The hells of strong emotion

Here are two early Buddhist quotes I don’t often hear in today’s entertainment-saturated, militaristic societies:

On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel’s Sanctuary.

Then Talaputa, the head of an acting troupe, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of actors that ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] Any beings who are not devoid of passion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion, focus with even more passion on things inspiring passion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of aversion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of aversion, focus with even more aversion on things inspiring aversion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of delusion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of delusion, focus with even more delusion on things inspiring delusion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.2)

Similarly about soldiers:

“Then Yodhajiva[1] the headman went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of warriors that ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.3)

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Common grounds between Buddhism and Judaism

Since there is a Jewish Buddhist movement, here is a list of ways in which (Theravada or early) Buddhism and Judaism are, as I understand, more similar to each other than either is to Christianity:

  • In both, though there are things on which most members of each religion agree, there is no firm dogma, because the spiritual goal (experiencing God or Nirvana) is thought to be beyond mundane human thought. Individuals are free to explore their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and to develop their own understandings. Prophets, Messiahs, the Buddha, and monks are people who may have had an especially clear or rich spiritual experience, but they are not God(s) themselves. Said another way: both religions are more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (i.e., less faith-based, more focused on what people do and experience than on what they believe).
  • Absolute reality, God, etc. is usually thought to be some kind of unity or single substance, not a trinity, a hypostatic union (hybrid God-man), etc.
  • Both are/were largely aniconic (Buddhism was in the early days) and prohibit giving anything a higher status than God or nirvanic beings.
  • Like devas in Buddhism, early Judaism seems to have acknowledged polytheism (e.g., El becoming YHWH, “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.), but neither made polytheism central to their religion.
  • Hell is not forever. In Judaism, hell is more like Catholic purgatory and lasts only a short time, so that God can teach sinners a lesson. Those souls who are too bad to be redeemed are either destroyed by God, which seems much more compassionate to me than eternal torment, or continue to exist in a remorseful state. In Buddhism, the length and depth/badness of a hellish life varies based on one’s karma, with the worst hell being called avici. Both also find rebirth/reincarnation possible.
  • Both generally lack a notion of original sin, though in Buddhism, the mind that is reborn has typically had many past lives and has accumulated many both good and bad traits. Both see people as a mixture of good/selfless and bad/selfish impulses, and see a Middle Way-type balance to be necessary for successfully living in the world (e.g., a person has to be a little selfish in order to have food to eat, to do a job, etc.).
  • Less focus is placed on external forces (e.g., the devil, praying to angels or saints, God(s) taking physical form, etc.), which are usually considered to be metaphorical. Unlike how Christians often interpret it literally, the oft-quoted line from Genesis 1:27, that man was made in the image of God, is usually taken in Judaism to mean that a human’s nature, essence, or capacities for things like reason and intuition are similar to God’s, not that God literally has a human-like (or any corporeal) form.
  • Both Buddhism’s precepts, the Brahmaviharas, etc. as well as Judaism’s kosher rules are concerned with how to kill animals as sparingly and humanely as possible. In both, the brief five-to-ten precepts/commandments are just a categorization or introduction to a much longer set of vinaya/commandments about many aspects of life.
  • Both Buddhists and Jews do merit-making activities, especially as regards dead family members: https://ohr.edu/explore_judaism/ask_the_rabbi/ask_the_rabbi/1065

Heavy metal Buddhism

There is an interesting overlap in the US between dark countercultures (heavy metal, goth, etc.) and Buddhist ideas of emptiness, suffering, delusion/illusion, no-self or self-conquest, patisotagamin (going against the mainstream), meditating on death, introspection, etc. As when the Buddha replaced meditating on death with anapanasati (meditating on the breath), after a few monks became suicidal after meditating on death, I always hope that people who embrace the dark side of Buddhism don’t get lost by dwelling too much in dark becoming/karma, hellish rebirths, etc. It is important to stay in the middle of the Middle Way — neither pleasure nor pain. The Buddha used negativity only as a temporary technique to counter things like the delusion of self.

For example, I’m not sure if Kirk Hammett, their lead guitarist who I’ve read is a Buddhist, wrote all of these, but here are some very Buddhist-sounding lyrics from Metallica, from newer to older:

“All reflections look the same, in the shine of a midnight revolver” (“Just a Bullet Away”).

“How can I be lost, if I’ve got nowhere to go?
Search for seas of gold, how come it’s got so cold?
How can I be lost, in remembrance I relive?
And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive” (“Unforgiven III”)?

“If I could have my wasted days back,
would I use them to get back on track?
Stop to warm at karma’s burning,
or look ahead but keep on turning.
Do I have the strength to know how I’ll go?
Can I find it inside to deal with what I shouldn’t know?
I’ve worn out always being afraid,
an endless stream of fear that I’ve made. …
My lifestyle (birth/death is pain) determines by death style,
a rising tide (life is pain / it’s all the same) that pushes to the other side. …
Keep searchin…” (“Frantic”).

“Then the unnamed feeling, it comes alive … it takes me away” (“Unnamed Feeling”).

“Can’t you help me purify you and I…” (“Purify”).

“Careful what you wish… careful what you say.
Careful what you wish, you may regret it.
Careful what you wish, you just might get it.
Then it all crashes down, you break your crown,
and you point your finger, but there’s no one around.
Just want one thing, just to play the king,
but the castle’s crumbled, and you’re left with just a name.
Where’s your crown, King Nothing” (“King Nothing”)?

Selfless virtue

Developing virtues/merits for selfish reasons (e.g., for the karmic, physical, or social benefits) still contains a degree of unvirtuousness (i.e., a delusion of self). In my opinion, the point of being virtuous (and of Buddhism in general) is to completely cleanse this samsaric mind-body complex of whatever is obstructing it from becoming nirvanic, not to seek a nice future/rebirth in samsara.

Heaven might be so luxurious and pleasurable that beings there never think about nirvana or about making more merit, and, according to the seed-and-fruit concept from early Buddhism (i.e., that one instance of karma causes/conditions only one outcome), once the merit that is supporting a heavenly life runs out, one’s next rebirth may not be heavenly.

A Theravada view of abortion

Given the current US presidential debate environment (about sexism, abortion, etc.), here is my understanding of a Theravada Buddhist view of abortion, which does not seem to be represented by any candidate running for US president. This description will be skewed towards a Sri Lankan perspective, because I am most familiar with that.

“Monks, the descent of the embryo occurs with the union of three things. … when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs” (MN 38). From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction to that sutta: “Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas — devas who are often represented as obsessed with lust. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93” (ibid).

Therefore, perhaps the only way in which a fetus might not possess a gandhabba, and be just a physical shell/husk, is if the fetus dies for some reason during the course of pregnancy (e.g., from a congenital defect), such that the gandhabba leaves that body naturally and seeks a different body. If the fetus is not already dead, a gandhabba probably is still there, at any stage of pregnancy, and killing the fetal body that is supporting the gandhabba probably is the same as killing any living human (i.e., murder, if the killing is intentional, which might cause the killer to be reborn in some type of hell). This prompts a number of questions:

  • Should women have the right to choose abortion? Should any human have the right to choose to murder another human? If it comes down to a decision between saving the life of the mother or the life of the baby, who has a greater “right to life”? As I understand it, the law in Sri Lanka, which is a Theravada Buddhist-majority country, is that abortion is legal only if a medical doctor believes/certifies that abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Otherwise, the baby has a right to life.
  • What if doctors know that the baby will be severely handicapped and/or have a very difficult or painful life? As I understand it, the Buddhist view is that that is the baby’s karma — a natural result of its past intentions and actions. Wherever that mind is born, it must face its karma, so sparing it a life here and now would just send it somewhere else to suffer similarly.
  • Women did not consciously choose to be the child-bearers in our species. Is it fair to ask them to sacrifice themselves? As I understand it, women’s gandhabbas did unconsciously choose to be born as women, though it is questionable how much a gandhabba can know about the body it is choosing.
  • Is that sacrifice a kind of suicide or self-murder? Many parents (including fathers) love their children more than themselves, and would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children (e.g., undertake risky travel to help their children, would jump in front of a bus or train to push their child to safety, etc.). Is it selfish of a mother not to be willing to sacrifice herself for her child? It seems to be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario (i.e., having to choose between killing a child or allowing oneself to die). Hell is not eternal in Buddhism, like it is in the Abrahamic religions, but, still, it is probably not somewhere one wants to go. There is a jataka story (a story about the Buddha’s past lives), where the Buddha, in a past life, before he was fully enlightened (so he could not avoid rebirth in hell) but when he was still quite spiritually accomplished, came upon a family of tigers that were starving. He went to the top of a nearby cliff and jumped off, sacrificing himself so that the family of tigers could have something to eat. He supposedly paid for that suicide with a rebirth in some kind of hell, but was willing to do it because of his great love for all living beings, who were not even his own immediate children.

Defending Theravada regarding the Bodhisattva Vow

I often have heard Mahayana (and Mahayana-derived) Buddhists criticize Theravada for not having a Bodhisattva Vow — where one vows to be reborn again and again to teach sentient beings, until all sentient beings either have attained enlightenment or attain it together — accusing Theravadists of being selfish for trying to attain nirvana/nibbana quickly. Here are a few defenses of the Theravada view:

Westerners are often asked to take the Bodhisattva Vow shortly after they have attended a Mahayana meditation group for the first time, when they barely know anything about Buddhism, are nowhere close to enlightenment themselves (so probably could not control their rebirths), and are hardly in a position to make a long-term promise.

Like the Western elementary school lesson/game ‘telephone’ — where 20-30 kids sit in a circle, whisper the same message in each other’s ears going around the circle, and see how distorted the message becomes after it has gone around the circle — humans often misunderstand what they hear, and then they pass on that misinformation. Over time, the original message is lost. Buddhism has split many times, and later forms of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Tientai, etc. have become very different from early Buddhism, even in just a few thousand years. How different might human Buddhism become in 1 million years, if it survives that long? Would it bear any resemblance to what the Buddha taught?

Pop culture religion also has a habit of incorporating legends and becoming more outlandish/fantastical over time. For example, some people have apparently arbitrarily made up large numbers for the sizes, distances from Earth, or lifespans of beings in certain heavens and hells. I have also heard South Asian people claim that there have always been Indo-Aryan peoples in South Asia, though the archaeological record says that they have been there for only about 5,000 years. Some people claim that Islam has always been in India, though Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived from 570-632 CE.

There also is the issue of how much karma Mahayanists must keep in their mindstreams, in order to remain in samsara. Some of them, especially Zen Buddhists, lead quite worldly, indulgent lives. It is unclear whether they are clear-headed enough to preserve and practice good-quality Buddhism.

If there are many, possibly infinite, fully enlightened Buddhas from the distant past living forever in Pure Lands, which they created for themselves and which samsaric beings can visit, why do ignorant humans, or even devas (long-lived, heavenly beings), need to take a bodhisattva vow? Won’t everyone encounter one of those Pure Lands, or beings who have visited those Pure Lands, eventually? If there is an infinite series of past Buddhas, why don’t they continuously come to Earth themselves, or create real-time projections of themselves on Earth with which people here could easily interact? If Buddhas gain Creator God-like power over Buddha Nature when they become enlightened, why are their powers to interact with humans apparently limited after their human body dies?

(For how long) Would a Mahayanist sit around waiting for solids, liquids, gases, etc. in the samsaric universe to possibly evolve into a sentient being that is complex enough to interact with and instruct on the path to nirvana? It has been about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, and there is a great deal of matter in this universe that is nowhere close to evolving into complex life, and may never be. Physicists’ predictions about the eventual fate of the universe (trillions of years from now) describe a great deal of matter either never evolving into sentient life or being destroyed in a Big Crunch. Upon what nearly-permanent bodymind medium do Mahayanists plan on surviving until the end of the universe, or across universes if there are multiple Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang… cycles?

It is very rare and transient for sentient life to evolve in this universe, and it might happen on worlds separated by vast distances. How do Mahayanists plan on traveling to such worlds to teach the people there?

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said in one of his recorded dhamma talks: “This body requires that we have to take food, clothing, shelter, medicine…. And it’s not only a burden for us in the searching, but it’s a burden for other people in their providing… other beings of all kinds: animals. This is why, when we stop samsara-ing, it’s a gift — not only to ourselves, but to the people around us. It’s not selfish to stop doing this. If you thought of samsara as a place where people are suffering, then it might seem heartless to want to get out. But, if you see it as a process — a process that’s causing yourself suffering, a process that’s causing other people suffering — the more people who stop doing the process, the better everybody’s going to be… the happier everyone’s going to be” (“Constellations of Stress,” 2004-09-07).

The lowest hell

PIA14508 - West Rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars

From all of the dark, militaristic, morbid, violent, depressed, anxious, etc. things I’ve seen in life, there is a feeling and mental image that I associate with their extreme — the lowest hell, if you wish. It isn’t the usual fire-and-brimstone or sadistic concepts of hell, which seem too active and not yet at a self-destructive conclusion to me. Imagine a desolate wasteland, similar to the landscapes of Mars or Venus, covered in light brown or reddish sand and stones, but there is no water and no plants will grow. The sky is brown, pale red, or black, like there might be a sun up there somewhere, but it is always hazy, overcast, or not visible. There is an appeal to this place, like it is a relatively relaxing or accepting common denominator for anger and struggle. Everything one could fight against has been destroyed there, sometimes there is stillness/rest, and anything new that arrives there must be destroyed and become like the stones. There is a dull or slowly grinding pain that never fully goes away, like a sinus headache.

What I learn from this feeling and image is that this is where one’s mind ends up, if one always dwells in, embraces, enjoys, relishes, etc. struggle and conflict. It’s not a good place, and suffering doesn’t end there. Please don’t go there.