life. Even if you don't believe in reincarnation,
perhaps the idea that one must purify oneself in order
to be of service to others would motivate.
Hedonism, in my view, is born of desperation. The
mind sees the impermanent condition of all things, and
comes to the mistaken conclusion that one's actions do
not ultimately matter. This is a temporary solution to
an ongoing problem, for it is born of the samsaric mind.
Each pleasure will fade, and there will be an
increasingly desperate search for the next.
This situation is described in the Tibetan cosmology
as the dilemma of beings in the god realms. Quoting
Beings in these realms are so infatuated
with and intoxicated by sensual pleasures and bliss
that the thought of escaping from this or any other
state of cyclic existence never occurs to them.
So then one might think to avoid hell by constant
meditation and spiritual practice. Even here, one must
be careful not to fall into pride and judgments about
others and thereby lose the very jewel one seeks.
"My meditation is so profound, I don't
have to worry about karma." But the repercussions of
delusion are infallible, and it doesn't take a lot of
delusion to find oneself born in hell.
These are the foundation concepts. The solutions to
the dilemma fill many books. I will close with an
overview of one practice: The Purification of the Six
Realms. This is from The Tibetan Book of Living
and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. This practice can
be done by others for the benefit of one who has just
died and demonstrates that even after death, there is
hope for a reversal of negative trends. It can be done
during life, as well. Used in life, the purification
employs visualization and meditation to purify the body
of each of the six main negative emotions.
Basically, one focuses on a particular part of the
body and its associated emotion, and visualizes that
emotion dissolving into light. Put your entire heart and
mind into this visualization.
NEGATIVE EMOTION, ASSOCIATED BODY PART, ASSOCIATED
- Anger, Soles of the feet, Hell
- Avarice, Base of the trunk, Hungry ghost
- Ignorance, Navel,Animal
- Doubt, Heart, Human
- Jealousy, Throat, Demigod
- Pride, Crown of the head, God
This is but one of a vast number of practices. I like
it because it gives us a definite focus for our efforts,
and it seems achievable. Because this body of practice
is so vast, one can find methods suitable to one's
temperament. Kinesthetic practices often appeal to me.
I will close with more words from Tsongkapa which
give us further direction for practice:
The entire extent
Of the highest of
The teaching of the Buddhas,
contained in the three collections.
This then is why
The three different
Are the essence of the teachings.
These three start
With the training
And it's spoken that
collection on discipline.
This explains why
So much of the holy
Spoken so very well,
Was set down in the
Of the works
Could it ever happen then
That those wise
The proper order
Would not take joy in these?
Nowhere does it say
Anything else but
If you hope to develop
training of wisdom well,
You must find
That of concentration.
It says as well
That if you wish to
Pure single-pointed mind,
You must have
And this is fine
Some brave souls
Claim they'll keep
A lot of
But it's oh so common
To see them
Whatever pledges they've made.
The way of the holy
Is to strive
their morality pure.
They have agreed
To do so.
Once you see
The truth in this,
Then use your
Your thoughts, words and
To stop any wrong to come.
Take the greatest
Have a sense of shame,
Use them on
The horse of the senses
mistakes the way.
Use your strength
To rein him in,
For this is
the state of mind
That you can bring
To focus and stay
Whatever you want,
However you wish
it to be;
And this is why
They sing the praises
morality as the way
To reach one-pointedness of mind.