ike me, you may have assumed Buddhism was such a happy religion. Until I discovered Buddhist Hell, deep in the South of Sri Lanka, I figured that Buddhist temples were full of kind, enlightened, robe-wearing folks, living out their days in this world performing good deeds, and getting a stack of good karma to boot. From a Western perspective, brand-Buddhism is pacifism, tranquility, and paying a hundred bucks to see the Shaolin Monks world tour, and being ripped off by Buddhist monks selling plastic beads. But wait, there’s more.
Unfortunately, visiting Sri Lanka, one of the most stunning island nations on the entire planet, has taught me everything I never wanted to know about Buddhism. Like all religions, Buddhism has a special dark place where people just don’t want to end up in this life, or any other. Buddhists refer to it as “Naraka” or “Niraya”. You may know it as “hell”. One artists vision of this tormented and gruesome place is on display inside the Buddhist temple named Wewurukannala Vihara, in the town named Dikwella. And the Buddhist version of hell, makes your version of hell seem like not such a terrible place.
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Buddhists have developed a complex, and rather specific, number of hell’s and punishments. There’s sixteen hells. A small sample includes “Nirarbuda”, a place where miscreant beings roam around a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains, where bodies blister from the icy cold, and are covered in blood and pus.Or maybe “Samghata”, where the residents are continually crushed by huge rocks until they are nothing but a bloody jelly. The rocks then move apart, the being is restored, and the brutal process is repeated. For precisely 10.0368 trillion years.
Other Buddhist hell’s are a mixed bag of flesh eating animals, a lot of blood and guts, fire, and weaponry of various ingenuity. I liked the one where you get stabbed with red-hot-spears, until fire comes out of your nose. No matter which one is your favourite Buddhist Hell, down in Dikwella they’re all gruesome, and the wifi sucks. And of course, more hell’s are actively being discussed by those Buddhists for whom sixteen hells is simply not enough.
Giant Buddha temples in Asia, they’re a dime a dozen. And all of them have a sign that proudly states “this is the largest Buddha in Asia”. But how many have kitschy mid-century models of demon like creatures, and hundreds of paintings interpreting Buddhist hell? Not enough, that’s my opinion. Which is why Wewurukannala Vihara temple is just so god-damn good. But here in Sri Lanka, a land dominated by Buddhism, writing about the somewhat unknown Wewurukannala Vihara temple comes with a hellishly big bag of problems.
Mentioning Buddhists and gruesome torture in the same sentence in Sri Lanka, can be a dangerous past-time (but hey, it’s a living). When I first posted photos of “Buddhist hell” on the Yomadic Facebook page, I was inundated with threats, insults, judgments, rudeness, and incredulity that this temple even existed within Sri Lanka. The photo was reported to Facebook for “violating guidelines”. My account was suspended. Facebook administrators suggested it would just be easier to remove my entire Facebook presence, permanently. All at the request of Sri Lankan Buddhists. Seems strange, until you delve into the dark history of the island nation formerly known as Ceylon.
Recently, Sri Lanka has suffered through a bloody civil war. Lasting 26 years, taking 100,000 lives, and ending less than five years ago, the war was won by the well equipped Buddhist soldiers. I know that sounds inflammatory, but it’s as true as saying that the American armed forces are Christian soldiers, or the Iraqi soldiers are Muslim soldiers. And nobody would really find that particularly inflammatory. The sad fact is, as with Christians and Muslims, many of the never-harm-an-insect Buddhists are very willing to kill humans of a different religion.
With just one trip to Sri Lanka, the decades long marketing job that brand-Buddhism did on my mind, had completely fallen off the rails. I now realise that Buddhists are capable of war, torture, terrorism, and killing. They’re also capable of insults, and of attempting to censor the internet to fit their own beliefs.
It should have come as no surprise.
Because Buddhists, are just like every one else.
Buddhists hang at malls, and shop for designer labels. They scan the internet looking for information on the newest iPhone. In high-finance business dealings, they will rip you off. They’re violent, judgmental, tech-savvy, materialistic, racist, and rotten to the core. Behind your back, they’ll laugh at you. To your face, they will lie.
They’re also beautiful, friendly, warm, welcoming, generous, and honest. They lead live simple lives, respecting and helping others, expecting nothing in return. They’ve got an old Nokia that they use, preferring to give the money they save on the purchase of a new phone to a local orphanage. They never judge a person, and never engage in any violent activity. They have hearts of gold – not because they fear hell, purely because they are naturally good people.
The point is, as with all religious practitioners, some Buddhists are good, others are not. Although I do know human nature, I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim I know everything (or even just a little bit) about the religion or philosophy of Buddhism. Due to my chosen life path of not believing in fairy tales, I haven’t had time to read the official Buddhist training manual. So, Wewurukannala Vihara temple was my introduction to “Buddhist Hell 101”.
Buddhist Hell – Closing Thoughts on the Wewurukannala Vihara Temple in Dikwella, Sri Lanka
We live in an age of travel where tourist sights and activities around the world seem to have come off the same boring assembly line. Wewurukannala Vihara temple is different. Buddhist Hell may not be a real place, and sadly it’s also not really an attraction. Kitschy, tacky, decaying, full of naive art and covered with imagery of torture and gore – this just isn’t what most tourists are into these days. Wewurukannala Vihara was empty, and the town of Dikwella was a tourist-free zone.
Perhaps, one day, maybe, just maybe, gruesome artistic visions of Buddhist Hell will become the hot new attraction on the Sri Lankan tourist-circuit.
Update: probably not.
PS, personal update – it’s been almost 600 days on the road, and I’ve finally managed to pull myself away from Europe – just for a couple of months. In the last few weeks I have covered three continents. More soon….
PPS, next week – the mean streets of Colombo – street photography from Sri Lanka’s capital, and largest city. Apart from hellish Buddhist visions, there is a LOT to see in Sri Lanka. Street scenes, beaches, and sunsets. Pop your email address in below to receive the post by email (secret: the photos are larger in the email). Your email will never be shared or spammed, and you will be joining thousands of other happy people, who all waste a few minutes each week being entertained and educated, for free, by Yomadic.com: