Being reborn in the hell-realms is based upon the degree of negative-karma to warrant such a rebirth. This karmic-principle is merciless and irrevocable. As the Dhammapada teaches, you are what you think, and what you think leads to actions and in so doing one can reap much bitter fruit if those actions are wrongfully-conceived and administered. This is not just limited to human beings but also to inhabitants of the god-realms as well. Yea, any being, even devas, are responsible for their actions—thus one is not punished or rewarded by celestial agencies but by one’s own karmic-triggers [action]. Although out of the six realms of impermanence, it is best to be reborn as a human, since the human agency can best be transformed through the Holy Dharma in transcending the samsaric-curse and thus stop the karmic-wheel of transmigration, regeneration and rebirth:
1. Human existence is precious. Being born as a properly endowed human being with the opportunity to practice the Buddhist teachings is a rare and valuable occasion within samsara. We should take full advantage of it, or it is not likely to recur for many thousands of rebirths.
2. Human existence is impermanent. It may end at any time, so it is urgent to practice the teachings while we have the opportunity. Nothing else will help at the time of death.
3. The action of karma is inevitable. Our present actions will affect our future, so we must be aware of the need to perform virtuous actions and avoid non-virtuous actions.
4. Samsara as a whole is characterized by suffering. We should aim at liberation from it, and particularly we should aim to avoid the intense suffering of the three lower kinds of rebirth (hell-beings, preta-spirits, and animals). (Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, pg.200, Geoffrey Samuel)
Once reborn as a hell-being, the form of punishment always fits the karma:
Everything in Buddhist hells happens on a repetitive basis. Escape is impossible and the only option is to remain there until released. The repetition that occurs within hell is manifested through the individual punishments of the hell beings. The execution of these tortures is always the same, meaning that once reborn into a specific hell, this hell has one punishment that will always stay the same. Punishments are designed specifically for the individual and the bad karma they harvested over their lifetimes. Since all karma that has been accumulated is ascribed to only one individual, “if you are here [in hell], you are guilty and you have set in motion the instruments of your own torture.” Once born into hell the hell beings are bound to experience suffering, and the “beings in the lowest hell realms experience virtually continuous pain and suffering until the results of their actions that brought them there are exhausted.” (Maya Shari MacLaughlin’s project, Life in Saṃsāra: Torment, Torture and Tolerance in Buddhist Hell)
Of course, the best way to break-free from all karmic ramifications (and thus possible rebirth into hellish realms) is to be instilled with the Noble Wisdom of the Nirvanic Mind—as our Lankavatarian motto states, “What the mind focuses on determines its reality”. This is wholly in league with the Lanka which states, “every mind-world arises from Avidya (ignorance), desire, karma, and projection.” Thus, “[When] one ceases to cherish the discrimination of existence and non-existence which rises out of one’s own mind; one sees that things, either of this world or of a higher world, or of the highest, are not to be described as permanent or impermanent, because one does not understand the truth that there is nothing in the world but what is seen of the Mind itself.” This is representative of a Bodhi Orientation—the only sure release from the samsaric cycle of rebirth. It’s solution? Dissolvement of the thought-construct itself. Or as stated in Tozen’s own indomitable style:
Water, in its natural state, is calm, transparent, adaptable, transformable,
permeating, life-giving. A mighty force,
that can quench the thirst of the needing
or drown the foolish.
Karma is like a wind that perturbs the
surface of a lake into waves. It is action
due to desire (resistance).
Karma is an impersonal utterly precise law
that operates in accordance with your actions.
It is a law in itself and does not have any lawgiver
beside your own mind.
Within any sentient being there is a force which is
given different names such as instinctive tendencies,
This innate propensity forces every conscious being to move.
It moves mentally or physically. Its slightest motion is action.
The repetition of actions is habit and habit becomes its character.
Once character is established, the being and its consciousness
is subject to a various array of positive and negative reactions,
all depending on its frame of reference.
In this stage, true nature (the force within) is long forgotten
and hence what could instantly save the being from suffering by reversing the awareness of true self from the temporal and erratic to the permanent and flowing (the stream), has now become its main curse.
To know one’s own Mind is to know the law of Karma.
A segment from our Bankei Zen series offers this summation:
Karma itself is not some kind of static, stand-alone objective reality; it is through “Action” itself that karma comes into being; so, in this sense, karma is always shifting, always moving about to color the ramifications of a given set of circumstances. When one becomes bewitched in karmic outflows, one’s mind is being constantly deluded and thus forfeits its rightful position in the Unborn. In this sense, one can make one’s mind either a heaven or hell. Just taking a simple moment to Recollect one’s proper union with the Unborn forestalls all karmic-actions. Thus no karma is spent per-se. The act of Recollection itself is really a Prior Non-Action as there is no deceptive agent present that colors the environment via a connection with the Alaya-receptacle. Mind simply Recollects Mind and no-thing more.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this Karma-Factor segment is through the following verses from a Buddhist hymn: Lauding the Infinite One:
Take refuge in the ultimate Strength, for His pure radiance is above all things. He who perceiveth this Light is set free from the fetters of Karma.
Seek refuge in the World-Honoured.
Since His glorious radiance is above all He is called the Buddha of Divine Light. And by Him is the darkness of the three worlds Enlightened.
Excellent is the Light of His Wisdom. Therefore is he called the Buddha of Clear Shining.
He who is within the Light, being washed from the soil of Karma, shall attain unto the final deliverance.