Into the Bowels of Buddhist Hell

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To use a mala, the practitioner moves their thumb along the string of beads (or, moves the string of beads through the hand) from one bead to the next after, say, taking a breath or reciting a mantra. (A mantra is a word or phrase meant to help calm and focus the mind, or reorient it to a certain spiritual principle. One common mantra, for example, is OM MANI PADME HUM, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion who is said to hear and attend to all the cries of suffering in the world.) When the revolution of the mala comes full circle, one might close the practice or continue for another cycle. 

Malas designed to be worn around the neck typically have a bead-count of 108—an auspicious number for many Buddhists. But malas are made in a variety of lengths, styles, and materials. Common smaller versions, more often worn on the wrist, have 54 beads (half of 108) or 27 beads (one quarter of 108). The beads themselves might be crafted from seeds, wood, stones, plastic, animal bone, or even human bone. Often key to a string of malas is the presence of the “guru” or end-bead, larger than the others, which gives the practitioner a tactile reference point so that they can know by feel where they are in a given practice cycle, as well as a starting and ending place. Malas may also have tassels, knots, or ornamental talismans, such as a representation of the lotus flower, the famous Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment. 

Bringing this centuries-old tool up to the moment, the pioneering tech company Acer has created Acer Leap Beads, a “smart” mala that helps users keep track of their spiritual progress just like a traditional mala does — but with quite a number of helpful extras. Just like their non-tech counterparts, Acer Leap Beads are a tool for counting recitations or other practices, but Leap Beads do the counting for you, recording the repetition of each mantra or prayer in a companion app on your phone. A lotus blossom in the middle of the accompanying display opens slowly as you get closer to your practice-session goal, effectively keeping your practice on track and your mind at ease. 

Originally only available in Taiwan, where more than 8 million people identify as Buddhist, Leap Beads are now available worldwide. A bracelet of 14 beads in length, the Leap Beads mala is made in cedar or sandalwood, each version giving the bracelet a lightweight look and feel, as well as a relaxing woodsy smell. Compatible with Android 4.4 or higher and IOS 8.0 or higher, this smart mala has a four-day battery life. You can charge them with an included compact travel charger or by using a charging station. With the app, you can play a selection of pre-loaded scriptures and chants. 

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here are multiple Buddhist visions of the afterlife; some include reincarnation, some include the promise of being reborn in paradise, and some include the potential for being sent to a hell, or hells, where sinners are met with spectacular punishment. 

These hells are understood to be an actual geographic space, yet one that is vast and infinite. The sense of time there is different than that we mortals have—one day in hell may be equal to tens of thousands of earth-hours, and sinners are condemned to two thousand years there, which might as well be an eternity. Worse: those who find themselves in hell will receive punishments according to their crimes. Worse still: these punishments are not finite; one can never complete their penance, for it continues in perpetuity. 

Read right to left, this handscroll depicts the horrors of Buddhist hells. A handscroll is meant to be viewed intimately, unrolled perhaps a couple feet at a time, depending on what is comfortable to the handlers. At the beginning of this handscroll is a signpost which states on one side, “From this way east, the River of Three Paths,” and on the other, “From this way west, the road to Paradise.” The characters on the signpost seen in this handscroll from the Newark Museum’s Beyond Zen exhibit are actually not discernible except for the very first one but it’s understood that they point the way to both heaven and hell. 

Let’s take a closer look.

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, as the Fish Basket Kannon

Meiji Period (1868–1912)

Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk

Newark Museum Purchase 1921 TR3.1921.1

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, as the Merciful Mother Kannon

Meiji Period (1868–1912)

Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk

Newark Museum Purchase 1921 TR3.1921.2

More about the Beyond Zen: Japanese Buddhism Revealed exhibition

Magnificent works of Japanese Buddhist art from the permanent collection of the Newark Museum, many of which have never been displayed previously, are featured in this exhibition. In addition to presenting the basic tenets of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan, the exhibition introduces how the objects were and continue to be key elements in Buddhist practice. The depictions of Buddhist hell seen here are among the highlights of the exhibition, as is a rare set of four large hanging scrolls of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara), from the turn-of-the-twentieth century, which depicts the deity in different manifest forms. 

3) This scene illustrates some of the punishments one might endure in hell. Sinners climb the “mountain of needles,” chasing a maiden who seems to await at the top—only to disappear once her pursuers arrive, and have to begin their pursuit again. This is but one example of the perpetual nature of punishments in hell.

4) The final scene of the handscroll illustrates the “Hell of Burning Fire,” where murderers, thieves, liars, and other offenders are punished in a large cast-iron kettle.

There is some hope for the condemned. Souls can be saved from hell by the prayers of family members, or the ever-benevolent monk-bodhisattva Jizō (above; Sanskrit: Ksitigarbha)—largely associated with deceased children and the unborn—can descend into hell to save beings himself. But clearly, it’s infinitely better to never land there at all.

Guest curated by Midori Oka, Associate Director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Japanese Art at Columbia University, aspects of the faith are presented through four thematic sections: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Ritual, Space, and Faith; Death and Beyond; and Masters and Disciples.

The team behind the Newark Museum exhibition, Beyond Zen: Japanese Buddhism Revealed, are your guides to a sprawling and fearful underworld. 

1) The deceased are depicted as humans, but they represent the souls of the dead. Upon death, the soul of the deceased is said to make a seven-day trek over the “Mountains on the Way to Death,”eventually reaching the “River of Three Paths.” Upon traversing the river, one is met by Datsueba (“old woman who takes clothes”), who weighs one’s sins by hanging their clothing on barren tree branches. The white kimono and triangular headbands are the formal attire of the dead. The color white is a symbol of purity, as souls must be purified as they cross into this realm and approach Enma (Sanskrit: Yama), one of the Ten Kings of Hell. The triangular headbands have come to symbolize the dead and ghosts.

2) Sinners are taken to Enma. One of his attendants is the horned blue demon, or oni. Female and male heads of heavenly deities are seen on the post to the left of Enma. The ferocious, red, flame-haired male head comes alive when a sinner in its presence is guilty, as in this painting. Beside it is the “mirror of sin,” which reveals the deeds of one’s life; it looks like this human started a fire. A red oni to the left of the mirror is seen weighing sins on a scale; a blue oni pulls a flaming cart of souls to their condemned hells.

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, as the Merciful Mother Kannon

Meiji Period (1868–1912)

Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk

Newark Museum Purchase 1921 TR3.1921.2