Sometimes life feels hopeless. Maybe we are struggling with an addiction, or our hearts are breaking. We might have got trapped in a stressful job, squashed by the pressures of supporting our family, or we might have retreated into a prison of depression or bitterness. Maybe someone did terrible things to us and we can’t find a way out of their shadow. Maybe we have done terrible things and cannot forgive ourselves. Maybe there hasn’t been any light for a long time.
Inhabiting these spaces can feel like being in hell. The descriptions of the hell realms or Narakas in Buddhism are enough to make your hair stand on end. In the Devaduta Sutta we hear:
“Then the hell-wardens lay him down and slice him with axes. Then they hold him feet up & head down and slice him with adzes. Then they harness him to a chariot and drive him back & forth over ground that is burning, blazing, & glowing. Then they make him climb up & down a vast mountain of embers that is burning, blazing, & glowing. Then they hold him feet up & head down and plunge him into a red-hot copper cauldron that is burning, blazing, & glowing. There he boils with bubbles foaming…”
The graphic horror of these descriptions could be seen as the Buddha using skilful means to dissuade people from making bad choices – a warning that if they do, they will end up somewhere terrible after death. I also like to see them as a way of accurately describing the spaces we sometimes inhabit in our present-day lives. How else could we describe the pain of a father who has sexually abused his daughter, or a woman who has lost all the people she’s ever loved through addiction?
If we make a series of bad choices, especially when we are already burdened with heavy karma, we will end up in a hell realm. We are in a hell realm when we spend our days straitjacketed by anxiety, or when we float aimlessly without connecting to others. We all pass through hell realms, and depending on the depth of our unskilfulness we may stay in them only briefly, or be stuck there for a very long time. Bad choices lead to worse conditions, which often result in more bad choices – the circle circles ever more viciously.The good news is that there is a Buddha in every hell realm. Buddhas such as Ksitigarbha travel between the hell realms acting as a guardian and guide for the inhabitants of these terrible places. I like to imagine him sitting calmly in the corner of the cavern full of tortured souls, shining golden, waiting patiently for someone to come up to him and ask him for help.
Sometimes it is hard for us to leave our own versions of hell, despite how little sense that seems to make to us or to others. We can see this illustrated in small ways – we persist in overeating regardless of how ill it makes us feel afterwards, or we continue to be mean to our sister-in-law even though it makes us miserable. We would somehow prefer to feel the pain than to encounter the alternative, which might mean becoming vulnerable, losing our security or comforts, facing up to the terrible things we’ve done, losing someone or simply stepping into the unknown.
I have seen people emerge from the most terrible of circumstances and radically change their lives. These changes tend to begin when they finally realise that they cannot do it on their own. They turn to a Buddha – a therapist, a 12 step programme, a meditation practice – and allow themselves to be helped. They set aside their self-will and become open to grace.
Sometimes we need to suffer a great deal before we are ready to break open. There is no way of knowing how long we will stay in our hell realms. We can see others dwelling in hell realms too – our loved ones, our enemies, whole countries. It may seem that we will be there forever, but we should never write anyone off, including ourselves, however much pain they/we are in and however much pain they/we have caused others. Change is always possible. If we have experienced this salvation ourselves, we should remember to tell others, so that they will also have hope. There is a Buddha in every hell realm. The Buddha forgives us, and he wants us to come back to him.
Photo from Pexels.com with gratitude