When asked about my religion, I often reply that my religion is Kindness. When asked about my faith, I often reply that my faith is Compassion. More often than not, people find this puzzling. As much as possible, I do not want to put a label to what I practice but since a great majority of people do not cognitively operate the way I do when asked about religion or faith, to elucidate, I will answer that I am Buddhist - specifically, I belong to the Chan sect of Mahayana Buddhism though I associate more with secular Buddhists.
Now, I do not like to label what I believe and practice. While labels are invaluable as a tool in human communication. How we refer to ourselves and to our practice can help us find fellow Dharmafarers, and helps others understand what our point of view might be but they can also hinder us as we either become too attached to our designations, or as we misunderstand one another's intent in label use.
The Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera said, "[T]o some people, Buddhism might appear to be only a mass of superstitious practices. To another group of people, Buddhism might be a convenient label to be used for temporal gains. To another group, it is old fashioned. To yet another group, Buddhism will have significance as a system of thought for intellectuals only. To some others, it is a scientific discovery. To the pious and devout Buddhist, Buddhism means his entire life, the fulfillment of all he holds near and dear to him."
Christian conservatives often tell me that I will go to hell for being Buddhist, they cite Acts 4:10-12 which states, to wit: "Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole...Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." Likewise, in Galatians 1:9, it states, "As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." Based on the foregoing, Christian conservatives have told me that non-Christian heathens such as myself will remain unsaved and will be eternally tormented in Hell after death.
But what is "hell"? Christian views on Hell vary, but in general traditionally agree that hell is a place or a state in which the souls of the unsaved suffer the consequences of sin.
Christians fear this "hell", and they threaten non-christian heathens such as myself that my soul will eternally burn in hell for being an unbeliever. However, while christians fear "A Hell", Buddhists have HELL REALMS, that's in the plural, mind you. We don't have one hell, we have several known hells, one hundred thirty six to be exact. In Buddhist cosmology, hell realms are collectively called Naraka. However, we must draw a line between Buddhist hell realms and the Abrahamic-Judeao-Christian Hell. First, in Buddhist hell realms, beings are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment; second, the length of a being's stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long.
The Hell Realm is depicted as a place partly of fire and partly of ice. In the fiery part of the realm, Hell Beings are subjected to pain and torment. In the icy part, they are frozen. Interpreted psychologically, Hell Beings are recognized by their acute aggression. Fiery Hell Beings are angry and abusive, and they drive away anyone who would befriend or love them. Icy Hell Beings shove others away with their unfeeling coldness. Then, in the torment of their isolation, their aggression increasingly turns inward, and they become self-destructive.
Buddhist Hell Realms
The common eight Cold Hell Realms as according to 130th discourse of Majjhima Nikaya of the Devadatta Sutra as well as the Abidharma-kosa are the following:
- Arbuda – the "blister" Naraka. This is a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains and continually swept by blizzards. Inhabitants of this world arise fully grown and abide life-long naked and alone, while the cold raises blisters upon their bodies. The length of life in this Naraka is said to be the time it would take to empty a barrel of sesame seed if one only took out a single seed every hundred years.
- Nirarbuda – the "burst blister" Naraka. This Naraka is even colder than the one above, and here the blisters burst open, leaving the beings' bodies covered with frozen blood and pus.
- Aṭaṭa – the Naraka of shivering. Here the beings shiver in the cold, making an aṭ-aṭ-aṭ sound with their mouths.
- Hahava – the Naraka of lamentation. Here the beings lament in the cold, going ha, ho in pain.
- Huhuva – the Naraka of chattering teeth. Here the beings shiver as their teeth chatter, making the sound hu, hu.
- Utpala – the "blue lotus" Naraka. Here the intense cold makes the skin turn blue like the color of an utpala waterlily.
- Padma – the "lotus" Naraka. In this Naraka the blizzard cracks open the frozen skin leaving one raw and bloody.
- Mahāpadma – the "great lotus" Naraka. Here the whole body cracks into pieces and the internal organs are exposed to the cold and they also crack.
Each lifetime in these Narakas is twenty times the length of the one before it.
The text continues with the Hot Hell Realms:
- Sañjīva – the "reviving" Naraka. In this Naraka the ground is made out of hot iron heated by an immense fire. Beings in this Naraka appear fully grown, already in a state of fear and misery. As soon as the being begins to fear being harmed by others, their fellows appear and attack each other with iron claws. Or else, the attendants of Yama appear and attack the being with many fiery weapons. As soon as the being experiences an unconsciousness like death, they are suddenly restored to full health and the attacks begin again. Other tortures experienced in this Naraka include having molten metal dropped upon them, being sliced into pieces, and suffering from the heat of the iron ground. Life in this Naraka is 1.62×1012 years long. It is said to be 1000 yojanas beneath Jambudvīpa and 10,000 yojanas in each direction.
- Kālasūtra – the "black thread" Naraka. Here, in addition to the torments mentioned above, black lines are drawn upon the body, and Yama's servants cut the beings upon the lines with fiery saws and sharp axes. Life in this Naraka is 1.296×1013 years long.
- Saṃghāta – the "crushing" Naraka. This Naraka is also upon a ground of hot iron, but is surrounded by huge masses of rock that smash together and crush the beings to a bloody jelly. When the rocks move apart again, life is restored to the being and the process starts again. Life in this Naraka is 1.0368×1014 years long.
- Raurava – the "screaming" Naraka. Here beings run wildly about, looking for refuge from the burning ground. When they find an apparent shelter, they are locked inside it as it blazes around them, while they scream inside. Life in this Naraka is 8.2944×1014 years long.
- Mahāraurava – the "piercing" Naraka. Punishment in here are for people who maintain their own body by hurting others. In this hell, ruru animals known as kravyāda torment them and eat their flesh. Life in this Naraka is 6.63552×1015 years long.
- Tapana – the "heating" Naraka. Here Yama's servants impale the beings on a fiery spear until flames issue from their noses and mouths. Life in this Naraka is 5.308416×1016 years long.
- Pratāpana – the "great heating" Naraka. The tortures here are similar to the Tapana Naraka, but the beings are pierced more bloodily with a trident. Life in this Naraka is 4.2467328×1017 years long. It is also said to last for the length of half an antarakalpa.
- Avīci – the "uninterrupted" Naraka. Beings are roasted in an immense blazing oven with terrible suffering. Life in this Naraka is 3.39738624×1018 years long. It is also said to last for the length of an antarakalpa.
These Narakas by no means exhaust the tale of possible sufferings. Some sources describe five hundred or even hundreds of thousands of different Narakas.
The purpose of Naraka is not a form of eternal punishment just like in the Abrahamic-Judaeo-Christian Hell. A being is born into a Naraka as a direct result of his or her accumulated karma and resides there for a finite period of time until that karma has achieved its full result. After his or her karma is used up, he or she will be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of karma that had not yet ripened.
If the objective of these Christian conservatives is to scare me into believing what they themselves believe, it won't work. While on a cognitive level the Christian imagery of hell might be terrifying, how about the Buddhist imagery of 136 Hell Realms? Makes one wonder. Buddhism believes that each person has in himself or herself true Buddha nature, even those in the Hell Realms will achieve awakening. Now, in the Christian context what does it hold? Burn in hell if you don't believe "our" truth. That's basically what these Christian conservatives are saying. But what is truth? As a Buddhist, my awakening or descent into lower realms has much to do with how I live my life, my karma, rather than what I believe in. These are philosophical issues that will never be answered by the mere expeciency of saying that "our" truth is the only truth, "our" belief is the only belief, all others are false teachings (that's how christians would label other truths)
The Buddha, in a discourse regarding religious teachings, recorded in the Kalama Sutra (Buddha's Charter on Free Inquiry) provides:
The Buddha proceeds to list the criteria by which any sensible person can decide which teachings to accept as true. Do not believe religious teachings, he tells the Kalamas, just because they are claimed to be true, or even through the application of various methods or techniques. Direct knowledge grounded in one's own experience can be called upon. He advises that the words of the wise should be heeded and taken into account. Not, in other words, passive acceptance but, rather, constant questioning and personal testing to identify those truths which you are able to demonstrate to yourself actually reduce your own stress or misery:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing,
nor upon tradition,
nor upon rumor,
nor upon what is in a scripture,
nor upon surmise,
nor upon an axiom,
nor upon specious reasoning,
nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over,
nor upon another's seeming ability,
nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher."
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them.'
Thus, the Buddha named ten specific sources which knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation to avoid fallacies:
Scriptures or other official texts
One's own opinions
Authorities or one's own teacher
Instead, the Buddha says, only when one personally knows that a certain teaching is skillful, blameless, praiseworthy, and conducive to happiness, and that it is praised by the wise, should one then accept it as true and practice it. Thus, as stated by Ven. Soma Thera, the Kalama Sutta is just that; the Buddha's charter of free inquiry:The instruction of the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta) is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.
Now let's talk about conservative Christian intolerance. In the Christian Bible there are sayings like, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Also, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” In other words, don’t attack others for faults you have yourself. It strikes me as profoundly un-Christian to see Christians attacking non-Christians. I can’t prove that God exists or that He doesn’t, but I’m sure of one thing. If God does exist, we have no way to know what He is thinking. How can we can tell which of us He will cast into the fire, and which of us He will save? Claiming to know is the sin of vanity.
Wisdom itself, Enlightenment, Nirvana is something vast and ineffable, to be experienced, not to be explained. As Sangharakshita puts it in his commentary on the Heart Sutra , "Avalokitesvara declares all these philosophical and even practical religious categories, all the operative bases of our religious life, including the idea of Conditioned Co-production and even the idea of Enlightenment itself, to be sunya, void, without ultimate validity. He is saying that if you want to develop - if your goal is Perfect Wisdom well, you have to go beyond Buddhism. In reality, you have to realise, there is no such thing as Buddhism. Buddhism is only a raft to take you to the other shore; then it must be abandoned. It is only a finger pointing to the moon. " There is nothing that hinders you in your search for reality so much as that which is there to help you, namely religion. What should be a means to an end is so easily taken for the end itself." In the same way then as we are not Buddhists (in quotation marks), not just Buddhists, so others are not just Christians.
There are fathomless depths to human beings. There are vast potentialities in all individuals, like unmined gold or diamonds, like hidden treasure and we should try to remember this rather than just identify people with the froth and fume of their views.
There is a story at the beginning of the Pali Canon, even before the Buddha outlines all the possible wrong views, where he tells the disciples how to relate to people who may say bad things about him or the Order and also how to relate to those who say good things about him or the Order. The story takes place on the road from Rajagrha to Nalanda. The Buddha is going along the road with about five hundred disciples and following along behind is a man called Suppiya, with his disciple Brahmadatta. Now, Suppiya doesn't like the Buddha or his disciples and he is making all sorts of disparaging remarks about the Buddha and the Order. His disciple does not agree with him as it happens and is defending the Buddha and praising him. When the Buddha and his disciples stop to rest, Suppiya and Brahmadatta stop too and they carry on their discussion. Later some of the Buddha's disciples told the Buddha about the exchange that had taken place between Suppiya and his disciple Brahmadatta and the Buddha says, "Bhikkhus, if outsiders should speak against me, or against the Dharma, or against the Sangha, you should not on that account either bear malice, or suffer heart-burning, or feel ill-will. If you, on that account should be angry or hurt, that would stand in the way of your own self conquest. If, when others speak against us, you feel angry at that, and displeased, would you then be able to judge how far that speech of theirs is well said or ill? That would not be so, Sir." But when outsiders speak in dispraise of me, or of the Dharma, or ofthe Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point out what iswrong, saying: " For this or that reason this is not the fact, that is not so, such a thing is not found among us, is not in us." But also, Bhikkhus, if outsiders should speak in praise of me, in praise of the Dharma, in praise of the Sangha, you should not, on that account, be filled with pleasure or gladness, or be lifted up in heart. Were you to be so that also would stand in the way of your self conquest. When outsiders speak in praise of me, or of the Dharma, or of the Sangha, you should acknowledge what is right to be the fact, saying: "For this or that reason this is the fact, that is so, such a thing is found among us, is in us" So what the Buddha is saying is that the important thing is the truth. If others praise you or criticise you , your interest in it should be to see whether it is true or not and to respond accordingly.
We need to be concerned to discover the truth and proclaim the truth. Attack falsehood and wrong views and praise and encourage the truth and right view wherever you see it. The truth is the essential thing. The truth is the seed of Wisdom and the attitude of goodwill with which we uphold it is the seed of Compassion. Our task as Buddhists is to nurture the seeds of Wisdom and Compassion. We are not concerned to mete out punishment or reward, but to encourage skilfulness in ourselves and others. We are concerned to nurture and encourage whatever leads to the development of higher states of consciousness and an understanding of the mutually interpenetrating nature of human consciousness. It may be some time before we are sufficiently clear ourselves to be able to help other people to clarify their thinking. We may need to spend some years discovering and clarifying our own wrong views before we can be helpful to others who are the victims of wrong views. But nevertheless, the are some basic truths which we can know from our own experience such as "hatred is not appeased by hatred" and these basic truths we can uphold.