so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell?

At Tin's Hall..open mic night. Played two of my songs, "Floating World" and "Even Wise Men Get The Blues" which went over ok; also tried the spoken word piece "A Bizarre Act of Kindness", which the mostly Nihonjin audience didn't get much of...

Guy playing "Wish you Were Here"..which is a good excuse to incorporate something I wrote up recently:


So You Think You Can Tell Heaven From Hell?

Mahayana Buddhism never met an idea, a myth or a metaphor, that it didn't like. While the original teachings of Sakyamuni used the Hindu concept of re-incarnation as a teaching tool, he didn't have much to say about the afterlife. It wasn't relevant to his primary mission, relieving human suffering; and notions of a afterlife don't mesh all that well with the ideas of anatman and sunyatta, no-self and emptyness.

In the centuries after the Buddha's death, however, Mahayana teachers and adherents began to include and adapt their culture's notions of reincarnation into higher and lower realms, until there were six paths of reincarnation to which a person might be subjected . One might be reborn into a hell, or as a hungry ghosts, an animal, a human, a titan (or "wrathful demigod"), or in the pleasure realms of the gods.

The hell realms are varied and vast. The Ksitigarbha Sutra describes many of them.

It should be noted, though, that even damnation is seen as temporary. The sentence might be millions of years, but it is not eternal. (The concept might be compared to the notion of Purgatory.)

The notion of "hungry ghosts" doesn't have much of a parallel in Western mythology - which is a shame, as it well-illustrates the situation of many of us in contemporary society...subject to unfulfillable desires, eating food that will not assuage hunger. You can never get enough of what you don't really want and need in the first place.

Like all metaphysical speculation, stories of an afterlife are outside the prime concern of Buddhism to release suffering. But as metaphors and teaching tools, they do a fine job, as the following Zen story illustrates:

Thus Have I Heard:

A famous warrior came to see a Zen master, and said, "I have heard some teachers say that there is a hell, and some say that there is not. Please, tell me, is there a hell?"

The master looked at him disdainfully. "What a fool you are to ask such a question! And they say you are a great warrior! Why, you look like a total buffoon to me!"

Outraged, the warrior drew his sword. "Impudent monk! I'll have your head for such insults!"

As the warrior drew back his arm for the death blow, the master fixed him with his gaze and calmly said, "This, is hell."

The warrior stopped, understanding the master's lesson. He sheathed his sword, and bowed deeply to the master.

"And this," said the master, "is Nirvana."

Of course a hell requires various demons to administer punishments, and judges to decide upon them. But the most interesting character associated with hell is the bodhisattva who redeems the dammed, Jizo (Ksitigarba).

Jizo, the "Earth Store Bodhisatva", was never that big in Indian Buddhism; she/he (there was a gender change along the way) made a bit of a name for himself in China, but it's in Japan that he made it big. Statues of Jizo are all over the place; he is seen as a protector of children and of travelers.

More that that, though, Jizo is the protector and redeemer of those in the hell realms. The staff he is usually portrayed carrying is not just a walking stick, but pries open the gates of hell; the jewel or lantern shown in his other hand lights the way.

Jizo's great vow is that he will not enter Nirvana so long as any being is in hell - an "I am not free so long as any man is enslaved" sort of sentiment. No sentient being will be thrown away, left behind; we all make it to enlightenment, though it might take billions of years.


That, I think, is pretty darn cool.

Anyway. Earlier today, trucked out to Nara, got to watch Kaz's Shinto class. Now there's a thing few Americans have been able to experience! Of course I understood very little of the details, though he was kind enough to explain a few things to me in Eigo. Still, just to get a sense of what the instruction was about - the details of a purification ritual and of a chant - was quite significant. Not point of dogma or theory, but instead "move like this. Chant like so." Very grounded and concrete. (Jodi would have loved it!)

The open mic is finishing up with a blues band, and I'm dancing a bit - the only one. Sometime it occurs to me - especially here in Japan, which can be a bit more hung up that back home - that in being the first to get up and dance, I open the way, encourage the freedom of others.

Or maybe I just like drawing attention to myself, and coming up with a pretty-sounding excuse to feed my ego. Sometimes it's tricky to tell the difference.

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