Translating Classical Buddhism to Modern English

The Long Discourses

30. Description of the World

Chapter 4: The Hells

The Eight Great Hells

1. The Buddha told the monks,[1] “There are 8,000 islands that surround the four continents. There’s also a great ocean that completely encircles those 8,000 islands, and a chain of great diamond mountains encircles that ocean. Beyond those diamond mountains, there’s a second chain of great diamond mountains. There’s an utter darkness between those two mountain chains, where the great illuminating power of the sun and moon gods doesn’t reach.

2. “There are eight great hells there, and each of those hells has sixteen lesser hells. The first great hell is called *Saṃjñā. The second is called Kālasūtra. The third is called *Saṃhata. The fourth is called *Roravaṇa. The fifth is called *Mahāroravaṇa. The sixth is called Tapana. The seventh is called Mahātapana. The eighth is called Avīci.[2]

The Great Hell of *Saṃjñā

3. “The *Saṃjñā Hell has sixteen lesser hells. These lesser hells are 500 yojanas across. The first lesser hell is called Black Sand. The second is called Boiling Excrement. The third is called Five Hundred Nails. The fourth is called Hunger. The fifth is called Thirst. The sixth is called Copper Cauldron. The seventh is called Many Copper Cauldrons. The eighth is called Grinding Stone. The ninth is called Pus and Blood. The tenth is called Measuring Fire. The eleventh is called River of Ash. The twelfth is called Iron Ball. The thirteenth is called Axes. The fourteenth is called Wolves. The fifteenth is called Sword Trees. The sixteenth is called Frozen Ice.[3]

4. “What is called the *Saṃjñā Hell? In that hell, sentient beings grow iron claws on their hands that are long and sharp. They are quick to anger, harboring resentments and harmful notions. When they seize each other with their claws, flesh falls from their hands. After they perceive their own deaths, a cool breeze blows over them and restores their skin and flesh. Quickly healed, they stand back up and perceive of themselves, ‘I’m alive again!’ The other sentient beings say, ‘I perceive that you are alive!’ Because of these perceptions, it’s called the *Saṃjñā Hell.

5. “Furthermore, the sentient beings in the *Saṃjñā Hell harbor harmful notions and attack each other. They hold spontaneous swords in their hands, and those swords have sharp points. They hack and stab each other, slicing and chopping their bodies to bits on the ground. They perceive, ‘I’m dead,’ and then a cool breeze blows over them that restores their skin and flesh. Quickly healed, they stand back up and perceive of themselves, ‘I’m alive again!’ The other sentient beings say, ‘I perceive that you are alive!’ Because of these circumstances, it’s called the *Saṃjñā Hell.

6. “Furthermore, the sentient beings in the *Saṃjñā Hell harbor harmful notions and attack each other. Holding swords in their hands that have sharp points, they chop and stab each other, slicing and cutting until they perceive, ‘I’m dead.’ A cool breeze blows over them that restores their skin and flesh. Quickly healed, they stand back up and say to themselves, ‘I’m alive again!’ The other sentient beings say, ‘I perceive that you are alive!’ Because of these circumstances, it’s called the *Saṃjñā Hell.

7. “Furthermore, the sentient beings in that *Saṃjñā Hell harbor harmful notions and attack each other. Holding oiled dark blades in their hands that have sharp points, they chop and stab each other, slicing and cutting until they perceive, ‘I’m dead.’ A cool breeze blows over them that restores their skin and flesh. Quickly healed, they stand back up and say to themselves, ‘I’m alive again!’ The other sentient beings say, ‘I perceive that you are alive!’ Because of these circumstances, it’s called the *Saṃjñā Hell.

8. “Furthermore, the sentient beings in that *Saṃjñā Hell harbor harmful perceptions and attack each other. Holding small swords in their hands that have sharp points, they chop and stab each other, slicing and cutting until they perceive, ‘I’m dead.’ A cool breeze blows over them that restores their skin and flesh. Quickly healed, they stand back up and say to themselves, ‘I’m alive again!’ Other sentient beings say, ‘I perceive that you are alive!’ Because of these circumstances, it’s called the *Saṃjñā Hell.

The Lesser Hell of Black Sand

9. “After experiencing this punishment for a long time, those sentient beings escape the *Saṃjñā Hell. They run in confusion, trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell.

10. “A fierce and hot wind rises there that blows hot black sand. It sticks to the sentient beings and makes their whole bodies black as a dark cloud. That hot sand also burns their skin and all their flesh down to their bones. A black torch arises from those sinners, and it circles round and round them before returning to their bodies. This makes them to suffer as they’re burnt to a crisp. They experience these pains because of their misdeeds, but their punishment isn’t done yet, so they’re prevented from dying.

The Lesser Hell of Boiling Excrement

11. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, those sentient beings escape the Black Sand Hell. They run in confusion, trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Boiling Excrement Hell.

12. “That hell is spontaneously filled with boiling excrement and iron balls. The sinners are forced to embrace the iron balls, which burn their bodies and hands up to their heads. No part of them isn’t covered by it. They’re made to feel around, pick it up, and put it into their mouths, which burns their tongue and gums. From their throat, it continues to their stomach and passes down through them. No part of them isn’t burned by it. There are iron fanged serpents that bite them, too. They eat their skin and flesh down to their bones and into their marrow. The pain is bitter and extreme, and their sorrow is measureless. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Iron Nails

13. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Boiling Excrement Hell. They run in confusion, trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they [inadvertently] arrive at the Iron Nails Hell.

14. “Upon arriving, they fall into that hell and land on burning iron, which is then wrapped around their body. Their hands, feet, and heart are nailed all around with a total of 500 iron spikes. The pain is bitter and extreme, and they cry out and wail. Their punishment is not done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Hunger

15. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Iron Nails Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves [from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently] arrive at the Hunger Hell.

16. “The wardens come and ask the sinner, ‘What were you searching for when you came here?’

“They reply, ‘I’m hungry!’

17. “The wardens then grab them and wrap their body in hot iron. They then force their mouth open with iron forceps and put a hot iron ball into it. It burns their gums and tongue. From their throat to their stomach, the iron ball passes down through them. No part of them isn’t burned to a crisp. The pain is bitter and extreme, and they cry and wail. Their punishment is not done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Thirst

18. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Hunger Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves [from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently] arrive at the Thirst Hell.

19. “The wardens ask the sinner, ‘What were you searching for when you came here?”

“They reply, ‘I’m thirsty!’

20. “The wardens grab them and wrap their body in hot iron. They then force their mouth open with hot iron forceps and pour molten copper into it. It burns their gums and tongue. From their throat to their stomach, the copper burns down through them. No part of them isn’t burned to a crisp. The pain is bitter and extreme, and they cry and wail. Their punishment is done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of the Copper Cauldron

21. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Thirst Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Copper Caldron Hell.

22. “The wardens there glare angrily at the sinner, grab them by their feet, and put them into the cauldron headfirst. They’re stirred in boiling water, flowing up, down, and all around. They might go from the bottom to the top, the top to the bottom, or stay in the belly of the cauldron as their body cooks. They’re like beans being stirred in boiling water, flowing up, down, and all around. Once they are thoroughly cooked, they disintegrate. The sinner in that cauldron goes up and down as they are boiled in the same way. They cry out and wail, being subjected to a multitude of pains. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Many Copper Cauldrons

23. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Copper Caldron Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Many Copper Caldrons Hell.

24. “The Many Copper Caldrons Hell is 500 yojanas across. The demonic wardens there glare angrily at the sinner, grab them by their feet, and put them into a cauldron headfirst. They’re stirred in boiling water, flowing up, down, and all around. They might go from the bottom to the top, the top to the bottom, or stay in the belly of the cauldron as their whole body cooks and disintegrates. They’re like beans being stirred in boiling water, flowing up, down, and all around. The sinner in that cauldron is stirred up and down as they are boiled in the same way, going from the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom.

25. “Sometimes a hand or foot appears in the cauldron, a thigh or belly appears, or a head or face appears. The wardens use iron hooks to pick them out and put them in the other cauldrons. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Grinding Stones

26. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Many Copper Caldrons Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Grinding Stone Hell.

27. “The Grinding Stone Hell is 500 yojanas across. The wardens there are wrathful. They grab the sinner and slam them on hot stones. Their hands and feet are stretched out, and the wardens crush their body with an extremely hot stone. They turn and grind it into the sinner until their bones and flesh are pulverized and their blood flows out. The pain of their injuries is excruciating, and they cry out and wail. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Pus and Blood

28. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Grinding Stone Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Pus and Blood Hell.

29. “That Pus and Blood Hell is 500 yojanas across. In that hell, there’s spontaneous pus and blood that wells up boiling hot. The sinner runs through it going east or west, and the boiling hot pus and blood washes over their body. Their hands, feet, and head are cooked and disintegrate. They also scoop up the pus and blood to feed themselves, and then it washes over their gums and tongue. From their throat to their stomach, it burns down through them. No part of them isn’t cooked and disintegrated. The pain is so bitter and extreme, and their many injuries are hard to endure. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Measuring Fire

30. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Pus and Blood Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Measuring Fire Hell.

31. “The Measuring Fire Hell is 500 yojanas across. In that hell, there’s a great mass of fire that spontaneously appears in front of the sinner. That fire is blazing hot. The wardens angrily drive them forward, forcing the sinner to hold an iron ladle and measure the mass of fire. When they measure the fire, it burns their hands, feet, and the rest of their body. The pain of those burns is excruciating, and they cry out and wail. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of the River of Ash

32. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Measuring Fire Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the River of Ash Hell.

33. “The River of Ash Hell is 500 yojanas across and 500 yojanas deep. The ashen water is boiling hot, the noxious air is fiery and smoky, swirling waves crash into each other, and the echoing noise is terrible. From bottom to top, horizontal eight-inch iron thorns stab the sinner. Long swords grow on the river’s shores. There are also wardens and wolves on its shores. Beyond the shores, sword trees grow that have eight-inch blades for limbs, leaves, flowers, and fruit that have sharp points.

34. “In the river, the sinner is pushed up and down by the waves, swirling around and being submerged. The iron thorns stab their body through and through. Their skin and flesh is cooked and disintegrates, and their blood flows out. The pain from so many wounds makes them lament bitterly. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

35. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape that River of Ash Hell by getting onto its shore. On the shore, sharp swords cut and stab their bodies, and their hands and feet are cut to pieces.

36. “At that point, the wardens ask the sinner, ‘What were you searching for when you came here?’

“The sinner responds, ‘I’m hungry!’

37. “The wardens grab the sinner and slam him onto hot iron and stretch out his body. They pry open his mouth with iron forceps and pour molten copper into it. It burns their gums and tongue. From their throat to their stomach, it burns down through them. No part of them isn’t burned to a crisp.

38. “Again, there are wolves with long, sharp teeth that come and bite the sinner, eating them alive. From there, the sinner is boiled in the River of Ash. They’re stabbed by sharp thorns, and molten copper pours into their mouth.

39. “After the wolves bite them, they run in confusion up the sword trees. When they climb up a sword tree, the swords point downward. When they climb down a sword tree, the swords point upward. Their hands are cut as they climb, and their feet are cut when they stand. The swords stab their bodies, impaling them through and through. Their skin and flesh fall off, and their blood flows out until only white bones and connecting tendons remain.

40. “At the top of the sword trees, iron beak birds peck their skull, break it open, and eat their brain. The pain is bitter and extreme, and they cry out and wail. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t to die.

The Lesser Hell of Iron Balls

41. “They’re restored and get back in the River of Ash Hell, where they’re pushed up and down by the waves. Swirling around and being submerged, the iron thorns stab their body through and through. Their skin and flesh is cooked and disintegrates, and their blood flows out. When only their white bones are left floating, a cool wind blows that restores them. Imprisoned by their past misdeeds, they inadvertently arrive at the Iron Ball Hell.

42. “The Iron Ball Hell is 500 yojanas across. After the sinner enters it, a hot iron ball spontaneously appears in front of them, and a demonic warden forces them to grab it. Their hands and feet are roasted and disintegrate, and their whole body is set on fire. They cry out in pain, being subjected to such a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Axes

43. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Iron Ball Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Axes Hell.

44. “The Axes Hell is 500 yojanas across. After they enter that hell, the wardens there glare angrily, grab the sinner, and slam them on hot iron. They lop off their hands, feet, ears, nose, and torso with hot iron axes. The pain is so bitter and extreme, they cry out and wail. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Wolves

45. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Axes Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Wolves Hell.

46. “The Wolves Hell is 500 yojanas across. After they enter there, packs of wolves come to bite, chew, and devour them. Flesh falls from their bones, and their blood flows out. The pain from so many wounds makes them lament bitterly. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Sword Trees

47. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Wolves Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Sword Tree Hell.

48. “The Sword Tree Hell is 500 yojanas across. When the sinner enters the sword tree forest, a windstorm rises that blows the leaves from the sword trees, which fall on them. If the swords hit their hands, their hands are cut off. If they hit their feet, their feet are cut off. No part of their bodies and heads aren’t cut to pieces. Iron beak birds land on their heads and peck out both of their eyes. The pain from so many wounds makes them lament bitterly. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die.

The Lesser Hell of Frozen Ice

49. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Sword Tree Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Frozen Ice Hell.

50. “The Frozen Ice Hell is 500 yojanas across. After they enter there, a great windstorm rises that blows on them. Their whole body is frostbitten, and their skin and flesh fall off. The pain is so bitter and extreme, they cry out and wail. Afterward, their life ends.”

The Great Hell of Kālasūtra

51. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of Kālasūtra has sixteen lesser hells that completely encircle it. Each of them is 500 yojanas across from the Kālasūtra Hell to the Frozen Ice Hell.

52. “Why is it called the Kālasūtra Hell? The wardens there grab the sinner, slam them onto hot iron, and stretch out their bodies. They use an iron cord to mark them with straight lines, then they use hot iron axes to chop along the lines that were marked on the sinner until they are reduced to a hundred thousand slices. Like a carpenter using a cord to mark wood and then chopping along the lines with a sharp axe to make a hundred thousand slices, they handle the sinner in the same way. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Kālasūtra Hell.

53. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Kālasūtra Hell grab the sinner, slam them onto hot iron, and stretch out their body. They mark them with iron cords and then amputate their limbs with saws. Like a carpenter who marks wood with a cord and then uses a saw to cut it, they handle the sinner in the same way. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Kālasūtra Hell.

54. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Kālasūtra Hell grab the sinner, slam them onto hot iron, and stretch out their body. They place hot iron cords on their body that burn through their skin and flesh, roast their bones, and boil their marrow. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Kālasūtra Hell.

55. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Kālasūtra Hell hang hot iron cords in countless crisscrosses and then force the sinner to run between them. A wicked windstorm rises that blows the iron cords, causing them to fall on the sinner. The cords burn through their skin and flesh, roast their bones, and boil their marrow. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Kālasūtra Hell.

56. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Kālasūtra Hell force the sinner to wear clothes made of hot iron cords. The cords burn through their skin and flesh, roast their bones, and boil their marrow. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Kālasūtra Hell.

57. “After the sinner experiences these pains for a long time, they escape the Kālasūtra Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell of *Saṃhata

58. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of *Saṃhata has sixteen lesser hells that completely encircle it. Each of them is 500 yojanas across.

59. “Why is it called the *Saṃhata Hell? There are great stone boulders in that hell, pairs of which face each other. When the sinner enters, the boulders spontaneously come together, crushing their body and grinding their bones and flesh. The boulders then return to their original place. It’s like a tree is thrown into another tree and snaps back again. Those sinners are handled in the same way. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Saṃhata Hell.

60. “Furthermore, the *Saṃhata Hell has a great iron elephant. Its entire body is in flames. It roars and tramples the sinner, twisting and turning on top of them. Their body is pulverized and their blood flows out. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Saṃhata Hell.

61. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Saṃhata Hell grab the sinner and put them on grinding stones. They grind them until their bones and flesh are pulverized and their blood flows out. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Saṃhata Hell.

62. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Saṃhata Hell grab the sinners and lay them on a large stone. They crush them with another large stone until their bones and flesh are pulverized and their blood flows out. The pain is so bitter and extreme, being subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Saṃhata Hell.

63. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Saṃhata Hell take the sinners and lay them in an iron mortar. They use an iron pestle to pound them from head to foot until their skin and flesh is pulverized and their blood flows out. The pain is so bitter and extreme that it’s indescribable. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Saṃhata Hell.

64. “After the sinner experiences these pains for a long time, they escape from the *Saṃhata Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell of *Roravaṇa

65. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of *Roravaṇa has sixteen lesser hells that completely encircle it. Each of them is 500 yojanas across.

66. “Why is it called the *Roravaṇa Hell? The wardens there grab the sinner and throw them into a huge cauldron. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Roravaṇa Hell.

67. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Roravaṇa Hell grab the sinner and throw them into a huge iron pot. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Roravaṇa Hell.

68. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Roravaṇa Hell take the sinner and put them in a great iron cauldron. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Roravaṇa Hell.

69. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Roravaṇa Hell take the sinner and throw them into a small cauldron. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Roravaṇa Hell.

70. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Roravaṇa Hell take the sinner, throw them on a huge frying pan, and turn them over as they cook. They cry out and wail, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Roravaṇa Hell.

71. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape from the *Roravaṇa Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell of *Mahāroravaṇa

72. The Buddha told the monks, “The *Mahāroravaṇa Hell has sixteen lesser hells that completely encircle it. [Each of them is 500 yojanas across.]

73. “Why is it called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell? The wardens there take the sinner and put them in a huge iron kettle. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out, wail, and scream, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell.

74. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell grab the sinner and throw them into a huge iron pot. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out, wail, and scream, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell.

75. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Mahāroravaṇa take the sinner and put them in a huge iron cauldron. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out, wail, and scream, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell.

76. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell take the sinner and throw them into a small cauldron. Stirring them in boiling water, they cook the sinner. They cry out, wail, and scream, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell.

77. “Furthermore, the wardens of the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell take the sinner, throw them onto a huge frying pan, and turn them over as they cook. They cry out, wail, and scream, the pain is so bitter and extreme. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell.

78. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the *Mahāroravaṇa Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell of Tapana

79. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of Tapana has sixteen lesser hells that encircle it. [Each of them is 500 yojanas across.]

80. “Why is it called the Great Hell of Tapana? At that point, the wardens put the sinner in an iron city. That city is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns and roasts the sinner, and their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Tapana Hell.

81. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Tapana Hell lead the sinner into an iron chamber. That chamber is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns and roasts the sinner, and their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Tapana Hell.

82. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Tapana Hell take the sinner and put them up in an iron tower. That tower is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns and roasts the sinner, and their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Tapana Hell.

83. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Tapana Hell take the sinner and throw them into a large iron kiln. That kiln is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns and roasts the sinner, and their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Tapana Hell.

84. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Tapana Hell take the sinner and throw them onto a huge frying pan. That frying pan is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns and roasts the sinner, and their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. [Therefore, it’s called the Tapana Hell.]

85. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Tapana Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell of Mahātapana

86. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of Mahātapana has sixteen lesser hells that encircle it. Each of them is 500 yojanas across.

87. “Why is it called the Mahātapana Hell? The wardens there lead the sinner into an iron city. That city is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns the sinner with an even more intense roasting fire. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Mahātapana Hell.

88. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Mahātapana Hell lead the sinner into an iron chamber. That chamber is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns the sinner with an even more intense roasting fire. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Mahātapana Hell.

89. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Mahātapana Hell take the sinner and put them up in an iron tower. That tower is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns the sinner with an even more intense roasting fire. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Mahātapana Hell.

90. “Furthermore, the wardens of the Mahātapana Hell take the sinner and throw them into a large iron kiln. That kiln is in flames, glowing red inside and out. It burns the sinner with an even more intense roasting fire. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Mahātapana Hell.

91. “Furthermore, the Mahātapana Hell has a large spontaneous fire pit. The fire rages and blazes. There’s a pair of large fire mounds on two sides of that pit. The wardens there grab the sinner, skewer them on iron forks, and plant them in the fire. It burns their bodies with an even more intense roasting fire. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. [Therefore, it’s called the Mahātapana Hell.]

92. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Mahātapana Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

The Great Hell Avīci

93. The Buddha told the monks, “The Great Hell of Avīci has sixteen lesser hells that encircle it. Each of them is 500 yojanas across.

94. “Why is it called the Avīci Hell? The wardens there grab the sinner and skin them from head to foot. They then wrap the sinner in their own skin and tie them to a flaming cartwheel. That burning cart has swift horses, and the sinner is rolled over a hot iron ground. Turning round and round, their body is pulverized and roasted until their skin and flesh falls off. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Avīci Hell.

95. “Furthermore, the Great Hell of Avīci has a great iron city. That city has great fires that rise from all four sides. The eastern flames go west. The western flames go east. The southern flames go north. The northern flames go south. The flames from above go down. The flames from below go up. These blazing flames swirl around, leaving no empty space between them. In the midst of this, the sinner runs east or west, and their body is burned. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Avīci Hell.

96. “Furthermore, there’s an iron city in the Great Hell of Avīci that’s blazing and glowing hot. In the midst of it, the sinner’s body burns brightly. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Avīci Hell.

97. “Furthermore, after the sinners have been in the Great Hell of Avīci for a long time, the gates open. They run for it, trying to escape to somewhere else. As they run, their limbs and tendons burst into flames. It’s like a strong man running with a large grass torch in hand that burns brightly in the wind. The sinner is likewise as they run. When they are about to reach the gate, it spontaneously closes, and the sinner is forced to run on hot iron, which burns their bodies. Their skin and flesh is burned to a crisp. The pain is so bitter and extreme as they’re subjected to a multitude of injuries. Their punishment isn’t done yet, so they still don’t die. Therefore, it’s called the Avīci Hell.

98. “Furthermore, when the sinners in the Avīci Hell lift their gaze, they all they see is ugly forms. Their ears only hear ugly sounds. Their noses only smell bad odors. Their bodies only feel painful contacts. Their minds only remember ugly things. Moreover, there’s not a finger snap of time that they aren’t in pain. Therefore, it’s called the Avīci Hell.

99. “After experiencing these pains for a long time, they escape the Avīci Hell. They run in confusion trying to save themselves from the prison of their past misdeeds, but they inadvertently arrive at the Black Sand Hell … the Frozen Ice Hell … afterward their life ends as before.”

Conclusion to the Great Hells

100. At that point, the Bhagavān spoke in verse:

The Great Vajra Mountains Protect the World

101. The Buddha told the monks, “There’s a great wind that blows between those two chains of great diamond mountains, which is called Sāṃkhya. If this wind were to reach the four continents and 8,000 islands, it would blow the Earth with its named mountains and Sumeru the mountain king five kilometers off the ground. They might well soar fifty kilometers into the sky, and they would all be reduced to dust. Like a handful of fine chaff thrown into the air by a strong man, that great wind would likewise blow the Earth away. Those two great diamond mountain chains block this wind, preventing it from coming. Monks, you should know that those diamond mountains benefit many people. They came about as a result of the conduct of sentient beings.

102. “Moreover, the wind between those two mountain chains is blazing and intensely hot. If that wind were to reach the four continents, the sentient beings, mountains, streams, rivers, seas, plants, trees, and forests there would be scorched and wither. As when moisture leaves the plants during the height of summer and they quickly turn brown and wither, that wind would be the same. If it reached this world, the hot air would bake it in the same way. Those two diamond mountain chains block this wind, preventing it from coming. Monks, you should know that those diamond mountains benefit many people. They came about as a result of the conduct of sentient beings.

103. “Moreover, the wind between those two mountain chains is foul smelling, impure, rank, and terrible. If it were to reach this world, it would stink up the sentient beings here, and they would go blind. Those two diamond mountain chains block this wind, preventing it from coming. Monks, you should know that those diamond mountains benefit many people. They came about as a result of the conduct of sentient beings.

Another Ten Hells

104. “Moreover, there’s another ten hells between those two mountains chains: First is *Abhra, second is *Nirabhra, third is *Ahaha, fourth is Why, fifth is Sheep Bleating, seventh is Sugandhika, seventh is Utpala, eighth is Kumuda, ninth is Puṇḍarīka, and tenth is Padma.

105. “What’s the *Abhra Hell? Sinners in that hell are spontaneous born with bodies like thick clouds, so it’s called *Abhra.

106. “What’s called the *Nirabhra [Hell]? Punished sentient beings in that hell are spontaneously born with bodies like strips of meat, so it’s called *Nirabhra.

107. “What’s called the *Ahaha [Hell]? Punished sentient beings in that hell suffer pain from cuts to their bodies. They all say, ‘Ah! Ah!’ so it’s called *Ahaha.

108. “What’s called the Why [Hell]? Punished sentient beings in that hell suffer bitter pain from cuts and have no refuge from it. They all say, ‘Why?’ so it’s called Why.

109. “What’s called the Sheep Bleating [Hell]? Punished sentient beings in that hell suffer the pain of cuts to their bodies. They want to raise their voices and speak, but they can’t move their tongues. They sound like sheep bleating, so it’s called Sheep Bleating.

110. “What’s called the Sugandhika [Hell]? In that hell, the whole hell is all black like the color of a sugandhika flower, so it’s called Sugandhika.

111. “What’s called the Utpala Hell? In that hell, the whole hell is all blue like the utpala flower, so it’s called Utpala.

112. “What’s called the Kumuda [Hell]? In that hell, the whole hell is all crimson like the color of a kumuda flower, so it’s called Kumuda.

113. “What’s called the Puṇḍarīka [Hell]? In that hell, the whole hell is all white like the color of the puṇḍarīka flower, so it’s called Puṇḍarīka.

114. “What’s called the Padma [Hell]? In that hell, the whole hell is red like the color of the padma flower, so it’s called Padma.”

The Passage of Time in the Ten Hells

115. The Buddha told the monks, “Take for example a sixty-four bushel grain bin filled up with sesame seeds. A person takes one seed from it every hundred years until it’s empty. In the *Abhra Hell, their punishment wouldn’t be done yet. Similarly, twenty lifetimes in the *Abhra Hell is equal to one lifetime in the *Nirabhra Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the *Nirabhra Hell is equal to one lifetime in the *Ahaha Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the *Ahaha Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Why Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Why Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Sheep Bleating Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Sheep Bleating Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Sugandhika Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Sugandhika Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Utpala Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Utpala Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Kumuda Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Kumuda Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Puṇḍarīka Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Puṇḍarīka Hell is equal to one lifetime in the Padma Hell. Twenty lifetimes in the Padma Hell is equivalent to one medium eon. Twenty medium eons is called a great eon.

The Monk Kokālika’s Fate

116. “In the Padma Hell, the fire is bright, hot, and blazing. Even if the sinner moves a hundred yojanas away from the fire, they’d still be burned by it. From sixty yojanas away, their ears are deafened, and they hear nothing. From fifty yojanas away, both their eyes are blinded, and they don’t see anything.

117. “The monk Kokālika who had harbored bad intent and slandered Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana fell to the Padma Hell after his body broke up and his life ended.

118. “At the time, the Brahma King spoke in verse:

119. The Buddha told the monks, “That Brahma King spoke such verses, which were true words approved by the Buddha. Why is that? Now, I am a Tathāgata, Arhat, and Completely Awakened One who also says about him:

King Yama

120. The Buddha told the monks, “King Yama’s palace is inside the great diamond mountain south of Jambudvīpa. That king rules an area that’s 6,000 yojanas across. His city has seven walls, seven balustrades, seven nettings, and seven rows of trees … and countless birds sing to each other peacefully as before.

121. “Every three days and nights, a large copper cauldron spontaneously appears in front of that King Yama. If the cauldron appears inside his palace, the King is frightened when he sees it and leaves his palace. If the cauldron appears outside his palace, the king is frightened when he sees it and goes inside his palace.

122. “A great warden of hell then grabs King Yama and lays him down on hot iron. The warden forces his mouth open with iron forceps and pours molten copper into it. It burns his gums and tongue. From his throat to his stomach, it burns down through him. No part of him isn’t burned to a crisp. After this punishment is done, he rejoins his maidens, and they entertain each other. His great ministers likewise receive the same fortunes.”

The Three Heavenly Messengers

123. The Buddha told the monks, “There are three [heavenly] messengers. What are the three? The first is old age, the second is illness, and the third is death. There are sentient beings whose physical conduct is bad, whose verbal conduct is bad, and whose mental intent is bad. When their bodies break up and their lives end, they fall to Hell.

124. “The wardens of hell bring these sinners to King Yama. Upon arriving, the wardens tell the King, ‘This one was summoned by the heavenly messengers. Please, great king, question them well about their account.’

125. “The King asks the sinner, ‘Didn’t you see the first [heavenly] messenger?’

“The sinner responds, ‘I didn’t.’

126. “The king again says, ‘While you were among humans, didn’t you see old people with white hair and teeth fallen out? Whose eyes were cataracted, whose skin was loose and wrinkled? Who used canes and groaned as they walked? Whose bodies trembled and were weak? Didn’t you see those people?’

“The sinner says, ‘I saw them.’

127. “The king again says, ‘Didn’t you think to yourself, “I’ll be that way, too!”?’

“That person responds, ‘I was being careless at the time and didn’t realize that about myself.’

128. “The king again says to them, ‘You were careless with yourself. You couldn’t cultivate your body, speech, and mind or mend your evil ways and follow good ones. Now, you’ll be made to recognize the pain of your carelessness!’

129. “The king also tells them, ‘Now, you’ll get your punishment. It wasn’t your parents’ mistake, not your brothers’ mistake, not the Lord of Gods or your previous ancestors’ mistake, not your associates’, employees’, or servants’ mistake, nor was it the mistake of ascetics or priests. It was your own evil, and now you’ll get what’s coming to you.’

130. “Having questioned the sinner about the first heavenly messenger, King Yama then asks them about the second heavenly messenger. ‘Didn’t you see the second heavenly messenger?’

“‘I didn’t.’

131. “The king again asks, ‘While you were human before, didn’t you see people who were sick and gaunt, laying with blankets in their own excrement and urine and smelling foul? Who couldn’t leave their home and needed someone to give them food and drink? Whose every joint was painful and sore? Who were crying and moaning, unable to speak? Didn’t you see them?”

“They answer, ‘I saw them.’

132. “The king replied, ‘Well, didn’t you think to yourself, ‘These pains of illness will happen to me, too!’?

“The sinner responds, ‘I was being careless at the time and didn’t realize that about myself.’

133. “The king again says, ‘You were careless with yourself. You couldn’t cultivate your body, speech, and mind or mend your evil ways and follow the good ones. Now, you’ll be made to recognize the pain of your carelessness!’

134. “The king also tells them, ‘Now, you’ll get your punishment. It wasn’t your parents’ mistake, not your brothers’ mistake, not the Lord of Gods or your previous ancestors’ mistake, not your associates’, employees’, or servants’ mistake, nor was it the mistake of ascetics or priests. It was your own evil, and now you’ll get what’s coming to you.’

135. “Having questioned the sinner about the second heavenly messenger, King Yama then asks them about the third heavenly messenger. ‘Didn’t you see the third heavenly messenger?’

“They answer, ‘I didn’t.’

136. “The king also asked, ‘While you were human before, didn’t you see someone who died? Whose body had broken up and their life ended? Whose faculties had forever ceased? Whose body is stiff like a withered tree, thrown onto a charnel ground? That’s eaten by birds and animals, dressed in a coffin, or cremated? Didn’t you see them?’

“The sinner responds, ‘I actually did see them.’

137. “The king replies, ‘Didn’t you think to yourself, “I’ll die, too. I’ll be no different than that!”’

“The sinner responds, ‘I was being careless at the time and didn’t realize that about myself.’

138. “The king again says, ‘You were careless with yourself. You couldn’t cultivate your body, speech, and mind or mend your evil ways and follow the good ones. Now, you’ll be made to recognize the pain of your carelessness!’

139. “The king also tells them, ‘Now, you’ll get your punishment. It wasn’t your parents’ mistake, not your brothers’ mistake, not the Lord of Gods or your previous ancestors’ mistake, not your associates’, employees’, or servants’ mistake, nor was it the mistake of ascetics or priests. It was your own evil, and now you’ll get what’s coming to you.’

140. “After questioning them about the three heavenly messengers, King Yama entrusts the sinner to the wardens of hell. The wardens leads the sinner to one of the great hells. The greats hells are a hundred yojanas across and a hundred yojanas deep.”

141. The Bhagavān then spoke in verse:

King Yama Wishes for Liberation

142. The Buddha told the monks, “King Yama then had this thought occur to him, ‘The world’s sentient beings are deluded and unaware. Their physical conduct is bad, and their verbal and mental conduct is bad. After their lives end, few of them won’t experience this suffering. If the world’s sentient beings could mend their evil ways and cultivate good physical, verbal, and mental conduct, they would experience happiness when their lives end as gods and spirits.

143. “If I’m born among humans after my life ends, perhaps I’ll encounter a Tathāgata. I’ll cut off my hair and beard and put on the three Dharma robes in the correct teaching. I’ll leave home and cultivate the path. I’ll cultivate the pure religious life with pure faith. Having accomplished the task, I’ll put an end to birth and death. I’ll realize for myself in the present life that I won’t be subject to another existence.’”

144. The Bhagavān then spoke in verse:


Endnotes

  1. This chapter is one of the most brutally detailed descriptions of the Buddhist hells. Parallels are found in the Commentary to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (T1509.175c18ff), Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma Kośa, and the The Correct Dharma Abode of Mindfulness Sutra (T721.27a17ff). This version differs somewhat from the presentation of eight hot and eight cold hells found in the above Sarvāstivāda accounts, but the two versions appear to derive from a common source. They share many of the same names of their hells, but the descriptions are often quite different. They also both include the concept of sixteen lesser hells. [back]
  2. These names were translated to Chinese, and their meanings sometimes suggest different S. equivalents than we find in later sources. For example, the first great hell is called Saṃjīva (“survival”) in later sources, but here it clearly was Saṃjñā (“perception”) instead. I’ve indicated these reconstructions with * when they don’t agree with later sources. Briefly, the meanings of these names are: Perception (Saṃjñā), Black Cord (Kālasūtra), Struck Together (*Saṃhata), Wailing (*Roravaṇa), Screaming (*Mahāroravaṇa), Roasting Fire (Tapana), Great Roasting Fire (Mahātapana), and Uninterrupted (Avīci). [back]
  3. The names of the sixteen lesser hells were also translated to Chinese. It’s more difficult to reconstruct all of them to S. equivalents, so I’ve translated them to English. [back]

Translator: Charles Patton

Last Revised: 9 June 2022