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Spiritual Traditions - Columnists - Yeshe Chodon
Spiritual and religious traditions.

Yeshe Chodon

Buddhist Tradition series

Buddhism and Hell

Copyright ©
2000 by Yeshe Chodon

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 Drakpa 1357-1419)

My body and the life in it
Are fleeting 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 knowledge
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,
As certain as my shadow.

Grant me then
Ever to be careful,
To stop the slightest
Wrongs of many wrongs we do,
And try to carry out instead
Each and every good
Of the 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?
A:Awaken. Turn one's full attention and efforts to spiritual development.

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 compassionate parent.

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--
Death comes quick;
You step ever nearer to it
With every moment that passes,
Moving like an animal
Dragged to the slaughterhouse.

Your plans for today
Your plans for tomorrow
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,
The breathing stops, the life is gone.

And on this day,
My Rinchen Drup,
Nothing but the Dharma
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 Chugdud Tulku:

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.


  • 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 spoken words,
The teaching of the Buddhas,
Is contained in the three collections.

This then is why
The three different trainings
Are the essence of the teachings.

These three start
With the training
Of morality.

And it's spoken that
It resides
In the collection on discipline.

This explains why
So much of the holy Dharma,
Spoken so very well,
Was set down in the form
Of the works
On discipline.

Could it ever happen then
That those wise men
Who understand
The proper order
Of the teachings
Would not take joy in these?

Nowhere does it say
Anything else but this:
If you hope to develop
Insight, the training of wisdom well,
You must find quietude,
That of concentration.

It says as well
That if you wish to develop
Pure single-pointed mind,
You must have the training
Of morality;
And this is fine advice.

Some brave souls
Claim they'll keep
A lot of different vows,

But it's oh so common
To see them smash
Whatever pledges they've made.

The way of the holy
Is to strive
To maintain their morality pure.

Exactly as
They have agreed
To do so.

Once you see
The truth in this,
Then use your watchfulness,

Constantly check
Your thoughts, words and deeds
To stop any wrong to come.

Recollect yourself,
Take the greatest care,
Have a sense of shame,
And consideration;

Use them on
The horse of the senses
When he 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
On any virtuous object

Whatever you want,
However you wish it to be;

And this is why
They sing the praises
Of morality as the way

To reach one-pointedness of mind.

Back to the Buddhist Tradition Main page.

Learn More About Yeshe Chodon

Contact Yeshe Chodon at yeshe@ix.netcom.com  

Yeshe Chodon's Column previously published at: Suite101.com

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