The Sword-blade Trees of Buddhist Hell–a Nightmare of the Mind

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Recently, I gave a talk on Thailand’s Hell Gardens at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, under the auspices of Morbid Anatomy. These “gardens” are horrifically graphic sculptural theme parks scattered throughout the country that depict the torments suffered by those who violate too many of the five precepts (kind of like the Buddhist commandments, only there’s only five of them, not ten) and end up getting sent to hell. Most people, it seems, don’t even realize that Buddhism has a hell, let alone that Thailand has several themed attractions that look like something straight out of the Saw franchise.

Let’s start with hell. The Buddhist word for hell is Naraka. Naraka is a Sanskrit word, and its earliest use appears in the Hindu Vedas, around 1500-1200 B.C., so the concept was already in place in India by the time Buddhism took hold there in about the 5th century BCE. Several of the earliest Buddhist sutras, like The Great Story and The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (both written in 200 to 100 BCE), include descriptions of hell. In Buddhist tradition, hell is one of six realms, some relatively nice, some much less so, that the soul cycles through from rebirth to rebirth, trapped in the wheel of samsara until such time as they attain enlightenment and break free of the wheel entirely. The early texts also make reference to the idea of the hell realm containing multiple hells, with The Great Story describing eight separate hells. As often happens in many religious or mythic traditions, the stories and descriptions change and get more and more elaborate over time, reflecting the specific cultures and societal mindsets that Buddhism spread to. Buddhists in the cold, mountainous region of Tibet introduced the idea of eight cold Narakas. Later, this sixteen hell model became fairly common, though some texts describe thousands of hells.

Many of the punishments meted out in Buddhist hell are similar to those commonly associated with Christian hell—sinners are burned, boiled, stabbed, torn apart, etc. etc. You know, all that fun stuff. And in the earliest texts, punishments don’t necessarily correspond to any specific ill deeds. This changes over the next few hundred years, as torments increasingly come to match specific crimes.

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Good times at Wang Saen Suk hell garden

A stroll through one of Thailand’s hell parks illustrates this idea nicely. Here, amid horrors typically erected by well-meaning monks in order to provide both instruction and warning, one sees liars getting their tongues ripped out; drug addicts being force fed boiling oil; rapists getting stabbed in the dick; women who have had abortions being stabbed in the lady parts. You get the idea. But one of the most commonly-occurring and most interesting images is that of the sword-blade trees.

Trees with blade-like leaves that flay the flesh are mentioned in The Great Story as a general hellish punishment, unconnected to any particular transgression. In later texts and in several Thai hell gardens, however, they are presented as a special punishment for adulterers and those who commit sins of the flesh. At Wang Saen Suk, Thailand’s largest and most famous hell garden and elsewhere, naked men and women rendered in concrete endlessly climb a tall tree with massive spikes protruding from its branches and trunk, all while being pecked at by black birds. In many renditions, minions of hell are also present who force the sufferers to climb the tree and who also throw javelins through the climbers for good measure. If you reach the top and fall crashing to the ground, don’t think that’s the end of it. You’re just going to have to start the tortuous climb again.

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A very long climb

What all this has to do with fornication is unclear, but I can’t help but notice some resemblance between the tree of spikes and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. Apparently, whether you’re just about to sin or whether you’ve been wallowing in debauchery for years, there’s going to be a tree that has something to say about it.

One question that bears asking any time there’s a depiction of hell, is whether it is meant to be taken literally, or whether it is intended as a figurative representation of things experienced during life. As with Biblical literalists, there’s probably plenty of Buddhists who would insist that the straight-up, literal interpretation is the correct one (although with Buddhist hell you get a break, because it’s not permanent. You just stay there until you work through your bad karma), but I’ve always been one for more nuanced interpretations.

The most interesting description I’ve come across yet of the sword trees comes from The Essentials of Pure Land Rebirth, work completed in 985 by Genshin, a priest of the Japanese Tendai school. In it, the tree torture is described thusly:

“Sometimes the hell wardens seize the victims and put them into a forest of sword blades. As they look up to the top branches of the trees in this forest they see beautiful and well-dressed women, indeed the faces of those whom once they loved. This fills them with joy and so they try to climb up the trees, but when they do so the branches and leaves all turn into swords, which lacerate the flesh and pierce and pierce the bones. Though they are terrorized by this, their evil karma still drives them on in their desire and, defying the swords, they climb on. But when they reach the top they find the object of their desire below on the ground luring them to come down, and each one saying to the lover on the tree: ‘Because of the karma created by my passions for you I have come to this place. Why do you not come near me and embrace me?’ Thus each one from beneath the trees allures her victim till the latter, in his infatuation, begins to climb down the tree again. But as they descend the leaves of the trees, which are made of swords, turn upward and thus lacerate their bodies. When they are about to reach the ground, the women appear on the tops of the trees. Then the victims, overcome with passion, again climb up. This process goes on for ten trillion years. The cause of being thus deceived in this hell by one’s own heart and the consequent suffering is one’s own evil passion.”

            Note, the absence of hell guards at the base of the tree (they seem to serve just to throw their victims into the forest, and then leave them to torture themselves). The tormented souls are free to stop climbing the tree at any time, but, they don’t, driven on instead by their own craving. To me, this version of the sword trees serves as a great illustration of Buddhist hell as a hell of the mind. Plus, it’s just a great image. Kind of like a messed up Jack and the Beanstalk story, on an endless loop.

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