Fire and Brimstone teachings that dramatically portray the eternal damnation awaiting sinners and evil-doers should be familiar. Even if you are not part of a tradition that uses this style of teaching, its presence is palpable – from street corner preachers telling the folk they are going to burn in hell (a common sight in Ann Arbor, where I used to live) to protests against service members making the news.
This style of teaching is not unfamiliar to the Buddha. Sure, there is no God to be eternally separated from. But the unrelenting law of cause and effect must be heeded or else you will wind up in the deepest of hell realms!
Kokaliya once spoke falsely against Sariputta and Moggallana. He said to the Buddha, “Sariputta and Moggallana have evil desires, venerable sir; they are under the influence of evil desires.”
The Buddha responded, “Do not speak thus, Kokaliya; do not speak thus, Kokaliya. Clear your mind in respect of Sariputta and Moggallana, Kokaliya. Sariputta and Moggallana are amiable people.”
This exchange repeated three times, but Kokaliya did not heed the Buddha’s words. Breaking out in boils the size of peas, then the size of nuts, then the size of oranges, then festering and overflowing with pus, Kokaliya died a painful death.
He was instantly reborn in the Paduma hell. Describing this realm to the bhikkhus, the Buddha said the following:
[Kokaliya] goes to the place which is set with iron spikes, to the iron stake with its sharp blade. Then there is food like a ball of heated iron, thus appropriate.
The hell-keepers when they speak do not speak pleasantly. The hell-dwellers do not hasten towards them; they are not arriving at a refuge. They lie on strewn-out ashes; they enter a blazing mass of fire.
And tying them up with a net the hell-keepers strike them there with hammers made of iron. The hell-dwellers come to blind darkness indeed, for it is spread out like mist.
Then moreover they enter pots made of copper, blazing masses of fire. In those they are indeed cooked for a long time, jumping up and down in the masses of fire.
Then the doer of wrong is cooked there in a mixture of pus and blood. Whatever region he inhabits, there he festers, as he touches it.
Fortunately, there is also Ji Jang Bosal, otherwise known as Ksitigarbha or Jizo Bodhisattva, vowing not to attain Buddhahood until all hells are emptied. So even Kokaliya is not without a friend! Our Bodhisattva path will take us into the Paduma hell if we stick it out until the very end.
Hearing this teaching of the Buddha, we see that even he was a fire and brimstone preacher of sorts. But this same tradition gives us the unrelenting practice of compassion so that even Kokaliya may see in the darkness of the Paduma hell.
Take it for what its worth. This is definitely a complicated tradition we are inheriting and transforming through our everyday Dharma practices.
But just as we cannot learn to grow a garden by only learning to use a shovel, our practices need to be informed by the whole Buddhadharma, where this is not just the words and texts handed down to us by the ancient practitioners – although it includes that too!
So how should we interpret and practice with the Buddha’s words above?
(The story of Kokaliya is from The Rhinoceros Horn and Other Early Buddhist Poems (Sutta Nipata), translated by K. R. Norman, pp. 111 – 115. You can also look up Sutta Nipata III.10.)