Among Buddhists, radical interpretations of hell are common – and are now finding echoes in an unlikely quarter Christian evangelicals – especially American ones – are known for their rigid adherence to the literal truth of the scriptures, but now we have one of them, Rob Bell, questioning the existence of hell as a place of eternal damnation. His views have stirred controversy, but in the Buddhist community, radical interpretations of hell have been around for some time. Eyebrows are raised at some of the more extreme views, but generally western (rather than ethnic) Buddhists tend to be even-handed in their approach to controversial issues. The historical Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni, was born into ancient Hindu culture 2,600 years ago. Based on the principle of perpetual reincarnation, Hindu hell is a stopping point where souls burn off evil before proceeding to the next life. In this respect, the Buddha's ideas about hell realms are similar to Bell's, in that they are not regarded as permanent – although time scales are vast, as human consciousness migrates through the after-death experience. They are recorded in lurid detail in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Canon. The Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey, of Lancaster University, contextualises hell as one of the classical Buddhist six realms of existence in his book An Introduction to Buddhism:
"The worst realm is the hell-realm, comprising a number of hellish rebirths. These are described as involving experiences of being burnt up, cut up, frozen, or eaten alive, and being revived to re-experience the same torments. They are realms in which a tortured consciousness experiences abominable nightmares, where every object of the senses appears repulsive and ugly... While life in the hells is measured in millions of years, no rebirth is eternal, so a being from hell will in time reach the human level again."Prof Richard Hayes, of The University of New Mexico, recalls visiting a Thai temple in Toronto with a group of students: "What surprised them most was the murals filled with very graphic pictures of people being tormented in various hell realms. The message was clear enough to all the lay people who went to that temple." Hayes points out that Buddhist texts are filled with detailed descriptions of the hot and cold hells and all the pain and suffering that goes on there. "Of course hells realms, like every other realm in samsara – the world of illusion – are temporary. People stay there for a while and then move on." But not all Buddhist texts adhere to a literal interpretation of hell as a place where dead people go as a result of their misdeeds. Hayes says his personal favourite is found in the scripture Kamalaśīla's Bhavanākrama.
"Each of the realms is treated as the counterpart of a segment of society. The heavenly realms are likened to the world of the very wealthy and privileged. The realm of the jealous gods is likened to the segment of human society that aspires to be wealthy and powerful. The animal realm symbolises those people who must work very hard and who struggle to make their daily livelihood. The realm of hungry ghosts represents the poor and homeless. The hell realms stand for people in prison."The Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor (Confession of a Buddhist Atheist) says he is "agnostic" about reincarnation and that in his view, the experience of hell corresponds with various types of suffering in human life:
"I simply don't know what happens after we die and as far as I can tell nor does anyone else. I think the only way to make sense of descriptions of hell is to treat them as symbols. A continuous cycle of death and rebirth strikes me as an ideal metaphor for hell – and the various hell realms can be associated with different states of mind like anger, hatred, jealousy or depression. It can also apply to physical pain, the devastation of a tsunami or to a life cycle like Charlie Sheen's or John Galliano's – feted as heroes one minute, drowned in opprobrium the next."He is probably closest to Carl Jung's theory that the peaceful, joyful and wrathful deities of the Tantric Buddhist pantheon are archetypes representing aspects of the human condition. A last word from psychotherapist and author Lara Owen (Growing Your Inner Light): She adheres to traditional Buddhist views, but accepts that mortality is still a huge taboo: "Ultimately it comes down to the universal existential crisis of being in a body that will one day die. Some people can only cope with that by denying all unknown quantities." http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/mar/16/buddhist-interpretations-of-hell