Buddhist portrayals of unending human suffering Jess Row

LATELY, FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, I’ve been preoccupied with suffering and death—when I’m following the news of the pandemic, but also in my daily meditation practice, which involves chanting, sitting Zen, and reading from stacks of Buddhist books I keep handy next to my cushion. In the past few days I’ve read the chapters on death and rebirth in Tsongkhapa’s encyclopedic Lamrim Chenmo, or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, a book so beloved that the Dalai Lama kept a copy hidden in his robes when he fled Lhasa in 1959.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone that Buddhism has a vast literature on suffering, rebirth, and karma, but I often meet people who tell me with great confidence that in Buddhism there’s no heaven or hell. In Buddhist cosmology, hell isn’t just implied; it’s a landscape, precisely and richly described. While there’s no Buddhist Inferno—the closest equivalent would probably be Wu Cheng’en’s sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West, which takes its hero, the Monkey King, to hell for all manner of torments—systematic descriptions of the underworld are laid out in primary scriptures, which have been condensed, memorized, and recited to lay Buddhists in Asia for centuries, as well as dramatized in murals, sculptures, plays, and, more recently, Buddhist theme parks. A passage from the Lamrim Chenmo:

In the Hot Hell the hell-guardians throw the living beings into a hot, blazing iron kettle many leagues across and boil them, deep frying them like fish. Then they impale them through their anuses with blazing iron skewers, which emerge through the crowns of their heads; blazing flames leap forth from their mouths, eyes, noses, ears, and from all of their pores. Then they are placed either on their backs or face down on a blazing iron surface, where they are pounded flat with a hot, blazing iron hammer. In the Extremely Hot Hell the guardians force iron tridents into their victims’ anuses. . . . Their bodies are caught in a hot, blazing iron press; they are thrown head-first into a great blazing iron kettle full of boiling water and boiled . . . until their skin, flesh, and blood are destroyed and only their skeletons remain. Thereupon the guardians fish them out, spread them on the iron surface—where their skin, flesh, and blood regenerate—and then throw them back into the kettle.

There’s a pornographic Looney Tunes quality to these descriptions that makes it impossible for me to take them seriously; they remind me of the ravings of the Westboro Baptist Church. As someone raised Christian in the West, I still reflexively associate hell with the rhetoric of original sin, collective damnation, and the Day of Judgment. The moral framework in which the Buddhist hells exist has none of these qualities. The workings of karma, which follow beings from one realm of existence to another, often result from mental and physical acts over many lifetimes; rebirth in hell is the worst of six possible categories. While there’s plenty of moralizing rhetoric in Buddhism about the power of negative karma, there’s also a healthy amount of what might be called strategic vagueness about individual cases: In the Acintita Sutta, the Buddha warns that attempts to conjecture the precise results of karma will “bring madness & vexation.” All of which makes hell in Buddhism one vivid, but small, part of a large cosmos of ongoing karmic existence.Tulku Lama, Wheel of Life, 2001, gouache and gold leaf on canvas, 27 1⁄8 × 19 3⁄4″. Thangka Mandala Buddhist Art Gallery

In any case, for me—like many Buddhists, past and present—the most frightening part of karma isn’t a vision of torments in the next life, but the idea that my suffering in this life isn’t altogether random or circumstantial; it carries the trace of some previous action along with it. There’s something unbearable about causality when we think about it in the strictest terms: A virus, for example, can be transmitted through the simplest unconscious act, like scratching your nose with the same finger that was just wrapped around a subway pole. In contemporary physics, the limits of causality are explored in the field known as “quantum entanglement,” or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”: that is, the ability of distant entities to influence one another with no apparent force (like gravity) connecting them. Physicists know quantum entanglement happens, but how it works, and what power it exerts over everyday objects, is a subject of much debate.

What does this mean, for those of us interested in human agency, as a moral system or as art? It’s an essentially comic question, which begets Journey to the West, Sartre’s No Exit, and NBC’s The Good Place, but also David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, the story of an earnest environmentalist who tries to embrace a philosophy of universal interconnectedness and winds up setting fire to his rival’s Jet Skis, and nearly all the work of Spalding Gray, who in Gray’s Anatomy quotes his therapist: “All things are contingent, and there is also chaos. In other words, shit happens.” I think of this as the same kind of sensibility Flannery O’Connor identified when she wrote about her own eccentric Christianity, in Mystery and Manners: “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.” That’s the spirit in which depictions of hell speak to me: as comic refractions of the real, inextinguishable problem of human suffering.

Jess Row is the author of the novel Your Face in Mine(Riverhead, 2014) and the nonfiction book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination (Graywolf, 2019).

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