A foray into Buddhist purgatory

I was faced earlier today with a spiritual dilemma — to go for my regular weekly meditation meeting or to stay home and watch the Champions League final? 🙂

Football won out, I’m almost ashamed to say, and as I joked with a friend, luckily Buddhism doesn’t have the concept of burning in hell. Then recessed memories started to kick in. Hang on a minute. Doctrinal Buddhism may not conceive of hell in a similar sense to the Christian notion of eternal damnation, but it does speak of the six realms in Samsara, or the perpetual cycle of existence/suffering, which when taken metaphorically, can offer an almost liberating sense of the afterlife. I am myself rather intrigued by the possibility of having many lives, rather than just one, make it, or break it.

Taken literally, however, the six realms is a testimony to the richness of human expression and imagination. Cultural Buddhism, in this form, is replete with images of the unimaginable tortures awaiting the ‘unskilful’ (what a wonderfully non-judgemental designation) among us. I am reminded of the picture Soen Joon Sunim posted of Avici, the ‘Hell of hells’. I am also reminded of a childhood visit to Singapore’s Tiger Balm Gardens (Haw Par Villa), to its Ten Courts of Hell depicting untold human suffering of the most gruesome kind. These days the garden has been turned into a theme park, with an entry fee that deters all but the most trigger-happy tourists. Before its refurbishment in 1985, the park was open to the public, having once been the site of the mansion (or villa) of the famous Aw Brothers, who developed the Tiger Balm as a Chinese cure-all for aches and pains. (The balm contains no tiger in it, only minty oils that leave a cooling sensation on the skin).

What is really interesting now, as I plumb the depths of my memory, was that the hellish exhibits were out in the open, amongst pavilions and shady trees, and many a happy local family could be found picnicking among them. Just to confirm I’m not indulging a false memory, here’s someone else’s recollection. What the effects may have had on a child and his unconscious associations with wrongdoing and punishment, I shall leave to the psychology and psychotherapy experts amongst you, but my own experience, was not a fear of hell in the afterlife, but pain in the present one. I remember a slight twinge in a corresponding part of my anatomy as I looked upon each head that was chopped off, each torso speared, and each limb engulfed in flames. Even now the memory triggers a small shudder through my body that the more recent pictures I linked to above do not. The latter are of the ‘new’ exhibits, and seem more camp than the ones I remember.

Who would have thought a random thought about skipping meditation for football was going to bring all this up? The game had better be worth it. Otherwise, according to populist notions of karma, I may return in the next life as Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal (or whoever else may be the star at the time). Ouch.


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