A message from Rev. Art J. Kaufmann which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.
To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.
BWDYK 6 Hell and Ojodo
Rev. Art J. Kaufmann, Shaku Sho Ju
Heaven and hell. Most religions have a concept of a heaven and hell. Heaven is a paradise where people are rewarded for living a good, moral life. Hell is where a person suffers for having lived an evil, immoral life. In most cases these conditions, once imposed, are permanent. If a person goes to hell, they remain there for eternity, as do those who go to heaven.
In Shin Buddhism there are similar beliefs but with some very important differences. The following story is an example.
Hakuin was visited by a great and fierce Samurai lord. The samurai demanded that Hakuin tell him everything he knew about how heaven and hell felt. Hakuin came slowly off his meditation seat and immediately started scolding the samurai for interrupting his meditation to answer a question that any child would know the answer to. He further went on to question just how much of a samurai the man was, he insulted the quality of his clothing and expressed his doubt as to whether the samurai’s sword could cut even a cucumber.
If you have ever seen the fiery face of Kilawea’s lava,that is exactly what the samurai’s face looked like. Never had he been so insulted, by anyone, ever. Such insults would require an immediate execution of the offender. The samurai drew his sword and held it high above his head to strike Hakuin down. Hakuin looked up at the samurai and said “This is what hell feels like”. The samurai froze, instantly understanding what the monk meant. The samurai realized the fiery rage that he had entered into and slowly lowered his sword and re-sheathed it. The anger within him cooled and his face regained its color and by the time he looked at Hakuin he was at peace again. “And this is what heaven feels like” said Hakuin
Here it is shown that heaven and hell were not separate from one’s life but that either could be a part of one’s life. It also demonstrated who the creator of heaven and hell was.
One of the Seven Masters of Jodo Shin Shu, Genshin, the Sixth Master, described in detail the horrors of a number of hells that human beings could fall into in his Ojoyoshu (The Teaching Essential to Rebirth).
During Obon we hear about the hell of the hungry ghosts into which Mokuren’s mother had been placed. There are many descriptions of this hell but the one I know of goes like this:
The hungry ghosts are creatures with large bellies, thin necks and an extended mouth with a very small opening at its end. The ghosts are sitting at long tables, on both sides, and the table is about four feet wide.
On these tables is every delicacy imaginable as well as the favorite of each of the ghosts. Every inch of the tables is covered with food. Each ghost has a pair of chop sticks that are 4 feet long, so it is virtually impossible to get the food to their mouths. If by chance they do get a morsel of food close to their mouths, it immediately turns to flame.
Mokuren could not understand why his mother was in such a place since he knew her as a loving and devoted mother. She indeed was a loving and devoted mother to Mokuren but to the exclusion of everyone and everything else and because of this blind selfishness, she fell into the hell of the Hungry ghosts.
In desperation, Mokuren went to Shakamuni Buddha and asked him what he could do to improve his mother’s situation. Since the rainy season was coming to an end, the Buddha suggested that he prepare food for the monks coming out of seclusion and have new robes made for those who were in need. The Buddha cautioned Mokuren though that he must do this in the purest dana, and not just for his mother sake, but to benefit countless beings. Mokuren set about his task and soon other monks joined him in his project and they joyfully received the returning monks.
After all was done Mokuren came to realize that not only did he liberate his mother but also countless other beings through his actions and those of his fellow monks. They all expressed their profound joy and thanksgiving at this having come to pass.
In this instance, it was not only Mokuren’s mother who was experiencing hell; think of how Mokuren himself must have felt upon finding his mother in the hell of the Hungry ghosts? Then, think of how he must have felt upon realizing his mother’s liberation, heaven.
Another way to describe a heavenly state in Shin Buddhism would be that Pure Land of Amida Buddha. The Pure Land is described most beautifully in the Smaller Sutra or Amida Kyo.
As I said though, there are some important differences. Hell, in Buddhism, is not necessarily a permanent situation but a realm that one can enter and get out of. Hell can be experienced any number of times during a life span by living in such a manner as to ignore the truths of existence that were revealed to us in the Buddha’s Dharma. By refusing to accept the realities of this life and trying to force life to be how we want it to be, we can and do create the realm of hell for ourselves and possibly others.
Heaven, in Buddhist terms, could be as simple as having everything going right in your life. Having your family, children and loved ones all safe and healthy. Having people in your life who love you, and awakening to gratitude could also be a heavenly experience.
It could be knowing that the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha embraces us and that we shall not be abandoned. To further know that Amida’s realm of utmost bliss is something that we can all can aspire to.
It is because of our falling in and out of so many different situations from heaven to hell and everything in between that Shinran called us “foolish beings of blind passions.”
Although we may be helpless against these blind passions, our situation is not hopeless. It is for that very reason that Amida Buddha made, and perfected, his 48 vows, for beings such as us, just as we are, helpless but not hopeless. Namoamidabutsu