The Buddha in hell
06 Sunday May 2012
Within the past few days, three emails have arrived here with more or less breathless news of a Buddhist monk whose near-death experience account describes his seeing the Buddha in hell. It is apparently Big News on the Internet, though so far as I can tell the account goes back quite a few years.
But Buddha in hell! Some letter writers wonder, this must prove that the God of wrath is real, right? Well…
I looked up the account on Google, and sure enough, it’s an interesting story.
Is it convincing? To my mind, no, the breathless Internet commenters notwithstanding, which makes it a useful example to explore in a bit of detail. Here’s why.
If you have read the account, you know that the monk presents a thoroughly believable autobiographical background of his life in Myanmar, how he was raised and came to be living as a monk. It sounds familiar and entirely credible, even down to details like the sea crocodile that destroyed his boat. (I looked it up—and yes, there are such crocodiles in that area, and that is the kind of behavior one would expect of them.)
The account describes how he came to enter training to be a monk, and his respect for his teacher, “the most famous Buddhist monk in all of Myanmar” The narrator details how he lived for quite a few years devoted to his spiritual practice and to the principles of Buddhism, so scrupulous that he refused even to harm a mosquito that might infect him with malaria, which turned out to be the disease that nearly killed him. Actually, he reports that he had both malaria and yellow fever and grew weaker and weaker.
So far, so good. It’s clear and it’s credible. But now, to my mind, there begin to be problems that illustrate why readers of near-death experience accounts need to exercise the same discernment they use, one hopes, when receiving an email from Nigeria asking for money. Just because an NDE account says something happened doesn’t mean it’s literally true!
“I learned later that I actually died for three days. My body decayed and stunk of death, and my heart stopped beating.” [Enter Question #1]
And then comes his NDE.
According to the account, he encountered “a terrible, terrible lake of fire. In Buddhism we do not have a concept of a place like this. At first I was confused and didn’t know it was hell until I saw Yama, the king of hell, Trembling, I asked him his name. He replied, “I am the king of hell, the Destroyer.” [This quote raised questions #2 and #3 for me. How about you?]
“The king of hell told me to look into the lake of fire. I looked and I saw the saffron colored robes that Buddhist monks wear…” [Question #4]
The monk recognized the greatly revered spiritual teacher and protested his being there. Yama responded [Question #5), “Yes, he was a good teacher but he did not believe in Jesus Christ. That’s why he is in hell.” Then the monk saw Gautama, the Buddha, in the fire, and asked, “Gautama had good ethnics and good moral character, why is he suffering in this lake of fire?” The king of hell answered me, “It doesn’t matter how good he was. He is in this place because he did not believe in the Eternal God.” [Repeat Question #5]
The Buddha is followed by a Burmese ruler who persecuted Christians, and Goliath, from the Old Testament, who blasphemed the Eternal God.
There is more to the account, in scenes from biblical stories and an encounter with St. Peter, all in the same vein. All lead to the Big Question #6: Considering that near-death experiences as a category promote compassion and knowledge but are not known to be explicitly doctrinal, how is it that every incident in this entire account reflects a particularly flavored understanding of Christian teaching?
It is quite true that people typically identify religious entities in NDEs according to whatever labels already exist in their minds; so it is not unusual for a Christian person to say, “Oh, yes, that must have been ¬¬¬[biblical name x] I saw,” or for a Hindu to say, “I met Yama.” But the actual content of NDEs does not so neatly present in religious pageants, so to speak; their lessons are human rather than theological. Doctrinal statements come afterward, as part of conscious processing.
That is why I am convinced that one of two things is true:
- The account is a flat-out Christian testimonial that has been faked as a near-death experience account, or
- The account originated as an actual Burmese near-death experience; but the hand of a Christian evangelical interpreter lies heavily on top of that NDE.
It is altogether conceivable that the essence of this account lies in a genuine Burmese NDE. Lakes of fire are not uncommon in NDEs and other mystical experiences, and despite the monk’s comment to the contrary, Buddhism does include some kinds of hell (Narakas) featuring fiery torments, though not necessarily lakes of fire. Now, as before his training as a monk the narrator lived for a while in Yangon City (Rangoon), which has a far larger Christian population than other parts of Myanmar, it is likely that he had heard some Christian teachings. It is also quite probable, given the combination of cultural and religious influences in that part of the world, that the teachings he had encountered were of the vivid, revivalist sort with explicit descriptions of hell and judgmental torment–the kind that people remember because they’re so frightening. It is easy to see how that could have influenced the monk’s NDE. It is even possible that the monk was internally moving from his Buddhist beliefs to becoming Christian. In any case, one need only add some later Christian embellishments to come up with the account presented here.
There are too many other questions about this account. There’s the “awakened while putrifying” aspect, which is an imaginative detail but physiologically too much to credit; a genuinely decaying body does not reanimate. Also, a genuinely committed Buddhist, particularly a monk, would surely have to wrestle with the content of that experience for more than two seconds before declaring himself a permanent Christian. (Even Saint Paul withdrew for a time after his epiphany before beginning to teach.) We are told that the monk himself went on to convert “hundreds of other monks” and to travel around and testify to his new-found conservative Christian faith; yet he has conveniently disappeared from public view, so can’t be questioned.
Overall, I find this account, as described, beyond credibility as an accurate original presentation of any NDE, much less one of a believing Buddhist monk.
Two things I believe are really important when trying to understand what any spiritual experience means: 1) Like dreams, visionary experiences carry their messages in symbol, not in the literal, fact-filled terms of everyday speech. Taking them at their literal appearance is rarely accurate. 2) In much the same way, near-death experiences seem directed to the human spirit and psychology generally; they do not, as experiences, carry specific doctrinal religious messages, although we may interpret them that way afterward.
I don’t scoff at cross-cultural content, because I am an observant Christian whose NDE included a figure which I later learned was the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol. (I wonder if a Christian living in an Islamic or Hindu culture might be more likely than here to interpret a figure from an NDE as Mohammed or Vishnu.) But the presence of that symbol in my experience was not to say that Buddhism is right and Christianity wrong. It took a very long time for me to understand that it was not delivering an explicit teaching about religious doctrine but was functioning as a symbol—like an arrow pointing beyond itself.
We see fire in an experience like the monk’s and immediately, culturally, think “punishment in eternal torment.” We don’t stop to consider that the presence of God has traditionally been associated with fire, as with Moses and the burning bush. In fact, the Bible includes some ninety references to the presence of God as fire. We can do the same with any element of a spiritual experience—what might it mean, other than what seems to be sitting right on the surface?
We can look at these troubling experience accounts and choose to interpret them as pointing to the traditional, literal hell. But that is our choice. We can also choose to take the time and trouble to explore what else they might mean, what they may be pointing to about our lives or our way of thinking that could use some change, or that would revolutionize our approach to life itself.
Yes, it is now clear that there are some really scary spiritual experiences. Having worked my way through one, I know just how cataclysmic they can feel. But am I ready, after all these years, to say they point to a concept like hell? Not on your life. Or mine, either.
The same universe, the same God, that has room for these profoundly traumatic events also brings the glorious and/or peaceful spiritual experiences, the ones people believe to indicate heaven. In something of the same way, Hubble photos show us wonderful, serene visions of “what’s out there” along with black holes and incomprehensible violence. Why should our spiritual landscape be different than that of our universe? We are required to learn how to be with it all, in ways that make sense to us.
The idea that a God of the Hubble universe would display such wrath because, as one letter-writer wonderfully put it, we “ate fruit and had opinions,” and that the wrath would involve eternal torment as part of the agenda—it makes no sense whatever. So, let me openly state my conviction that the anticipation of all that divine punishment is the product, not of God, but of our projection of human frustration and rage onto whatever we conceive as Divinity. Our doing, not His!
Similarly, I have come to believe that the NDE which at first seemed to destroy my faith has turned out to be a dubious gift but a gift nonetheless, simply because it has required me to examine these kinds of questions. Howard Storm’s shamanic initiation experience stripped him painfully of one existence and exchanged it for one more satisfying. Who’s to say that was punishment?