Hells, Images of

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Images of Buddhist hells are found largely in Central and East Asia. Although descriptions of hell exist within early Buddhist literature, hell was not a popular subject for depiction in India. The earliest extant Chinese images date to the fifth century and appear within representations of Buddhist cosmology. These hell images are components of singular carved statues (often referred to as cosmological buddhas), as well as larger painted cave programs. The hells are hierarchically placed at the bottom, with the earthly and heavenly realms above. Although the Shiji jing (Scripture of Cosmology) is fairly lengthy in the number and description of the various hells, the representations themselves are abbreviated. Numerous hell scenes in various media were produced between the seventh and eleventh centuries and were preserved in the Dunhuang caves of northwestern China. This hell imagery consists mainly of three distinct iconographic programs: imagery related to Dizang Bodhisattva (Sanskrit, Kṣitigarbha; Japanese, Jizō Bosatsu), to the Ten Kings of Hell, and to Mulian (Sanskrit, MahĀmaudgalyĀyana).

Dizang and the Ten Kings of Hell

Images of Dizang Bodhisattva were often used in funerary rituals by relatives who viewed him as a savior of souls trapped in the various hells. Dizang is shown dressed either as a monk carrying a staff or as a princely bodhisattva. A number of hanging silk paintings show Dizang in the company of the Ten Kings of Hell, over whom he presides. Yet it is also common for the Ten Kings to be depicted independent of Dizang, ruling over their respective courts. The Chinese term for hell, diyu, translates as "subterranean prison," and the Ten Kings are thus depicted as judges. The exception is King Yama, who is always in regal attire. Yama was the original king of the Indian Buddhist underworld, and it is in his court that the karmic mirror, showing an individual's deeds, is often found. Variations often show all Ten Kings in royal trappings, leading to the common usage of the term Ten Yamas. Monkey-faced or military-attired attendants keep track of a soul's crimes and aid in meting out the appropriate punishment. One common representational element found in virtually all hell imagery is that of the naked sinner in a cangue, a form of earthly punishment commonly seen in medieval China and Japan. Also critical to hell imagery is a preponderance of flames and blood. Yet unlike hell in a Judeo-Christian sense, Buddhist hells are not permanent, but a means to expiate bad karma (action) before moving on to the next rebirth.

Several hand scrolls depicting the Ten Kings were found at Dunhuang. These scrolls hint at the usage of hell imagery within a public sphere. Monks would edify the laity with visions of the torments of hell that awaited them, or more importantly, their deceased relatives. The belief in the apocryphal Shi wang jing (Scripture of the Ten Kings) led to their worship as intercessors who could move the deceased more quickly through the realms of hell to the promised Pure Land. Worship of the Ten Kings centers on the idea that each soul passes in front of each of the kings at predetermined points over a three-year duration. On these days, offerings need to be made to each of the Ten Kings. Besides hand scrolls, Ten Kings imagery also exists in smaller booklet format, indicating mass production as well as a more personal use.

Depictions of hell far exceeded literary descriptions in both variety and detail, a fact most likely due to anxiety for the welfare of the dead. In the Scripture on the Ten Kings, no hells are actually described. Works can be found that are consistent in their depiction of the Ten Kings and their courts while greatly varying in the tortures shown. The largest sculpted depiction of hell scenes can be found at Baodingshan in Sichuan province in China. The worshipper at Baodingshan is confronted with an immediate reminder of how his present actions will affect his future fate—a twenty-five-foot-high sculpted depiction of the wheel of life, of which the six destinies of rebirth are one portion.

Hell is one of the six possibilities, the others being hungry ghost, animal, asura, human, or deva. The worshipper then moves around to the other side of the grotto where he first encounters the promise of the Pure Land, then the grim realities of hell. This hell tableau includes Dizang and the Ten Kings set above a chaotic grouping of eighteen hells. Engraved texts aid the worshipper by both identifying the sins committed and providing the necessary ritual hymn to recite in order to gain release. Unique to this hell grouping is a sculpted section devoted specifically to admonitions against alcohol consumption by, or sale to, the clergy. Also unusual is a depiction of a Freezing Hell, which is more common in Tibetan and Mongolian descriptions of hell.

In Japan, the pains of hell, along with the Pure Land's rewards, may have been imported in the seventh century from China, although extant hell imagery dates mainly to after the eleventh century. King Yama takes the form of Emma-Ō, being portrayed as a judge in both painted and sculpted form. There are also several twelfth-century versions of hell, collectively referred to as the Jigoku zoshi (Hand Scrolls of Buddhist Hells). These painted works are distinctive in the imagery shown. Although they share characteristics with Chinese hell imagery, such as the Hell of Feces and Filth and the Hell of Grinding, the Japanese works also include unique representations, such as the Hell of Cocks, for those cruel to living things; the Hell of Worms, for those who commit adultery or theft; and the Hell of Pus and Blood, in which the damned are tortured by being repeatedly stung by large wasps. Hungry ghosts are often linked to hell imagery, although technically they are not hell dwellers, but another option on the six destinies of rebirth. The best-known imagery depicting hungry ghosts is the twelfth-century Japanese work entitled Gaki zoshi (Hungry Ghosts Hand Scroll).


The last iconographic program is that of Mulian, one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha. Mulian goes in search of his deceased mother only to discover that she is not in a heavenly realm. The Yulanpen jing, colloquially referred to as "Scripture of Mulian Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld" was represented in a variety of media, including bianwen (transformation texts), which were used to propagate the Buddhist faith among the uneducated, and their accompanying bianxiang (transformation tableaux), both of which first appeared in late Tang dynasty China (618–907). Celebrations of the annual Ghost Festi-val often included theatrical productions of the Mulian story as well. Murals of the Mulian story in Cave 19 at Yulin, near Dunhuang, depict his travels through the hell regions. These works afforded worshippers explicit glimpses into the horrors of hell as Mulian worked his way down to the Hell of the Iron Bed, where his mother was being tortured for keeping alms meant for the clergy. Hells seen along the way included Knife Mountain Hell, where one was repeatedly sliced open by knives while attempting to scramble out, or Boiling Cauldron Hell, where Horsehead or Oxhead, minions of the Ten Kings, ensured that the sinner stayed within a vat of boiling oil. Mulian eventually would find and free his mother, but not before reinforcing the Buddhist belief in karmic retribution.


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Karil J. Kucera