I’m going down the road on the Hellbound Train
Take a long look lady ’cause you won’t see me again

– Savoy Brown, “Hellbound Train”

Coming soon to a theater near you, a new documentary “Hellbound?”: “Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why? Featuring an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and musicians, “Hellbound?” is a provocative, feature-length documentary that will ensure you never look at hell the same way again!”

From what I understand, this film, written and directed by Kevin Miller, focuses exclusively on Christian perceptions of Hades, that fiery realm of eternal damnation. But, as we know, nearly every religious philosophy conceives some form of hell. Buddhism is no exception.

Naraka is the Sanskrit word, in Pali, Niraya, and it is karma, the fruit of one’s own actions that can land you in an undesirable hellish realm, not punishment from some divine being as in the Abrahamic religions.

13th Century Japanese representation of Avici Hell

Buddhism describes a number of different kinds of hell, grouped into “hot” hells and “cold” hells. My personal favorite is Avici, the hell of incessant suffering. To my mind, this is worse than eternal suffering, which is just for all time. Avici is ceaseless, without interruption,  relentless – it’s incessant! And probably eternal, too. What could be worse?

I like to think most rational people recognize that Hell as a physical place is a myth. Many Christians I’ve met, however, seem a bit illogical on the subject. They don’t believe in a being called Satan, yet they cling to the idea of God. They have doubts about a physical realm of Hell, but they’re sure about Heaven. I don’t get why one is more tenable than the other. But since I’m not a Christian, I don’t worry about it too much.

But in regards to Buddhism, I am concerned. You see, apparently it’s not just karma that can cause you to wind up in a hell. Some Buddhists believe that if you reject or have doubts about any of the things stated in the “scriptural” texts of Buddhism, the Pali suttas or the Mahayana sutras, guess what happens? Yep, you go to hell.

These texts contain an awful lot of mythological nonsense, though. For instance, in the early suttas the Buddha is often portrayed as an omniscient being, and like Superman, he has powers and abilities far beyond those of normal men, such as the power to walk through walls and mountains, walk on water, teleport great numbers of people across rivers, travel through space like a bird, etc. However, I don’t think he is faster than a speeding bullet. In any case, according to some folks if you harbor doubts about the omniscience or the powers of the Buddha, it’s off to Avici you go.

That’s why I’m concerned, because I don’t believe any of that. But, it’s true, they insist. It’s stated in the suttas! Yeah, well, many things are stated in the suutas, and some of the statements are conflicting, and as I said, much of it clearly mythological, and as I’ve also said, as have many others, they are not historical documents, they are religious texts, and there’s a big difference. As see it, the sort of thinking that if it’s stated in these sutras, it must be true, is not much different from that old nursery rhyme, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” My feeling is that modern Buddhists should aspire to a more mature point of view. Religious fundamentalism has no place in 21st Century Buddhism.

And here’s something to chew on: Frank Schaeffer, a New York Times bestselling author, wrote this in a blog post about the “Hellbound” film  on CNN.com yesterday,

Why does our view of hell matter? Because believers in hell believe in revenge. And according to brain chemistry studies, taking revenge and nurturing resentment is a major source of life-destroying stress.”

Ironically, those who believe in hell may already be there.

That doesn’t alleviate my concern, though. As Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So, who knows? Maybe there really are hells you can be reborn into, and since I’m never going to buy into a lot of mystical malarkey, at some point I might be headed to one. At least, I’ll be in good company. After all, some of my favorite people were commended to hell, you know, for mocking the Lord or engaging in a lifestyle not exactly what you would call puritanical. Maybe I’ll get to meet Robert Johnson, the blues guy who met the Devil at the crossroads and sold his soul to become a great musician. That might be cool. Maybe not so cool if we were in one of those hot hells, but you know what I mean . . .

One of the few people currently residing in Hell who has his own US postage stamp.

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail . . .
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail

– Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”



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