The Dhammapada, verse 15: “Evildoers suffer her and hereafter.”

15. Idha socati pecca socati —

pāpakārī ubhayattha socati

So socati so vihaññati —

disvā kammakiliṭṭham attano.

“Here he grieves, hereafter he grieves. In both states the evil-doer grieves. He grieves, he is afflicted, perceiving the impurity of his own deeds.”

If there’s one problem I have with religion, it’s the concept of Hell. The idea of a place of eternal suffering, or of utter separation from the source of light, warmth, and goodness, that awaits unbelievers and sinners is abhorrent to me. Unfortunately, even Theravāda Buddhism asserts the existence of Hell-like realms; the texts describe some of them in gruesome detail. This is the “hereafter” referred to in today’s verse, the tone of which is essentially cautionary: if you spend this life doing bad things, you’ll regret it in the next. However, I think it’s interesting that the verse itself doesn’t mention physical torment, but rather the pain that comes from immense guilt. One suffers having “[perceived] the impurity of [one’s] own deeds.”

In the commentary on this verse, Buddhaghosa tells the story of a butcher who meets an unfortunate end:

Cunda was a pork butcher by trade, and he used pork both as food and as his source of income. The commentary says that he would wait until a famine hit, then go into a village with some pots of rice and come back with piglets bought on the cheap. He would pen them up near his house and feed them with a mixture of shrubs & excrement.

When the time came, he would butcher the animals in the most inhumane way imaginable. After binding the pig, he would beat it with a club to tenderize the meat. Then he would force boiling water down its throat, which would pass through and clean out the digestive tract. The remaining water was poured over the pig to peel off its skin, its bristles were burned off with a torch, and finally it was decapitated and cooked in its own blood. His family would eat their fill, and whatever was left was sold at the market for a profit. Cunda lived this way for fifty-five years, and it was said that in all that time he never engaged in charity or good works.

Finally, he was overcome by a strange illness. While he was sick, he saw the fires of Hell rise up before his eyes, and after this vision he went completely mad. He fell to the ground and started crawling around on all fours, grunting and squealing like the pigs that he had tortured his entire life. Try as they might, the members of his household were unable to restrain him; they finally had no choice but to barricade the door in order to prevent his going outside. For seven days the terrible noise made it impossible for his neighbors to sleep, and on the seventh day, Cunda died and was reborn in Hell. The commentary states that the tortures he endured there are described in the Devadūta Sutta; I won’t bother to enumerate them here.

Before he died, a group of monks passed by Cunda’s door on their way to see the Blessed One. When they arrived, they seated themselves and told Him what they had heard. They supposed that he had been slaughtering pigs during the week in preparation for a sacrificial feast, but the Buddha corrected them, explaining that the whole time Cunda had been suffering the consequences of his evil deeds, and that he had finally been reborn in Hell. After that, he delivered the lines which are the subject of today’s post.

I struggle constantly with the idea of Hell, and I was immensely disappointed when I discovered that there were texts in the Tipiṭaka where the Buddha preached about it. I thought I had finally found a religion that had no use for the concept of punishment in the afterlife, but it appears that, when it comes to religion, fire and brimstone come with the territory. I think a lot about this issue, and I have a few thoughts on the story and its implications:

  1. Unlike in other major religions, Buddhism does not require me to believe in anything; the Buddha Himself said that we don’t have to accept anything that is neither good nor useful, nor should we accept anything without investigating it for ourselves. In other words, I don’t need to believe in Hell to be a good Buddhist, whether the scriptures talk about it or not.
  2. Cunda’s is an extreme case. This was a person who not only practiced a violent trade, but did it in the most brutal way imaginable, with no love or compassion for the animals whose lives were sacrificed to feed him, his wife, and his children. What’s more, he engaged in no good works to speak of that might balance out his wrongdoing.
  3. I take some comfort in the thought that, horrible or not, Buddhist Hell is at least temporary. Even for the worst and most terrible people in history eventually leave these realms and are reborn on Earth, where they have a chance to get it right. In a sense, Hell isn’t even a good word; it immediately brings to mind images of eternal torment or unending darkness. A temporary state of suffering, during which bad kamma is exhausted, is not comparable.
  4. In Buddhism, suffering after death has an essentially punitive function. Cunda spent his life subjecting living beings to unimaginable pain and suffering without a thought. Maybe he needed to feel that pain, to know for himself what he had put other beings through for years, in order to be sure that he would never do such a thing again in future lives.

Ultimately, there’s no empathetic or compassionate way to justify something as terrible as Hell. Even the temporary Hellish existences described in Buddhist texts last innumerable eons; how could that be a fit punishment for less than fifty-five years of cruelty? I don’t know, and I probably never will. The only sensible thing that I can do is try to see the essential point of the story: that what we do, especially to other living things, matters, and that it’s in our best interest to try to live right. If we keep that in mind, we can avoid creating a Hell for ourselves and for others right here.

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