Do you believe in heavens and hells? In Buddhist cosmology, heavens and hells are 2 out of the 6 realms of existence. Some Buddhists are extremely averse to ideas of heaven and hell; Especially new converts who were formerly from another religion.
Can we be good Buddhists without believing in the heavens and hell? Here’s what I personally feel.
Foremost, the idea of heavens and hells in Buddhism is quite unlike other religions.
I learned about the six realms of existence when I was 16. After that, it doesn’t really have much influence over my daily life. In another word, it is just a piece of knowledge. Similar to knowing the circumference of planet Earth?
Buddhism does not believe in a divine power rewarding one a passage to heaven as a reward or a damnation in hell as a punishment.
To understand the Buddhist concept of heavens and hells, we need to know the differences from other religions.
Heavens and hells are not eternal.
Buddhism taught that our state of being is a constant flux. Even in this very life itself, we have already experienced different stages of life and different identity. We are constantly changing (physically and mentally). In that manner, death, and the afterlife are viewed as similar phenomena. Death is like going to sleep and waking up in a new state of existence. Being reborn in heaven is not a big deal in Buddhism because rebirth in heaven is not eternal. One can be reborn in heaven, stay in heaven, then die from heaven and be reborn somewhere else again. Likewise, for rebirth in hell. There is no eternal damnation in Buddhism. In another word, our existence is a constantly changing situation.
Thus, a high being in heaven can experience downfall and be reborn in a lower realm; And a being in hell can redeem himself to be reborn in higher realm.
There is no higher being judging our deeds to reward or punish us.
Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not believe that one’s afterlife and whereabouts are determined by divine being(s). No one is responsible for judging us. Our next rebirth is determined by our karma.
AND Karma is not a big word that refers to a galactical force or a divine system that is meant for judgment.
The idea of fairness and unfairness also needs to be abandoned.
If we get rid of the idea of divine judgment, punishment, and reward; it becomes easier to appreciate what Buddhism is really saying. Otherwise, one cannot fully appreciate this wonderful topic that was explained by Buddha.
We need to understand that our idea of fairness and judgment is man-made. Let us talk about thievery. Different societies punish a thief differently. In one place, a thief is counseled and perhaps receives a probation order. In another place or another time, a thief may be amputated or be exiled. The concept of fairness of the punishment is determined by the society. What is deemed fair by one, can be unjust to another.
Buddhism teaches that if we steal, we ultimately become poor; If we do not become poor in this life, then in the next one. According to the complexity of one’s karma, the result will differ accordingly. In the following example, let us assume that the effect of stealing occurs in the next lifetime.
Thus, a human habitual thief may be reborn as a poor human, a poor ghost, a poor Deva (heavenly beings), a poor animal, etc. Who ensures that the thief will be born poor? No one. It happens according to the “thieving” mind of that thief.
A thieving mind means a mind that is covetous of other’s people’s possession. A mind that is wanting. Thus, that mind energy will seek out and manifest in a situation where “wanting” becomes an existential condition. Therefore, being reborn in a poor situation becomes “ideal” to a wanting mind. This is because that wanting mind can continue with its wanting. It is almost like a sad joke, right?
Likewise, one of my teachers taught that a promiscuous and lustful mind will likely be reborn as a wild animal. This is because the condition of “casual” sexual encounters is an “ideal” existential condition for a lustful mind.
Please note that, the above examples are a simple illustrations and not conclusive because there is no rule book or system, to begin with. A lustful person can also be charitable or compassionate. Thus it will be too narrow to say that all lustful people will definitely become an animal. See? There is no standard. Because every one of us is unique and our unenlightened mind is as complex as it can be.
Therefore, it is apparent that our mind drives us towards different rebirth. It is our own habitual tendencies.
It all depends on how we manage our minds and mental condition. And our mind will manifest according to the 3 poisons (Craving, Aversion, and Ignorance)
For example, we may pridefully think that prolonged sitting in a meditation posture is a noble thing. But prideful attachment to sitting without actually meditating may also mean that our mind would find existence as a rare toad that is being exhibited to be an “ideal” existence. The point to know is that there is no one up there holding a scorecard to score our every action, speech, and thought. Karma is not what we imagine. It is not a divine court or a divine judiciary system.
Since it is all in our mind, there is no escaping it. It is part of our existential condition.
That is why Buddhism is all about training our mind to be enlightened. We take ownership of our future life.
Is the concept of heavens and hells useful?
The answer is yes because we can experience heavens and hells in this very life of ours.
Being compassionate and helping others is heavenly. Being filled with loving thoughts towards others is heavenly. Being joyous towards others’ happiness is heavenly. Being non-discriminatory is heavenly. Having such mental states help us experience heavenly bliss. No need to worship any god/goddess.
Being filled with aversion, hatred, and violence is hell. Having the opposites from the above results in a mind that is prone to sufferings. That “burning” mind or “cold-heartedness” is hellish.
In summary, the heavens and hells in Buddhism teaches us the states of our mental health. We can train ourselves to be blissful as if in heavens or we can develop negative traits and live a hellish existence.
Last but not least, my Teachers taught simply thus. If we observe the 5 Buddhist precepts in life, we will at least be a human again in our next life.
May all be well and happy.