Avīci Hell

Perhaps the best known hell-realm within Buddhism is Avīci Hell. It’s the most ferocious and unrelenting dominion that houses the most grievous perpetrators such as those who commit matricide and patricide, rapists, in particular one Ananda (not to be confused with Gautama’s cousin)—who raped his own cousin, the Theri Uppalavanna, heinous murderers (certainly serial murderers have a special place reserved for them in Avīci) and overt slanderers against the Buddha and the Buddhadharma—most notably Devadatta from our last blog. Even though Devadatta eventually becomes liberated from Avīci, whose time is measured in kalpas (a unit of time that describes how long it takes the universe to destroy and recreate itself), he’s still therein suffering from its fire and brimstone.*

*As a further reference to the cosmological nature of a “kalpa”, consider the following from a discourse in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (xv.5, 6):

It is as if, O priest, there were a mountain consisting of a great rock, a league in height, without break, cleft, or hollow, and every hundred years a man were to come and rub it once with a silken garment; that mountain consisting of a great rock, O priest, would more quickly wear away and come to an end than a world-cycle. (As found in W. Randolf Kloetzli’s Buddhist Cosmology, pg.113)

Both in Sanskrit and Pāli,  Avīci  means “interminable,” “relentless,” “incessant”; as David Lopez Jr writes in his Buddhist Scriptures, “even bones melt there because of the heat of terrible fire; since there is no intermission for comfort, it is considered as ‘Avīci’ – the Hell without Intermission.

Avīci is the hell that lies deepest within all imagination, encompasses the worst punishments and that lasts the longest. Avīci is also called the hell without intermission and sometimes described as a hell with multiple stages. The hell beings move from one hell to the next, each inflicting them with different punishments. Avīci is the only hell that has a variety of punishments, which breaks the cycle of repetition before rebirth. (Maya Shari MacLaughlin’s, Life in Saṃsāra: Torment, Torture and Tolerance in Buddhist Hell.)

The five immediacies

The Lankavatara Sutra speaks of the five immediacies by which one enters into Avīci Hell:

At that time again Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva said this to the Blessed One: The five immediacies are preached by the Blessed One; and what are these five, Blessed One, which being committed by a son or a daughter of a good family cause them to fall into the Avici hell?

The Blessed One replied: Then, Mahamati, listen well and reflect, for I will tell you.

Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva said; Certainly, Blessed One, and gave ear to the Blessed One.

The Blessed One said thus to him: What are the five immediacies? They are: 1. The murdering of the mother, 2. the father, 3. of the Arhat, 4. the breaking-up of the Brotherhood, and 5. causing the body of the Tathagata to bleed from malice.

Now what is meant by the mother of all beings? It is desire which is procreative, going together with joy and anger and upholding all with motherliness. Ignorance representing fatherhood brings about one’s rebirth in the six villages of the sense-world. When there takes place a complete destruction of both roots, fatherhood and motherhood, it is said that mother and father are murdered. When there is a complete extermination of the subordinate group of passions such as anger, ect., which are like an enemy, a venomous rat, the murdering of the Arhat is said to take place. What is meant by the breaking-up of the Brotherhood? When there is a complete fundamental breaking-up of the combination of the Skandhas whose characteristic mark is a state of mutual dependence among dissimilarities, it is said that the Brotherhood is split up.  Mahamati, when the body of the eight Vijnanas, which erroneously recognizes individuality and generality as being outside the Mind—which is seen by the ignorant in the form of an external world—is completely extirpated by means of faulty discriminations, that is, by means of the triple emancipation and the non-outflows, and when thus the faulty mentality of the Vijnana-Buddha is made to bleed, it is known as an immediacy-deed. These, Mahamati, are the five inner immediacies, and when they are experienced by a son or a daughter of a good family, there is an immediacy-deed of realization as regards the Dharma.

Of course, by being aware of these five immediacies and never acting upon them prevents one from falling into Avīci Hell. The major fault-line within these five immediacies is that there is “no realization for those who are sheer offenders of the immediacies, except when they come to the recognition of the truth that an external world is nothing but the Mind itself, seeing that the body, property, and abiding place are discriminations, and that the notion of an ego and its belongings are to be kept away…” (Lanka)

***There is a different rendering (and thus finely-nuanced interpretation) with all this, however, in Red Pine’s translation of the Lanka. The following is from the Lanka series:

Red Pine brilliantly makes mention of the nuance concerning “the five immediacies” (or Five Deadly Sins) “Gunabhadra alone has people committing the five avici deeds and not falling into Avici Hell. All other translators (including Suzuki) and the Sanskrit have the expected: “Those who commit the five avici deeds fall into Avici Hell. The Buddhas explanation, however, clearly supports Gunabhadra.” (Red Pine, pg 168) Red Pine is right on the mark because the Lanka turns these traditional Buddhist evil deeds upside down and gives an inverse interpretation:
1. The mother of all beings: Any regenerative and procreative desire (trishna) with its accompanying greedy pleasures is said to be like a nursing mother.
2. The father of ignorance: The seeds of ignorance (avidya) incurs “rebirth” into the six villages (the six senses) of the sense world. [when the “roots” (motherhood and fatherhood) of these two are cut-off it is called the slaying of mother and father]
3.When the passions, like anger, ect.,–those nasty habitual vexations that gnaw at one like a ravenous rat—are exterminated, then this is said to be the murder of the Arhat.
4. The Breaking-up of the Brotherhood: The slaying of the five Skandhas.
5. Making the Buddha bleed with an evil motive: Essentially, when the eight Vijnanas are given full-sway with their discriminatory power of individuality and generality—called by the Lanka the “faulty mentality of the Vijnana Buddha” which is made to “bleed”.
Very interesting how the Lanka plays with language here…for the inverse signification of such noble terms as mother, father, Arhat, Brotherhood, even Buddha is used to “wake the adept up” and not place such total allegiance on such terms, terminology that can actually hinder one from reaching Tathagatahood. This is similar to what Jesus once said about “turning ones back on one’s father and mother” if one wants to reach the Kingdom of God.

The conclusion of this section more or less indicates that one will surely “fall into Avici Hell”, Red Pine translates Avici as “unrelenting”, if one does not come to the self-realization that external phenomena is nothing but perceptions (projections) of one’s own mind: “However, those who keep committing avici deeds cannot avoid what is unrelenting. Only if they become aware that these are nothing but the perceptions of their own mind, and they abandon projections of a body and what belongs to a body and attachments to a self and what belongs to a self, or they eventually meet a good friend, can escape their projections of continuity in another existence.” (Red Pine, pg 171) I like Red Pine’s translation except, “attachments to a self and what belongs to a self”—Suzuki translates self as, “the notion of an ego and its belongings”, thereby avoiding falling into the trap and heresy of anātmanism. As the Lanka drives home again and again, “what the mind focuses on determines its reality”, so it can easily create its own self-made hell if it owes any semblance of allegiance to the unrelenting “moving principle”. In this sense, Dante’s words ring true: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” The one safeguard in all this is to remain faithful to the truth (paramartha) and to keep one’s mind fixed, not on passing phenomena, but on the ever present “Dharma Realm”, the dharmadhatu—the True, Unmoving Body of Reality.

The Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn posits a fine summation of this refined nuance of the five immediacies and that is the “slaying” of them, thus avoiding the awful pits of the Avīci:

Slaying the five immediacies (mother, father, arhats; disturbing the peace of the brotherhood; making the Buddha bleed with an evil motive) and the breaking-up of the Brotherhood (the slaying of the five Skandhas) itself will awaken the dormant Dharma Mind THAT is the True Shadow Slayer of all inadequate and anthropocentric effigies that hinder the Dharma Child from full self-realization of Tathagatahood.

Once they are slain, the five resilient virtues can be fostered: “faith and logos, Recollective Vigilance, Antecedent Technique [the “turn-about”], and prajna.”

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