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Heaven and hell in Buddhism

I recently met some tourists at the Paro Tshechu. They asked me about the Wheel of Life painting that we find at the entrance to lhakhangs. I tried my best to explain, but their questions made me realize that I didn’t really understand the meaning of the painting. Are hell and heavens actual places? If so, where are they located? 

Confused Buddhist, Thimphu

Actually, I think I answered a similar question a couple of years ago. However, as it is an important subject in terms of understanding Buddhism, I’ll do my humble best to answer it again in a simple, non-technical way.  

Ok, at the centre of the wheel is a pig, a cock, and a snake. These represent the three poisons of the mind: ignorance, desire and hatred. Around the core there are a number wheels, with the largest one depicting the six realms. These are the god/heaven, demi-god, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell.

Now it is important to understand that the hells are not some kind of dungeon located underground where offenders are sent for punishment. Likewise, the god realms are not places above the clouds to where the good and righteous migrate after death. In Buddhism, there is no concept of punishment or reward and there is no divine being who decides who goes to hell or heaven. There is merely the illusory results of our thought, words and deeds, which we call karma. This is represented by the beings in the wheel nearest to the hub.       

To make it easy to understand, let’s transpose the social structure of a mega city with that of the six realms: The gods are the tycoons. Residing in top floor penthouses and moving around in limousines with black-tinted windows, they wield immense power yet are invisible to the common man. The demi-gods are also super-rich but are overwhelmed with jealousy and pride. They are the cut-throat businessmen. Even though they live a luxurious life, their constant squabbling and insecurities prevent them from relaxing and enjoying their wealth. 

The human realm is a middle class suburb. The residents are generally comfortable and relaxed, but they are not immune from suffering. At the very least, they will bear the pain of birth, old age, sickness, and death. 

People whose perception is tainted by aggression or fear experience the world as a hell. They are the mafia dons and gangsters. Lurking in the shadows, they are vulnerable to be attacked or tortured. Their minds are never at peace.    

The hungry-ghosts have insatiable desires and a miserly disposition. Simple pleasures elude them, and they are tormented by greed and attachment. They are the heirs of covetous merchants with unquenchable craving. Symbolically, these kinds of people are represented by beings with a large stomach and a narrow neck. 

Animals are the members of society whose lives fluctuate between being attacked and attacking others. They are ignorant and complacent and so unable to use reason to break free of this cycle.         

Now, there’s something very interesting about these realms: No state is permanent. That’s how the cycle functions. Remember that the entire realms are created by karma, which in turn arises from our response to the way we perceive our environment. In this respect, a change in perception corresponds to a shift in response. As an example, think of a person who believes that they have seen a snake. They will act according to what they perceive. Later, however, if that same person recognizes that the object is not a snake but a coil of rope, then their reaction would be entirely different. In this respect, we understand that our reactions and responses are totally contingent on perception.    

Returning to the wheel, you will note that it is firmly in the clutches of a demon-like figure. Known as Yama, the Lord of Death, he represents time. Drawing us ever closer to old age and death and bringing change, he is a source of insecurity – hence his scary, demonic appearance.    

The tourists you met may have wondered about the purpose of life according to Buddhism. Simply put, it is to work towards assisting every sentient being to leave the Wheel of Life, and to achieve this goal they need to abandon the causes that perpetuate the cycle. Basically, they have to change their perception. This is the main role of the Buddhist path. 

The next question is how do we shift our perception or, more precisely, how do we see things in their pure, natural state? Well, basically, we need to remain in a state of non-distraction. To put it in another way, we should stay with our thoughts like a surfer rides the waves, becoming inseparable to the flow of our thoughts. When this occurs, we see things in their unadulterated and raw state, free of the added masala of namtok. To use the earlier example, we recognize that the snake is a rope, and, as a result, break our attachment to the mistaken view.      

Now, if we analyze the wheel, we will understand that it is one large mirror that reflects our existence. Symbolically, this implies that to change our perception and gain liberation, we don’t seek divine intervention, but instead look to ourselves. Basically, the path is taught by the Buddha, but we have to walk it ourselves. There is no one to pull us out of the karmic wheel. 

Finally, as stated above, the purpose of following the Buddhist path is to assist all sentient beings to experience an awakened state that is completely free from ignorance. Using the symbolism of the Wheel, we can say that when this occurs the pig at the centre attains liberation, and at the same time the snake and cock are also freed. As for actual liberation, it is represented by the full moon located above the wheel, while the Buddha pointing to the moon signifies the path that leads to this state.  I apologize that due to space, this explanation is very short and simple, but anyway I hope that it has at least clarified some points. 

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.

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