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Changes in the Conception of Hell

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The most significant transformation in the history of Buddhism is the shift from Hinayana to Mahayana Buddhism. But many smaller changes in religious thought also occurred over time and in a variety of places. This chapter discusses one prevalent example of this process: the idea of hell. The conception of hell underwent an evolution particularly in Japan, and was part of a kind of Japanization of Buddhism that began in the Heian period (794-1192 C.E.).


In Japan, Emma (Yama in Sanskrit) is considered to be the lord of the underworld. We have seen in the Abhidharmakosa, though, that Yama’s dwelling is in the sky above Mount Sumeru. Yama was originally a deity called Yamadeva, who more or less corresponded to the Brahmanic Yama of the Rg Veda. As we examine how Yama made his downward journey, we trace the development of the Buddhist idea of hell.

Let us examine what kind of deity Yama was initially, as described in the Rg Veda. According to this work (12th 8th century B.C.E.), the progenitors of the human race were twins, Yama and Yaml. Yarn!, wanting descendants, urged Yama to join her in begetting offspring, but he refused, saying it was against human ethics. There was a bitter exchange between them, but the scriptures do not relate the outcome in any detail. Considering the fact that the human race subsequently flourished, it seems that Yarn! had her way. Yama, being the first man, was therefore the first person to die. He pioneered the way to the abode of the dead and became sovereign of that realm as others followed his path. His kingdom was in the heavens and was thought of as a kind of paradise.

Drawing upon the Brahmanic tradition, the Buddhist Yama also had his abode in the heavens. In the Abhidharmakosha, though, in addition to the heavenly Yama there is another Yama, who belongs to the realm of the hungry' spirits. It is unclear whether these two are the same or different beings. What is obvious in the Abhidharmakosa is that the realm of the dead has shifted from the heavens to the underworld. This may have some connection with the historical shift from cremation to burial. It is thought that cremation was a custom of the Aryans, the composers of the Rg Veda. If we stretch the imagination, we could conjecture that burial was the norm of the people who occupied India before the Aryan invasion, and that the custom gradually reasserted itself in the face of Ary an pressure.

In any case, the realm of the dead, now having shifted to the subterranean abode of the hungry' spirits, was no longer a pleasant and comfortable land, but a sad and gloomy place where the majority of the dead were forced to suffer. Even in the Vedic period there had been unhappy dead. Venerating the spirits of dead ancestors was an important duty of the descendants. Those who died without progeny had no one to enshrine them and so became unhappy spirits. (The description in the Chinese Book of Rites [Li-chi] that “a spirit is one who is dead and without a tomb” derives from the same type of thinking.) By the time of the Abhidharmakosa (5th century C.E.), a being unhappy in death was considered merely to have reaped what he had sown in life.

In Sanskrit an ancestral spirit is pitr, pitar, or pita (pitr or pitar originally meant “father” and was related to the Latin pater) and a hungry spirit is preta. In the vernacular Prakrit language, though, both are peta. It is not at all strange, therefore, that in the vernacular the ancestral spirit became a hungry spirit and Yama, lord of the ancestral spirits (J/itr-pati), became lord of the hungry spirits.

Though in the Abhidharmakosa Yama descended to the realm of the hungry spirits, he did not at first go as far as the hells. The hells had their wardens, but they did not have a lord. All the same, Yama was not without some connection with the hells, for it was he who ordered the raksasas (flesh-eating demons) to toss living beings into them. After the time of the Abhidharmakosa, Yama did descend to become the lord of the hells, his second demotion. We see this in the Yogacarabhumi-sastra (ca. 5th-6th century C.E.).

Keep in mind that, in Buddhist thinking, death is one of many forms of rebirth. The hells were not the final dwelling place, but a point along the way. Buddhism taught that the sufferings of hell came as a result of deeds done in life. The hells themselves were formed by the karma of living beings, and even their wardens were born there as a result of karma. There was no figure of absolute judgment, divorced from the karma of living beings. Yama’s lordship of the hells is the result, and philosophical requirement, of the introduction of the idea of judgment into the Buddhist concept of hell. With judgment came the need for a judge, and before long the lord of the hungry spirits had taken over that role. At this point, in Japan, the transliterative character -ma of Yama was replaced with a frightful character meaning “demon.”1

The provenance of the idea of judgment is a question worthy of examination. One possible source lies near at hand, in the Avesta (ca. 7th century B.C.E.), the scriptures of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster says, “I ask you these things, Ahura [the Zoroastrian supreme god]; what does indeed occur and arrive? What debt do they pay for judgment to the pure, what to the wicked, when these [judgments] shall be concluded?”2 The idea also appears in Greek mythology. Minos sits in judgment over the dead, as does Hades. In the Odyssey Homer describes Minos as “sitting, gold sceptre in hand, and delivering judgment to the dead, who at or stood all around, putting their cases to him for decision within the House of Hades, to which the gate is wide.”1 Hades corrects humans in the underworld, recording all their deeds on a slate and investigating them. It is difficult to say which of these ideas of judgment is closest to the Buddhist concept, though graphically the Buddhist and Greek judges have many similarities. Both are depicted, in texts or in visual arts, as holding scepters and writing implements. In Judaism, of course, God is the judge. The Chinese concept of the other world must also be considered, as must the possibility that ideas from different cultures influenced Buddhism concurrently. Furthermore, we must not forget that all these ideas might have a common origin somewhere—for example, a picture from ancient Egypt that shows the heart of a dead person being measured is suggestive.


A new and different aspect of hell entered Japanese Buddhism around the eleventh century. This was Sanzu no kawa, the “river of the three ways.” In the history of ideas, seemingly incongruous ideas sometimes appear, whose origins are difficult to trace. Sanzu no kawa is one of these cases. The idea of a river that has to be crossed after death appears in literature as watari-gawa (“river to be crossed”) in The Great Mirror (Okagami, ca. Ill 9), as sanzu no kawa (“river of the three ways”) and mitsuse-gawa (“river of the three currents”) in The Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike (Gempei Seisuiki, fourteenth century), and as sanzu no kawa in the Chronicle of the Great Peace (Taiheiki, ca. 1371). Sanzu no kawa is not an orthodox Buddhist concept. There is absolutely no mention of it, for example, in the Abhidharmakosa or in later Indian Buddhist writings. Nor is there any Indic equivalent of the expression. Furthermore, it is an idea that appeared around the time Buddhism began to decline in India, when the creative activities of Buddhists had come to a standstill (ca. 10th century). This suggests that the idea entered Buddhism from another region, perhaps the border regions of India or somewhere in SANZU NO KAWA 16 3

China. Another possibility is that the idea arose within Buddhism itself at a later date.

The Abhidharmakosa mentions the existence of a sub-hell called Nadi Vaitarani (“burning river”), as discussed in chapter 2. This hell takes the shape of a river or moat, and the name of this “burning river,” Vaitarani, has the connotation of “to cross.” Perhaps this hell became a “river to be crossed” and was the forerunner of Sanzu no kawa. The two rivers differ, however, on the following three points. First, Nadi Vaitarani is itself a hell, whereas the Sanzu no kawa stands at the entrance to the underworld. Second, Nadi Vaitarani is a sub-hell, where the damned are tortured on leaving hell proper, and is therefore a hell to which people fall after entering hell proper. The Sanzu no kawa, on the other hand, has to be crossed before people enter hell. Third, there are four Nadi Vaitaranis associated with each of the hot hells, making thirty-two in all. There is only one Sanzu no kawa.4 Yet there are those who remain convinced that there is sufficient scope in the concept of Nadi Vaitarani for Sanzu no kawa to have developed from it if a long period of time is taken into consideration.

There is the added possibility that if some other concept much closer to Sanzu no kawa happened to exist in or near a Buddhist region, that concept might have been adopted into Buddhism. In fact, both Greek mythology and the Zoroastrian scriptures contain descriptions of such a river. For purposes of comparison, let us first consider the description of Sanzu no kawa as it appears in Mochizuki’s Buddhist dictionary, based on a sutra called the Sutra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and the Ten Kings (Jizo bosatsu hosshin innen jud-kyo, ca. 12th century), probably composed in China or Japan.

Near the Sozuga [Sanzu no kawa], in the vicinity of Shoko, stretching together are the offices of the officials receiving those who cross. The great river in front is the Sozuga. The dead who cross are called “forders of the river of hell.” There are three crossing points: (1) the shoals of the upper stream [sansui in Japanese]; (2) the depths of the lower stream \kdshin’cri\', and (3) the bridged crossing [ukyotoj. In front of the official building is a large tree, called eryoju. Two demons live in its shadow, one called Datsueba [“the old woman who rips off robes”], and the other Ken’eo [“the old man who hangs out robes”]. The female demon admonishes against thieving actions and breaks the fingers of both hands, and the male demon abhors lapses in ritual and bends the head against the feet. And men [who are first-time offenders in adultery] bear their women on their backs, and the ox-headed [[[Wikipedia:demons|demons]] who are the guardians of hell] bind the shoulders of two people with iron poles and chase them across the swift current. All gather under the tree. There the female demon rips off their robes and the male demon hangs the robes on the branches. They weigh their sins by the degree of bending [of the branch], then send them to the court of judgment.5

According to Greek mythology, there are five rivers in the underworld: Styx, Acheron, Cocytus (Kokytos), Lethe, and Pyriphlegethon (Phlegethon). Because the san in Sanzu no kawa means “three,” it might be thought that the five rivers of the underworld are unlikely ancestors of Sanzu no kawa. San. however, refers not to the number of rivers but to the number of crossing points on one river; furthermore, the Greeks did not consider five rivers to be a fixed number, and did not conceive them as a group of five at a particular time. More important is the fact that the Greek and Mochizuki’s descriptions have in common the factor that the dead have to cross the river prior to entering the underworld. There are other similarities. There is a guard or ferryman at each river, with whom the dead have to negotiate when crossing. A ferryman called Charon carries the dead across the Acheron for a fee; in Japan, Datsueba and Ken’eo guard the Sanzu no kawa. It was a custom in both Greece and Japan to place a coin in the coffin or in the mouth of the dead person. It therefore seems reasonable to allow that

the idea of the Acheron had some influence on the concept of Sanzu no kawa.

The Zoroastrian Avesta (ca. 7th century B.C.E.) describes the souls of the dead as crossing the Bridge of the Separator, Chinvato Peretu, before reaching the shore (haetu) of three Yazatas (angel-like beings). This bridge reminds us of the “bridged crossing” in Mochizuki’s description of Sanzu no kawa. In the Avesta, however, it is the souls of the righteous who proceed across the Chinvat Bridge to the shore of the Yazatas, whereas the Sanzu no kawa is crossed only by evildoers and denotes a gloomy and melancholy place. The easy and safe “bridged crossing,” unlike “the shoals of the upper stream” and “the depths of the lower stream,” has no connotation of punishment; it thus may be related to the Chinvat Bridge. Interestingly, the Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222-82), in his Treatise in Praise of Ten Kings (Juo sandan-sho), describes this bridge as being made of the seven precious stones, including gold and silver, and says that only the good are able to cross it.

Although it is possible to seek Sanzu no kawa’s origins in Greece and Iran, we must not forget China, which may have been where Greek and Iranian mythology accreted to Buddhism. The Sutra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and the Ten Kings is said to have been narrated by a man called Tsang-ch’uan, who also appears as the narrator of an earlier sutra, the Sutra on Rebirth into the Pure Land and the Ten Kings (Yoshu juo shoshichi-kyo, Chinese apocrypha, ca. 10th century). He was said to have lived during the T’ang dynasty (618-907) in China. If the two sutras were authentic, they would have had to be composed in India and translated (“narrated”) by Tsang-ch’uan. An analysis of their content, however, indicates that both seem to have been written in China, first and foremost because of the extremely Chinese nature of the names of the ten kings (juo) of the tides.

We saw earlier how in Greek myth the dead had to pay a fee to Charon to be transported across the Acheron. The custom of inserting “burial money” (i-ch’ien) inside the coffin of the dead person prevailed in China from around the second century', and by the T’ang dynasty “paper money,” coin shapes drawn on paper, had come to be used instead. The idea that the dead proceeded to a place called the “yellow springs” seems to have come into being around the time of Tso-ch’uan’s Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (ca. 3d century B.C.E.), prior to the introduction of Buddhism to China.1’ It is likely that preBuddhist Chinese ideas of the other world had much influence on the Buddhist concept of hells. Incidentally, it is said that Taoism adopted its idea of hell from Buddhism.


and Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva

Yet another conception of hell is Sai-no-kawara, the “riverbank of suffering,” and it is also a product of later Buddhism. Though it is situated somewhere near the entrance to hell, its connection with Sanzu no kawa is unclear, and texts do not state that Sai-no-kawara is the bank of Sanzu no kawa. The concept most likely originates in the “village of Sahi,” a burial ground for the common people at the confluence of the Kamo and Katsura rivers in Kyoto. Its existence is mentioned in records dating back to the latter half of the ninth century.7 These records also mention the custom of piling stones to make small mounds (stupas) in memory of the dead. The original meaning of Sahi is unclear (it may mean “rust” [sa/>z] or “astringent” [s/zzto]), but later it appears to have become linked with the gods of boundaries (Sae no kami, or Doso-jin), who prevent evil spirits from entering a village. Small shrines or piles of stones dedicated to them are placed at crossroads, and travelers add small stones to the mound in much the same way as travellers crossing the Tibetan passes. As crossroads and mountain passes are dividing points, Sai-no-kawara is the dividing point between the realms of the living and the dead.

Sai-no-kawara is notorious as a place of torture for children. It is said that a dead child caused its mother much pain and suffering while in the womb and yet died without returning any of the kindness it had received, and that it caused its parents to grieve by dying. Surely this is not the fault of the child, and indeed this would have been the cry of those who had lost their children. They would have felt no need for their children to repay any imaginary debts. All the same, in Buddhism everyone, including children, roams the realms of delusion as long as they have not reached enlightenment. Everyone passes through the six paths of transmigration, and who can say who eludes the torments of hell?

At Sai-no-kawara, children who die young have to build stone mounds without cease. Children of three or four, separated from their parents, are tormented by the guards of hell and forced to pile up small stones to make mounds. As soon as these mounds are almost finished, they are knocked down, and the children have to begin piling up stones all over again. This is the Japanese version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who for his crimes was hurled into Tartarus and condemned eternally to roll a large rock up a hill. As soon as the rock almost reached the top it would come hurtling down and Sisyphus would have to start his endeavors again. I am convinced that the myth of Sisyphus influenced the description of the piling up of rocks at Sai-no-karawa.

There is a famous poem (wasari) about Sai-no-kawara that deeply moves the Japanese, translated here in prose.

We devote ourselves to the Three Treasures [[[Buddha]]; Dharma, or his teachings; and Sangha, or community of believers] . In this world all is transient. In the fact that children may die before their parents, there are various kinds of sadness. Young children, one or two, or three, or four, or younger than ten, are separated from their mother’s breasts, gathered together on the riverbank of Sahi, where for all the hours of the day they carry big stones and pile them into mounds. For all the hours of the night they pick up small stones and pile them into stupas. They pile the first layer [of stones] for Father, the second for Mother. On the third they face the west and place their tiny hands together, for their brothers and sisters in their native towns and themselves. Oh, how pitiful, young children crying and crying as they carry stones. Their hands and feet are lacerated by the stones, blood streams from their fingers, staining their bodies red. “I miss you, Father! I miss you, Mother!” Crying for their parents they fall down, crying as though they were in pain. The fearsome guards of hell, with their eyes like mirrors reflecting the sun, glare at the young ones. “The stupa mounds you have built are crooked and displeasing to the sight. They will bring you no merit as they are. Build them again, praying for your buddhahood.” Thus howling at the children they flail their iron scourges and break down the stupa mounds. The poor little children throw themselves down and weep. . . .

A stream runs between the banks. The thought of the grieving parents in the Saha world reaches there, and their shadows are reflected [on the stream]. Wishing to relieve their hunger, the children crawl and approach, longing for the [mother’s] breast. At that moment [her] shade immediately disappears, and the [[[Wikipedia:stream|stream]]] water burns as bright as a flame, scorching the children’s bodies, and the children fall down. Uncountable are such unbearable things.8

For parents who have lost young children, how sorrowful this poem must be! Not only have their beloved children gone to a place where the parents’ hands and voices can no longer reach them but, unendurably, they are subjected to suffering at the riverbank. Moreover, if the parents mourn their children, their voices sound like the cries of demons to the children; the hot tears of the fathers become boiling water raining down on them, and the mothers’ tears, ice, imprisoning them. There must be parents who would even act wrongfully in order to follow their children to hell. But such a wrong act may separate them even more.

It is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva who observed the suffering of the inhabitants of the six paths of transmigration and who, having undergone myriads of years of religious training, now walks there, relieving pain. Like the bhiksu (ordained priest) Dharma-kara (the name of Amitabha Buddha before his enlightenment), Ksitigarbha made a number of vows, resolving to bring deliverance to living beings. He appears in works of art dressed as a Buddhist novice or a young Buddhist ascetic with shaved head, emblematic of his hurry to arrive at the realms of suffering.

But doesn’t Amitabha already provide deliverance to all those who call upon his name? This he does, but he is far away, ten myriads of hundreds of millions of buddha-lands to the west. Ksitigarbha, on the other hand, sets no conditions and will save all those transmigrating among the six paths of rebirth who may not repent and call upon Amitabha, or who may not know of Amitabha’s existence. Moreover, Ksitigarbha has himself come to Jambudvipa and walks among the beings in the six paths of rebirth. In particular he is found in the hells, especially at Sai-no-kawara where young children are suffering. He takes their hands, and like a kindly old priest playing ball with children in a temple garden, he speaks gendy to them and plays games with them. He is the buddha of whom it is said “a buddha in hell.”

This contrast between the roles of Amitabha and Ksitigarbha was not designed from the beginning. Amitabha and Ksitigarbha originally represented two distinct lines of belief. The three Pure Land sutras that speak of Amitabha contain no clear depiction of hell; there are only scattered references. The name of Ksitigarbha is nowhere to be found. Ksitigarbha seems to have belonged to another stream of thought entirely, that of the tathagata-garbha, “repository of buddhahoodinherent in all beings. The Sanskrit name Ksitigarbha means “earth matrix.” He stores within himself all merits, and brings them forth in various forms.

All Buddhism, whether pre-Mahayana or Mahayana, stresses the spirit of compassion. When the idea of judgment entered Buddhism (ca. 1 Oth 11th century), a sense of compassion soon ameliorated that gruesome notion, and so Yama, the judge, was said to be a manifestation of Ksitigarbha. Yama, it was taught, is not as fierce as his aspect suggests; he terrifies people as a skillful means to lead them to deliverance. Certain beings may learn from the horrors of hell and be encouraged to escape the round of birth and death. Pictures of the Ten Kings (who sentence the dead in the underworld) show the judges fiercely berating evildoers, with the compassionate face of Ksitigarbha looming close behind them. The cult of Ksitigarbha was flourishing in China by the seventh century.

The Pure Land of Sukhavati and hell are not to be found in this world. Nevertheless, throughout Japan there are places in the mountains with names like “plain of Amitabha” and “valley of hell.” These originate mainly from the practices of the yama-bushi, mountain ascetics who populated these regions and named the various features to provide a means of training themselves and teaching the common people. Nowadays, though, the expressions jigoku (“hell”) and Sai-no-kawara are often used casually as the names of outdoor pools at hot-spring resorts. At some of these places, arbors even provide delectable views. Sai-no-kawara was originally written with the first character meaning “to block.” A character with the same pronunciation, but meaning “to enshrine,” later replaced it. At Kusatsu, a hot-spring resort north of Tokyo, I found Sai-no-kawara written with the first character meaning “west,” also with the same pronunciation. This latest change has no doubt come about through association with the idea of the western paradise of Amitabha. According to Buddhism, though, hell and its riverbank are not somewhere in the west but beneath our land of Jambudvipa.

For people of the Middle Ages, in both Japan and Europe, hell was very real. It is curious how close the two distant cultures came on this point. Between the Heian and Kamakura periods in Japan, that is, between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, the idea of an approaching period of the Decay of the Dharma (mappo) gained currency. Numerous books depicting the hells or the hungry spirits were produced, and many people placed their faith in rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha. In Europe, also, the idea of the millennium became influential, and depictions of hell appeared in the cathedrals of Germany and France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Early in the twentieth century a French scholar discovered Buddhist remains at Hadda in Afghanistan. The stucco sculptures of demons’ heads he unearthed attracted considerable interest because of their similarities with the demons’ faces found in European cathedrals. The Hadda sculptures are much earlier than the European ones, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries, and with good reason might be considered the models for the carvings of demons found in Christian churches. Another scholar believes that both traditions derive from Roman art, products of the borderlands of the Roman Empire, and that the similarities between them indicate an indirect connection (the Hadda sculptures are Greco-Roman in style). The demons in the stucco sculptures of Hadda may or may not have some connection with the concept of hell; certainly later they came to be linked with the demons who populated hell. I do not know whether any depictions of the Buddhist hell existed in India, but excavations have unearthed such depictions in Central Asia, and the Central Asian images are similar to the pictures of hell drawn in Japan. It is those images that cause us to postulate a connection between Japan and Europe during the Middle Ages.

In this chapter we have deviated from our discussion of Buddhist cosmology in India proper. But studying the Buddhist thought of different regions suggests that Buddhist cosmology has been and can be a worldwide concern. In the next chapter I will discuss the cosmology from this point of view.