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Rescue Me From Hell


As a child, I became well-versed in the concept of hell.  It was an important part of my training in the Christian, evangelical church.  After all, how could I be a good emissary for the lord if I didn't know what was at stake.  

Yes, church picnics and bible camps were fun, but they were also superfluous.  The purpose of Christianity wasn't to help me sell cookies at the church bake sale.  Rather, it was to protect me from an eternity of hellfire and torment  

The rules were simple. I had to accept Jesus as my lord and savior, attend church regularly, and pay my tithes.  To do anything less would result in punishment as shown in John 3:16 and John 3:36:

(16) For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (36) The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.

Just as as a loving parent will punish their child for misbehaving in order to keep them safe.  I was taught that God would punish me for my transgressions to protect the rest of his flock.  One bad apple can spoil the bunch as they say, and one sinner can destroy an entire church.  So, if I died without being "saved" and giving my life to Jesus I'd be sent to hell for eternity so that my sins wouldn't wash off on everyone else.

A description of God's judgement could be found in Revelations 20:15, which states:

(13) The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds.(15) If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.

For a time, I took comfort in these verses.  It didn't matter what happened here on Earth.  Whether it was a kid bullying me at school or a madman blowing up an office building.  Eventually, we would all stand before God, and things would be made right.

Good people would be rewarded.  Bad people would be punished; forever and ever, amen.

However, my viewpoint began to change as I got older.  Being "good" was more complicated than I initially imagined.  It seemed strange to me that a kind, generous, law-abiding person would burn in hellfire for eternity if they were the wrong religion.  Meanwhile, a serial killer would go to heaven if they accepted Jesus as their lord and savior before dying.

`These questions along with others eventually led me away from the Christian faith.  I was an atheist for a while, and then I found Buddhism.  Mistakenly, I thought Buddhism was a secular philosophy, free of supernatural concepts where the only salvation I needed to find was freedom from my own mental maladies.

I was mistaken.  In fact, Buddhism is a religion with a cosmology that's even more complex than the one I grew up with.  There are hell realms, god realms, pure lands, etc.  And each one has different rules for entry based on our actions here on Earth.  

For example, if someone was greedy and stole from others during their lifetime, they'd be reborn in the hungry ghost realm; constantly eating and never feeling full. Similarly, if they were filled with lust and anger while they were alive, upon death they might be reborn in the animal realm; unable to utilize their intellect beyond base, survival instincts.

This seemed appropriate.  People weren't being punished, they were just suffering the consequences of their actions.  If someone behaves like an animal long enough... they'll become one.

I also liked that the focus was on my actions as opposed to my beliefs.  But there was still something that irked me.  The Buddhist concept of hell seemed just in my eyes.  But it lacked compassion.

If I ended up in a hell realm because I made mistakes, I didn't want to stay their forever.  I wanted someone to care enough for me that they'd come down and get me out of there.  I wanted to be rescued from hell.

Thankfully, Buddha had that covered.  He taught that existence in a hell realm, like all things in Samsara, is temporary.  We're there just long enough to burn off our negative karma, and then we try again in a higher, more peaceful realm.

He also offered the teaching of Bodhisattvas; people who have taken it upon themselves to save all sentient beings (including those in hell realms) from suffering.  This is done in many ways.  

In Buddhist temples, it's customary for students to give offerings to hungry ghosts during meals to help ease their hunger.  And the first veterinary hospitals were created by Ashoka, a Buddhist king, in order to care for beings in the animal realm.

There are also celestial Bodhisattvas like Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and Jizo, the Bodhisattva of hell-beings who travels the lower realms; helping demons realize enlightenment.

The most powerful Bodhisattva is Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.  He started life as a human monk named Dharmakara.  And through the power of his practice he gained miracle-powers, which he used to create a pure land of infinite bliss. 

He did this because he realized that it's difficult to keep the strict discipline of a Buddhist monk on Earth with all of its suffering and distractions.  So, he created a place free of suffering where people could practice the Dharma and realize enlightenment more easily.

Anyone who wishes to enter his pure land can do so.  But they must be devoted to practice, willing to give up the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance along with the short-term pleasures that come with them.  This is easier said than done.

In fact, I imagine that when people die and meet Amida, the conversation goes something like this:

Amida: Hello, friend! I haven't seen you in a while, how are you?

Friend:  Do I know you?

Amida: Kind of, this is actually the (checks notes) 1,856,000 time that we've met. 
 
Friend:  You seem familiar, but I can't remember... Where are we?

Amida:  This is the afterlife.  You're dead.

Friend: Whoa! How'd that happen?

Amida:  It's probably best if you don't know that.

Friend:  Yeah, I guess you're right.

(awkward silence)

Friend: So, what happens now.

Amida: Well, you have to make a choice.  Where do you want to go next?

(Three doors appear.  The one on the left says, "Hell," the one one in the middle says, "Earth," and the one on the right says, "Amida's Pureland")

Friend: Why would someone choose to go to hell!?

Amida: You'd be surprised.  Generally, people don't want to go to hell, but they want something else that leads them there.  They insist on abusing intoxicants or stealing from their neighbors and... actions have consequences.

Friend: I see.  Let's skip that one for now.  I've already been to Earth... Tell me about this pure land.

Amida: (stands up a bit taller and smiles) Well, I built it myself, every tree bears a different type of fruit, so you're never hungry.  And every bush bears a different type of medicine, so you're never sick.  The streams are made of honey, and the lakes posses pure water with seven types of jewels at the bottom.  It's the ideal place to realize enlightenment.

Friend: Sweet! I want to go there.

(He begins walking towards the door marked "Amida's Pure Land".  Amida doesn't move.)

Amida:  Now, I should warn you, everyone in there is a monastic.  They don't eat meat, have sex, or use illicit drugs of any kind.

(Friend stops walking and turns to face Amida)

Amida:  They also wake up early each morning to practice meditation.  Most of the day is spent chanting and studying the dharma.  As I said, it's the ideal place to realize enlightenment.

Friend: What's wrong with having sex?

Amida: Nothing is wrong with having sex, but it's distracting, and enlightenment is better.

Friend: They don't even eat bacon...

Amida:  Ugh... I will never understand why humans love bacon so much!

Friend: (Takes a step back) It's hard to explain... you sound frustrated.

Amida: Well, this is the 1,856,001 time that we've had this conversation.

(awkward silence)

Friend: What happens if I go back to Earth.

Amida: (sighs) You'll take on a physical body, and the cycle of rebirth will begin again.

Friend: What if I make a mistake?  What if I end up in hell?

(Amida waves his hand and images of countless Buddhist practitioners appear in the air)

Amida: At any given moment, there are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas chanting, praying, and meditating for the good of all sentient beings.  If you end up in hell, we'll come get you out.

Friend: But if you rescue me every time, why should I change my behavior?

Amida: Eventually, you'll get tired of repeating the same mistakes.

(awkward silence)

Friend: Why is Earth stuck between hell and the pure land?

Amida:  Because Earth is the only place in Samsara where you can experience both at the same time.

Friend: I can experience heaven on Earth?

Amida: Yes, you can also experience hell on Earth.  It all depends on your actions and the contents of your mind.

(awkward silence)

Friend:  I hate to disappoint you, but I think I want to give Earth another try.

Amida:  I expected as much.  It took Buddha countless lifetimes to break the cycle of rebirth.  Why should you be any different.  But I'll make you a promise.

Friend: Okay, let's hear it.

Amida: (points at the door marked "Amida's Pureland") The door to my pure land will remain open until you and all sentient beings can walk through it with me.  Remember that when things get hard for you down there.

Friend: Thanks, I will.

(Friend walks through the door marked, "Earth" and disappears.  Amida looks for a moment, and then he sits on the ground; waiting for the next person to appear)

Namu Amida Butsu


 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!




Rescue Me From Hell


Comments

  1. Just catching up now on your posts. Love this conversation! Bravo! I can sooo put myself in that place 🥴

    ReplyDelete

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