how to get out of hell

how to get out of hell

“With one thought, evil karma accumulated over endless eons disappears, leaving nothing behind, like dry grass in a fire.”
A Thousand Hands of Compassion

Funny how life is. One minute things are going nicely, and the next, seemingly out of nowhere, everything is Dukkha. Wobbly axle? Uncomfortably grinding along? Tell me about it. My beloved flew back to Japan and, feeling miserable, I sat and watched too much TV. With no practice I became yet more unsettled and this downward spiral led, as it always does with me, to my becoming argumentative and quietly angry. Especially on-line, but off-line too. At work, and at Sangha.

I believe in Hell Realms, real places that truly exist. The Buddha certainly did, and there are hundreds of Sutras from all Buddhist traditions that go into great detail describing the gruesome tortures that await the unfortunates destined to go there, in many cases for kalpa after kalpa, for thousands of millions of years.

Genju recently discussed these realms on her wonderful blog 108zenbooks and Joseph posted a fabulous follow-up soon after. One of the points raised in their discussions was how hell is a reality just as much in this realm as in others. Not just in terms of the vast swathes of human suffering existing on this planet, but as mental states that we all of us experience. And this was certainly true for me this week.

Thank goodness for Sangha. In this case, the usual Monday evening Littlebang meditation group. My sit was awful, my mind at fever-pitch, and although I can’t say that the meditation helped in any direct way, it certainly revealed just how off-centre I was running. And although, while in this hell of the past few days, I never killed anyone or stole anything or slept around or lied or took intoxicants, I saw that on a subtler level my mind was certainly generating the energy that would run in such a direction. Heading, in fact, straight for hell.

Just as some new western Buddhists may be surprised to learn of the existence of myriad Buddhist Hell realms (their existence taken for granted throughout Asian Buddhism), others might also be surprised to learn how important confession and repentance is in Buddhism. But for me, this week, it was my way out of the fire. Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s modern translation of the Thousand Hands Sutra, ‘A Thousand Hands of Compassion’, is a beautiful book with a text perfect for slow devotional reading and repetition.

All harmful deeds I have committed, all unwise actions arising from greed and desire, all harm done through my body, speech, and thought, I now repent of this and all other harm I have caused.”

And with that I re-commit myself. Just as I’ve done before, and just as I’ll do again, but each time is better. I re-vow to watch my energies and the directions in which I send them. Practically speaking, it means I approach people a little differently than before, with less hostility and more kindness, I remove myself from my latest Internet debates (arguing on the web is probably my very worst habit and still a tough one to break) and I treat myself more kindly too. After all, this hell burns me more than anyone else.

The photo that accompanies this seems to sum up everything I want to say. It was taken by my beloved when she was here a week or so ago and says everything that needs to be said about our lives. Heaven, Hell, student, teacher – I’m sure I’ve experienced all in previous lives, just as I know I’ve experienced all in this life; we just keep cycling round and round all the time. The way out is to look towards the Buddha, and – just as in the picture – to find the Buddha at the very centre.

For myself, I’m not really very concerned with the question of inside or outside. I believe in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but I also believe that they manifest within me through my own Buddha-nature, a Buddha-nature that is shared with all. In either case, the point is to step aside and allow the Buddha to manifest. Having done that, and this week it was through repentance, what then of hell? In relying fully upon the Buddha or Buddha-nature, everything both is, and is heading towards, peace, compassion, and wordless wisdom.

“Amitabha Buddha
existing with my mind,
I vow to hurry and meet.”
A Thousand Hands of Compassion

Somewhere in Dhamma: Hell Realms
108zenbooks: no sin, no self

7 thoughts on “how to get out of hell”

  1. Awww.. Marcus! This is an awesome post. I hope you don’t mind if I share it in sangha tonight? Your courage to dig deep is a real model for me. It’s so easy to just fall back into our protective habits (gosh, did you say watch too much tv???) and to let practice fall away. And isn’t it terrific that we are now practiced enough (with scars to prove it!) that we know the way out of the hell realms!

    Thank you for being you!

  2. Zen Master Seung Sahn talked frequently about hell realms, but from a typically Zen perspective. For example, he once said:

    “Your thinking creates heaven and hell. If you make heaven, then there is also hell. If you don’t make heaven, then there is no hell. So don’t make opposites.”

    Of course, we all make opposites – all of the time. But when we see ourselves in the midst of opposite-making – ah, we can take a breather.

    To echo Genju, isn’t it terrific that he are no practiced enough to recognize that we’re actually in a hell realm?

    Thank you for your practice!

    1. eh, we are in Middle realm, it has both elements of hell and heaven, but it is the best place for practice. Don’t agree much with thinking of opposites. What is thinking? And how about insects, animals and people with no normal intelligence, ghosts, etc?I doubt they can think of heaven, yet hell is familiar to them. It is not really that hell is opposite to heaven, but rather it is the lack of light. Like in some religions they say, there is only God, there is no God versus Devil; the devil, hell, it is but shadow, darkness is not opposite of light, it is the lack of light.
      Having compassion and empathy is much more valuable than thinking/not thinking about this or that.

  3. Thanks Marcus,
    I had kind of a similar experience today. I’m always amazed at how the little, whispery things I mindlessly tell myself can prime my emotions, and set me up for a trip through a hell or two.

  4. Hello Marcus, thanks for adding this.

    I just found this quote and thout I should share it..

    “Once you know the nature of anger and joy is empty and you let them go, you free yourself from karma.
    Still others commit all sorts of evil deeds, claiming karma doesn’t exist.
    They erroneously maintain that since everything is empty, committing evil isn’t wrong.
    Such persons fall into a hell of endless darkness with no hope of release.
    Those who are wise hold no such conception.”


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