There are many horrors awaiting those who are consigned to the Buddhist Hells, but on occasion Compassion itself is to be found there and hopefully experienced. Eileen Gardiner’s Buddhist Hell: Visions, Tours, and Descriptions of the Infernal Otherworld, covers tales of those who descend into hell in order to comfort those poor and tortured souls who find no rest or comfort from their incessant inflictions. One of the Buddha’s major disciples, Maudgalyāyana or Mulian in Chinese Buddhism, has special powers that empowered him to communicate with the dead; he uses this power to visit his mother in hell in the hopes of saving her:
After Mu-lien attained his powers he discovers that his mother — because of her wicked ways — was relegated to Avici hell. After conferring with the Buddha, who warns of the difficulties of getting anyone released from hell, Mu-lien sets off, visiting first his father in heaven, then the land of the pretas, then Yama, the king of hell, who sends him off to check the lists of the dead in the possession of the general of the five ways and at various other places. Finally with the help of several guides he discovers his mother in the very deepest region of hell.
Mu-lien, himself, is unable to rescue his grievously tormented mother, but he appeals to the Buddha, who is moved to compassion by his compassionate follower…
The Buddha then called out to Ananda and the other disciples, “I shall have to go to the way of darkness and rescue her myself.” Buddha then sets out, accompanied by hosts of divinities. As soon as he arrives, the magic radiance that shines from the down between his eyebrows dissolves hell. The tree of swords and the forest of knives turn to dust, and all the demon-jailers fall on their knees, and do homage to Buddha. The damned are all transferred to heaven. (Gardiner, Eileen. Buddhist Hell: Visions, Tours and Descriptions of the Infernal Otherworld. Italica Press. Kindle Edition)
Gardiner recounts numerous other tales of personages (mainly Buddhist-Taoist) who visit the netherworld but perhaps the most compassionate tale of all concerns the greatest Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara, who enters the Avici Hell to save the beings there. The tale is described in the Karandavyuha Sutra, also known as “Buddha speaks Mahayana Sublime Treasure King Sutra”; it is perhaps the most compassionate account (in the nature of the context) concerning Avalokiteśvara ever written:
The Bhagavan then told Eliminate-Obstructions Bodhisattva: “Virtuous man, all of you should listen attentively, and I am going to analyze and expound for you. This great brilliant light is caused by Arya (sage) Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva, because he had just entered into Great Avichi hell to rescue all the sentient beings who were suffering from extreme afflictions and ferry them to the shore of liberation. Having saved those sentient beings, he then entered into a big city to rescue and ferry all the hungry ghosts who were suffering there…”
Eliminate-Obstructions Bodhisattva Mahasattva then went on to ask the Buddha: “Bhagavan, the Avichi hell is surrounded by iron wall, and its ground is also made of iron. There is no gap on the wall around it. The violent fires are constantly burning fiercely and producing smoke and flames. In such a hell of evil destiny, there was a huge caldron with boiling water in it, hundreds of thousands of kotis of nayutas of sentient beings were all thrown into the caldron, just like the beans being cooked in a boiler. While the water is boiling, they float up and down uninterruptedly and then they will be cooked into mashes. The sentient beings in Avichi hell suffer from such afflictions. Bhagavan, so what method did Arya Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva use to enter it?”
The Bhagavan then told Eliminate-Obstructions Bodhisattva Mahasattva: “Virtuous man, for example, a wheel turning sage king can enter into the heavenly Mani treasures garden, likewise, virtuous man, when Arya Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva was entering into the Great Avichi hell, nothing can obstruct his body. At that time, all the torturing instruments in Avichi hell cannot hurt the Bodhisattva’s body, the violent fire were all quenched and became refreshingly cool pools. At that time, the Yama jailers of the hell became more astonished than ever before and thought: ‘Why did this place suddenly transform into such a unusual scene?’ At that moment, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva had broken into the hell, destroyed the caldron, and quenched the violent fire. The huge fire pits became precious pools, with some lotuses as large as cartwheels in them.”
“Having seen these events, the Yama jailors gathered all the punishment instruments include staves, bows, swords, hammers, sticks, arrows, iron wheels, three blades forks, etc., and went to where the Yama king was. Having reached there, they said: ‘Oh Great king, you must know that why our territory of karma retributions suddenly vanished completely!’ Yama king then said: ‘What? How come your territory of karma retributions completely vanished?’ The jailors said to Yama king: ‘That Great Avichi hell suddenly became refreshingly cool, and when that was happening, a beautiful and sublime person, with heavenly wonderful treasures wearing on his hair bun, and precious crowns adorning his body, had entered into the hell, destroyed the caldron and made the fire pits become pools, in which the lotuses are as large as cartwheels’ Yama king then began to think carefully: ‘Which heavenly being is so powerful? Is he Mahesvara, Narayana, or whoever? The transformation that he made to the hell is so unimaginable, was it done by the majestic power of a vigorous ten headed Raksa?’ Thereupon, Yama king used his heavenly-eye supernatural force to search in the heavens, after searching in the heavens, he then looked into Avichi hell and saw Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva. Having seen that, he went quickly to where Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva was. After reaching there, he bowed at the feet of the Bodhisattva and sincerely glorified the Bodhisattva with a gatha (verse):
Homage to the lotus king, the great compassionate Avalokitesvara, the greatly unrestricted and auspicious one, Who can grant wishes for sentient beings, and has great majestic sacrosanct powers, to tame and subdue the extreme atrocities.
You are the bright lamp for the dark destinies, and make all who see you have no fear. You manifest hundreds or thousands of arms, so many as your eyes; and have fully eleven faces; your wisdom is as vast as the four great oceans.
You treasure the subtle and wonderful Dharmas, for saving all sentient beings, including tortoises, fishes, aquatic animals, and so on. Your uppermost wisdom is like a mountain. You give treasures to all living beings, You are the uppermost auspicious one, and have full of blessings, wisdom and sublime.
When you enter into Avichi hell, it becomes a refreshingly cool place. All heavenly beings should make offerings to you, and bow at your feet, the one who bestows with no fear. You expound the six Paramitas, and constantly keep the torch of Dharma burning.
Your Dharma eyes are brighter than the sun, your appearance is beautiful, sublime, and wonderful; your body is like a gold mountain, and your wonderful stomach is like a deep Dharma ocean. The true-thus is accordant with your mind, and the wonderful virtues appear in your mouth.
Having accumulated innumerable hundreds of thousands of Samadhis, and immeasurable joy, you are beautiful and sublime, and are the uppermost immortal one.
Within the horrific evil destinies, you liberate all living beings from shackles, and give alms to them with no fear. The relatives surrounding you, can always have their wishes fulfilled, like having Mani pearls.
You demolish the city of hungry ghost, and open the way to quietness; you cure illness of the worlds, like a cover protecting streamers.
Besides your armpits, there are two dragons: Nanda and Upananda; holding in your hands, there is an infallible-lasso (Amogha-pasa).
Manifesting immeasurable majesties and virtues, you can destroy the horrors of the three realms; under the power of Diamond hand, Yaksas, Raksas, Bhutas, Vitanazini, Kumbhandas, and Apasmara, are all frightened.
With the Utpala-flower-like eyes, you are the lord of enlightenment, who bestows with no fear, and liberate all living beings from myriads of afflictions.
Entering into the Samadhis as many as atoms in the universe, you reveal myriads of states, for all living beings in the evil destinies, to liberate them all, and make them achieve the Bodhi Way.
Having made offerings to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva by myriads of glorifications, Yama king circumambulated the Bodhisattva three times, and then went back to his residence.”
Avalokiteśvara then visits the Hungry Ghost and Animal Realms as well, bestowing his compassionate and soothing touch upon all that he encountered. Even Yama’s heart melts at the presence of this Lord of Compassion. Out of all the characters we’ve explored in this series, Yama is the most interesting one. As Lord of the underworld he is not some demonic-force as illustrated in western versions of hell. It seems he is more of a custodian, an administrator whose karma has appointed him as magistrate over the condemned. He yearns for the day when his own karmic-recompense is spent so that he can once again bask in the freedom of the Buddhadharma and celebrate its salvific message. Thus Yama is a metaphor of that Karmic Factor we discussed earlier. Hopefully this series has shown how this karmic-principle is indeed merciless and irrevocable. Yes, more than anything else that is certain in this existence, the one sure thing is that no-one can escape their own karmic actions and their inevitable outcomes. The day will come when one will have to pay the piper. The Nirvanic Mind with Its sure transcendence over all samsaric and karmic actions through Noble Wisdom, is the one thing that must be won; It alone provides the confident insurance policy against all future rebirths, the Nirvanic-Force that keeps the gates of hell at bay. May the Unborn Spirit protect and keep you safe from all harm.