The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 9: Avoiding Hell, Gaining Heaven

In the first centuries of Buddhism in Japan, the recitation of the homage to Amitabha (in Japanese namu amida butsu) as recommended in the longer and shorter Sukhavati sutras, was used primarily as a means of protecting the living by sending the spirits of the dead to the pure land, and thus was regarded as inauspicious. It also became one of a number of monastic practices of the Tendai and Shingon schools. At the Tendai headquarters on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto, the practice of’perpetual chanting’ became popular, in which, during a ninety-day retreat, monks would circumambulate an image of Amitabha while chanting namu amida butsu and visualizing his pure land, in an effort to gain a vision of the buddhas of the ten directions. This was considered just one of a number of Tendai meditations to be pursued on the path to buddhahood.

The first person in Japan to argue for the particular efficacy of devotion to Amitabha was the Tendai monk Genshin (942-1017), who did so in his famous treatise entitled Anthology of Essential Teaching for Deliverance to the Pure Land (Ojoyoshu), completed in 985. He sought to establish the importance of devotion to Amitabha by collecting relevant passages from a variety of Indian and Chinese texts. He argued, as Shandao had in China, that devotion to Amitabha was the most appropriate form of Buddhist practice during the degenerate age.

His text became very popular among the aristocracy, perhaps because it appeared during the social upheaval at the end of the Heian period, when it was easy to believe that human society had fallen far since the more fortunate time of the Buddha. Genshin’s work was also famous for its description of samsara, the world that those desiring rebirth in the pure land sought to escape. The work is especially famous for its vivid depiction of the hells (some of which are included here); his description inspired paintings of the hells on Japanese screens. These descriptions are all the more harrowing when read in contrast to the account of Amitabha’s Land of Bliss (see previous chapter), an account that many of his readers would have known well.

The treatise also included detailed deathbed instructions (aportion of which are included here) that were intended to summon Amitabha from his pure land to stand at the bedside of the dying person, ready to transport him or her to the Land of Bliss, far away from the hells he describes below.

Anthology of Essential Teaching for Deliverance to the Pure Land


The doctrines and practices of deliverance to the pure land should be the eyes and legs [of people trapped] in this defiled world during this age of decline. Priests and laypeople, aristocrats and commoners: all should rely upon them. The doctrines of exoteric- esoteric (ken-mitsu) Buddhism, in contrast, rest on scriptures which lack agreement and consist of practices which are extremely diverse in terms of concrete techniques, abstract theories, and karmic conditions. For clever, wise people who possess spiritual fortitude, they [i.e., ken-mitsu doctrines] present no difficulties. But for dull, stupid people like me, how could they be suitable? For this reason, I rely on the pure-land practice of recalling the buddha (nembutsu). [To explain this form of Buddhism] I have compiled an anthology of key passages from sutras and treatises, expanding some and condensing others so that they will be easy to understand and easy to practise. In all, it consists often sections. They are: (i) abandon the defiled lands, (2) seek deliverance to the pure land, (3) testimony for the Land of Supreme Bliss (Sukhavati), (4) correct practice of recalling the buddha, (5) methods which assist recalling the buddha, (6) special times for recalling the buddha, (7) benefits of recalling the buddha, (8) testimony for recalling the buddha, (9) karmic acts for deliverance to the pure land and (10) summary in the form of questions and answers.

Abandon the Defiled Lands

Abandon the defiled lands because rebirth within the triple world is without security and should be rejected. My explanation of the characteristics [of the six defiled courses of rebirth] consists of seven sub-sections: (1) hells, (2) hungry ghosts, (3) beasts, (4) asuras, (5) humans, (6) heavenly gods and (7) conclusion.

Hells. There are eight major types of hell: (1) Multiple Resuscitations, (2) Black Rope, (3) Compounded, (4)

Lamentations, (5) Great Lamentations, (6) Scorching Heat, (7) Great Scorching Heat and (8) No Interruption.

The Hell of Multiple Resuscitations is located one thousand yojana beneath Jambudvipa and is about ten thousand yojana across. The sinners in this hell always want to harm one another. When they encounter another sinner, they act like a hunter who has spied a deer. They use iron claws to rip each other to pieces, removing all flesh and blood until only the skeleton remains. The wardens [in this hell] hold iron staffs with which they beat the sinners from head to toe, smashing their bodies to bits like grains of sand. Or they use extremely sharp knives to slice apart the sinners like a butcher chopping meat. Next a cool wind blows over them and instantly restores their previous form. Then everything starts over so they receive the same suffering as before. Some accounts say that a voice in the sky commands that the sinners be resuscitated, while others say that the wardens stamp the ground with their iron staffs, saying: ‘Live! Live!’ This kind of suffering cannot be explained in detail. Fifty years in human terms is equivalent to only one day in the Heaven of the Four Divine Kings. Lifespans in that heaven last five hundred years. Entire lifespans in that heaven are equivalent to only one day in this hell, and the lifespans of sinners in this hell are five hundred years. People who kill living beings come to this hell. Outside of the four main gateways to this hell, there are sixteen affiliated sub-hells….

The Black Rope Hell is beneath the Hell of Multiple Resuscitations and is the same size. The wardens grab the sinners and lay them down on a hot iron ground. Then they use hot iron ropes to draw horizontal and vertical chalk lines across the sinners’ bodies. They follow these lines as they slice them apart with hot iron hatchets or dissect them with saws. They cut each sinner in a hundred thousand places. Also they stretch out hot iron nets, into which they assemble the sinners. A repugnant wind blows the nets around the sinners’ bodies, burning their flesh and scalding their bones. Their intense pain knows no limit. Moreover, to the left and to the right there are large iron mountains. Flagpoles stand on top of each mountain, and iron tightropes are stretched from flagpole to flagpole. Beneath the tightropes are hot caldrons. The wardens force the sinners to walk across the tightropes. When the sinners fall into the caldrons far below, they are boiled without end. Sinners in this hell receive ten times the suffering of the Hell of Multiple Resuscitations and its sixteen affiliated sub-hells combined. The wardens scold the sinners, saying: ‘Your own mind is your primary enemy. This enemy was the worst because it ensnarled you and brought you to the land of Yama, king of hells. You alone must burn in hell until your evil karma is consumed.

Your wife, children, brothers, or other relatives cannot save you.’

In each of the five major types of hell below this one, the level of suffering increases tenfold over the preceding one…. One hundred years in human terms is equivalent to only one day in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three. Lifespans in that heaven last one thousand years. Entire lifespans in that heaven are equivalent to only one day in this hell, and the lifespans of sinners in this hell are one thousand years. People who kill living beings and who steal come to this hell. This hell also has affiliated sub-hells….

The Compounded Hell lies beneath the Black Rope Hell and is the same size.. Moreover, the wardens seize the sinners and place them in a forest of knife-like leaves. The sinners look up to the tops of the trees and see beautiful, well-groomed women. As soon as the sinners see the women, they start climbing the trees. The leaves on the trees are as sharp as knives. They slice off the flesh and pierce sinews until every part of the body is cut away. When the sinners arrive at the tops of the trees, they see the women down on the ground. With lustful eyes the women look up at the sinners and say: ‘Because of karma caused by my desire for you, I have arrived in this place. Why don’t you come close to me? Don’t you want to embrace me?’ The sinners look upon them and, with hearts full of lust, start climbing down the trees. This time the leaves point upward, and with edges as sharp as razors slice the sinners’ bodies to pieces just like before. When the sinners arrive on the ground, the women are back on top of the trees. This cycle continues for an infinite hundreds of thousands of millions of years. The reason why sinners are deceived by their own minds to suffer these cycles in this hell is because of their wrongful passions. The wardens scold the sinners by chanting a verse: ‘ ’Tis not another who acted evil; ’tis not another who’ll receive its retribution. One reaps the fruits of one’s own actions; so it is for all living beings.’ Two hundred years in human terms is equivalent to one day in Yamah Heaven. Lifespans in that heaven are two thousand years. Entire life spans in Yamah Heaven are equivalent to only one day in this hell, and the lifespans of sinners in this hell are two thousand years. People who kill living beings, who steal, and who commit sexual transgressions come to this hell.

[Details of the other hells as well as of the courses of rebirth as hungry ghosts, as beasts and as asuras are omitted.]

Humans. Examining the course of rebirth as humans reveals that it has three main characteristics: impurity, suffering and impermanence…. First, impurity. The human body contains three hundred and sixty bones…. [Here follows a detailed anatomical inventory.]. The stomach and spleen, which are yellow, process the five grains and contain three units of faeces. The bladder and kidneys, which are black, process fluids and contain one unit of urine.. The large and small intestines, with their mixed red and white colour and their eighteen twists, resemble the coils of a poisonous snake. Moreover, from head to toe and from outer skin to inner bone marrow, the body contains eighty thousand bacteria, each one with four heads and four mouths and ninety tails..

Though one may eat the most delicious food, in the span of a single night it becomes impure and stinks like a filthy sewer. Our [outer] bodies are just as bad. From birth to death they are always dirty. Even if we wash them in the sea, we cannot get them clean. Outwardly we can decorate them with beautiful clothes and cosmetics, but inwardly they are full of impurities, like a painted vase filled with dung….

[Details of suffering are omitted.]

Third, impermanence. The Nirvana Sutra says: ‘Human life never stops, but flows like water in a river. Though live today we may, tomorrow cannot be assured. How can you give free reign to your desires and retain your evil ways?’ The Dharma-pada says: ‘With each day’s passing, one’s life is reduced like a fish in ever less water. How, then, can one be carefree?’ The Mahamaya Sutra says: ‘When a candala [untouchable] leads an ox to the butcher block, step by step its death draws ever nearer. Human life follows the same course.’.

Heavenly Gods. Examining the course of rebirth as a deva in one of the heavens reveals that it occurs throughout the triple world, which is the world of desire, the world of form and the world without form. Its characteristics, therefore, are diverse and cannot be explained in detail. I will describe one place and use it as an example of the others. Beings born into the Heaven of the Thirty- Three initially enjoy boundless pleasure, but when their lives are about to end, the five signs of decline appear. The flowers adorning their hair wilt, their heavenly robes become stained with filth, their armpits begin to sweat, their eyes start to see double, and they can no longer enjoy heaven…. Know that the suffering they feel at that moment is worse than hell. Therefore, the Saddharma Smrtyupasthana Sutra says: ‘When one falls out of heaven, one’s mind is racked with so much pain and anguish that all the suffering of the hells is not even one-sixteenth as bad.’.

[Conclusion to section one is omitted.]

Seek Deliverance to the Pure Land

Seek deliverance to the pure land because the direct and indirect karmic merit generated thereby is infinite. One could not explain its merit completely in one hundred or one thousand aeons.

Neither mathematical formulae nor metaphors can make it known.

Generally speaking, when people who commit evil karmic acts are about to die, the elements of wind and fire depart first, which causes them to suffer greatly from trembles and fevers. When people who practise good are about to die, the elements of earth and water depart first, which allows them to pass away gradually without pain. When people who have accumulated merit from recalling the buddha (nembutsu) and who have directed their minds towards the pure land for many years are about to die, a sense of spiritual satisfaction naturally arises. This sense of peace occurs because Amitabha Buddha, in fulfilment of his original vows, along with a host of bodhisattvas and a hundred thousand bhiksus shine a radiance that appears before their eyes. Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of great compassion, extends his hands of a hundred blessings to present a jewelled lotus throne before the dying. The bodhisattva Mahasthama-prapta, along with an infinite holy host of beings, simultaneously sing praises and extend their hands to assist the deceased onto the throne. Dying practitioners see this event with their own eyes and their hearts are filled with spiritual joy and their bodies and minds become as peaceful as if they had entered a Zen trance. Know that at the moment the dying person in his grass hut closes his eyes, he is seating himself on the lotus throne. Following behind Amitabha Buddha, seated amidst the host of bodhisattvas, the deceased will instantly attain deliverance in the western pure land known as the Land of Supreme Bliss. Even zillions of years of pleasure in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, even the bliss of Zen trance in the Mahabrahma Heaven cannot compare to the joy [of deliverance to the pure land]. Beings in those heavens have not escaped transmigration and cannot avoid [falling back into] the three abhorrent courses of rebirth [i.e., as a sinner in hell, as a hungry ghost, or as a beast]. But one who is now held by Avalokitesvara, one who is resting on the lotus throne, in contrast, will have permanently crossed over the seas of suffering from the first moment of deliverance to the pure land.

The spiritual joy one then feels cannot be put into words. As Nagarjuna said in a verse: ‘For one who is dying, deliverance in that land automatically entails infinite virtues. Upon this, I do rely.’

[The remainder of this section as well as all of sections three, four and five are omitted.]

Special Times for Recalling the Buddha

Deathbed Rituals. First I explain the ritual actions and then the contemplations encouraged during them. The commentary on the Four-Part Vinaya, in the section concerning care for the sick and dying, cites a Chinese text which says: ‘The Jetavana Monastery [in India] had an Impermanence Cloister [i.e., infirmary] located in its northwest corner where one can see the light of the setting sun.’ Sick people would be placed therein to separate them from any objects of tainted desire, such as robes, bowls and other implements that give rise to attachments. It was called the Impermanence Cloister because many people entered, but only a few ever exited. The cloister was arranged so as to concentrate the minds of sick people on the techniques for recalling the buddha. Inside the cloister was placed a standing image of the buddha, which was covered in gold. It faced towards the west. Its right hand was raised and its left hand held a five-coloured banner that hung down about its feet to the floor. Sick people were placed behind the buddha image and held on to the other end of the flve- coloured banner so that they might imagine that they were following the buddha to the pure land….

Deathbed encouragement of contemplation is provided by good friends, by companions and by whoever gives rise to aspirations such as for the sake of following the Buddha’s teaching, for the sake of benefiting living creatures, for the sake of developing good karmic roots and for the sake of forming good karmic relationships. These people should come to the sick person’s bedside and dispense spiritual encouragement. The precise content of the encouragement should accord with the thoughts of the sick person. On behalf of myself, I have composed the following words of encouragement: ‘Dear son of the Buddha, for many years you have abandoned secular ambitions and focused solely on karmic acts leading to the western pure land. Among such acts, the fundamental ones are your final ten thoughts as you face death. Now you already are lying in your sick bed. You must be afraid, [but fear not]. Close your eyes, place your palms together, and concentrate your whole mind on your vow. Look at no forms other than the wonderful marks of the buddha. Listen to no sounds other than the voice of the buddha. Talk about no affairs other than the correct teaching of the buddhas. Think about nothing except deliverance to the pure land….’

[The remainder of this section as well as sections seven, eight, nine and ten are omitted.]

Translated by William Bodiford from Ishida Mizumaro (ed.), Ojo yoshu, Nihon Shiso Taikei, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1970).

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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