Buddhism

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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Mae Nak Phra Khanong, Thailand’s Most Famous Ghost

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Thailand, it seems, has got a bit of a ghost obsession.

Thais’ relatively common belief in the supernatural has started gaining attention because of articles like this and this, and movies like Uncle Boommee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The Wikipedia page Ghosts in Thai Culture lists 34 SEPARATE TYPES of Thai ghost (34!! Separate. Types!). And arguably the most famous among these is Mae Nak Phra Khanong.

Mae Nak (or Mother Nak) is so famous that there have been over 15 movie adaptations telling her story. There is also a shrine dedicated to her at Wat Mahabut in Bangkok’s far-flung Phra Khanong neighborhood. The shrine is pretty far below the tourist radar but popular among Thais, who visit to pay tribute to the famous shade and ask for her blessings.

Thailand and I have something in common, because I’m also kind of obsessed with ghosts. So when my position in an obscure department of a high-profile news organization was recently eliminated, I decided to take advantage of both the situation and my severance by attending a 10-day meditation retreat in Thailand. And immediately afterward, I’d do a little ghost hunting.

The legend of Mae Nak goes something like this:

In mid-19th century, a man named Mak and his young bride Mae Nak are living in a state of domestic bliss, when Mak is called away to fight in a border war. Nak, who is pregnant, goes into labor while Mak is stuck recuperating from a battle injury. Unfortunately, neither mother nor child survives the delivery, and Nak dies crying out for her beloved Mak.

Here’s where it starts getting weird.

Newly healed, Mak returns home and is overjoyed to find his beautiful wife and young son waiting at the door of their home to greet him. He quickly settles back in to his old life.

At first Mak’s friends, seeing him spending his days alone in his decrepit and unkempt home, think he must be suffering the effects of war. But they soon realize that he has been hypnotized by Nak’s ghost to believe that everything is swell on the homefront. Mak brushes off their warnings, and all that his buddies manage to do is to piss off Nak, who visits them at night and murders them horribly. Despite dwindling numbers among his pals, Mak still doesn’t catch on.

One day, he comes home to find Nak grinding curry paste. She drops a lime off the porch of their house, and, apparently unaware of Mak, stretches her arm out several meters to retrieve it (what a ghost is doing preparing dinner and why she can overhear rumors but not hear her husband come home is beyond me). At last, comprehension dawns on Mak. And, naturally, he freaks the fuck out.

Mak books it into the forest, pursued by Nak, and reaches the local monastery (Mahabut, in fact), where he is safe from Nak’s spirit. Here narratives and details differ (one compelling version has monks chanting and weaving sacred string around Mak, while vengeful Nak hangs upside down from the vestibule ceiling uttering curses and pleas). But the most popular conclusion is that powerful Buddhist monk Somdet To (another extremely popular figure in Thailand) performs a series of magical workings and releases Nak, whose main issue is the Buddhist sin of attachment. Legend has it that her body is still buried under a tree at Mahabut.

At the time of Mae Nak’s story, Mahabut would have been located a rural district near Bangkok, but the area has since been absorbed by the expanding city. Getting there is not difficult. You catch the subway from Hua Lamphong train station, transfer to the sky train and take it to On Nut Road. From there, it’s about a 10 minute or so walk to Wat Mahabut. What I didn’t realize when I made this plan was that my visit coincided with Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and water festival (read: all-out street water battle). It was the second day of Songkran when I headed for Mahabut. Since things had quieted down since the chaos of day one, I thought I could make it to the shrine un-soaked and unscathed. I was wrong. A couple of blocks from the wat, some sidewalk revelers grabbed me, explained that it was Songkran (thanks for clearing that up, guys) and dumped a bucket of icy water down my front. Then they thanked me enthusiastically for celebrating their holiday with them. I was about to meet Thailand’s most famous ghost, and my pants were wet.

This would not do. I decided I’d wander the temple grounds and let the Bangkok heat do its work on my pants before going to see Mae Nak.

I have seen Mahabut referred to as a “working shrine,” which is just of saying that it is very much in service and that there is a plethora of religious activity taking place there. A lot of this activity is of the “popular” Buddhist sort (as opposed to the “pure” Buddhism espoused by forest monks like Buddhadasa Bikkhu), which mixes in liberal doses of Hinduism, ancient animist practices, and folk magic. The shrines I wandered among were colorful, varied, bizarre. Etherial music floated over Buddha statues interspersed with images of Ganesh, demons, and famous monks. There were stalls selling blessings and garishly lit coin slots designed to generate auspicious numbers. A collection of spirit houses (an old animist practice that is pretty ubiquitous in Thailand) lay along one side of the main plaza, flanked by logs wrapped in colorful scarves. Not for the first time, I wished that either I spoke Thai or that I had a translator to explain what the hell was going on.

Rounding a corner, I stumbled on the entrance to a small wooden hut. Standing guard outside was one of those weird baby doll figurines next to a bottle of the red, fizzy pop that is a common offering at shrines and that spirits, ghost babies, and the like are supposed to favor (hints of ancient blood offerings?). I stepped past them and into the hut.

I should mention here that leading up to this trip, I also did some research into Thai occult practices and had formulated a sort of personal occult “Big 3”: ghosts (or legends and sites devoted to them), kuman thong (religious effigies with roots in the ancient use of fetal remains for black magic purposes), and Luk Thep (the creepy baby doll craze loosely related to kuman thong). What I stumbled upon in the hut both shocked me and filled me with a weird sort of joy.

A glass case held the dried and desiccated corpse of an infant, covered in gold leaf and dressed in a pink baby outfit that swallowed its shriveled form. Its body was draped in gold chains and no attempt had been made to disguise the sunken hollows of its eye sockets. Lining the top of the case and surrounding the thing inside were various stuffed animals, plastic toys, baby clothes, more red pop, and two spirit houses. A picture of the body had been placed, inexplicably, behind the body itself. Baht notes cascaded over it from a hole in the top of the case. It was some straight up Flannery O’Connor shit.

What I found out afterward is that this is the shrine to Baby Ae. Some time ago, the child died just after birth and was buried by its parents (in Buddhist culture cremation is typical, except in cases of unnatural death, when burial is practiced), but the body resurfaced in a flood. Distressed and taking the exhumation as an omen, the parents brought it to the abbot of Wat Mahabut, who agreed to care for its spirit. Baby Ae now receives both gifts and requests for good luck. While the preservation of Baby Ae is not the same as the ancient kuman thong practice, it bears some resemblance in that the body of a child is thought to contain a spirit that offers help to the living in exchange for continued care and attention. Lame as it may sound, I was too superstitious to take a picture of Ae. But I thought I should pay respects, so I dropped a 20 Baht note into the coffin as an assurance against any haunting and moved on.

Fortunately, my pants had dried by that point.

Mae Nak’s shrine is at the back end of the complex, as indicated by a sign in Thai depicting a woman with long, black hair (a troupe of traditional drummers in green in pink satin performing for Nak near the entrance also provided a helpful hint). There are stalls outside where one can buy offerings for Mae Nak (clothing, jewelry, perfume) or her baby (toys, sweets). I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so I bought a plastic airplane.

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The shrine’s central figure is a gold-painted bust representing Mae Nak, complete with bold purple eyeshadow and a long black wig. The figure is surrounded by three gold babies: one at her side, one in her lap, and one in a glass case surrounded by kuman thong (the plastic figurine kind, not the dried fetus kind). The Nak of legend only had one baby, not triplets, but the principle of abundance adopted by many temples encourages accumulation. So instead of getting rid of a gold baby if one starts to get a bit worn, you just get a new one and keep the others as well. The shrine is meant to evoke Mae Nak’s rooms when she was alive and is piled with offerings: shiny satin dresses line the walls, cosmetics and jewelry fill glass-fronted cabinets, there are piles of baby clothes, diapers, and toys, and clusters of red pop bottles. Behind the shrine there are several artist renditions of Nak as a beautiful young woman. A television is left on at all times to entertain mama and baby.

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For a ghost shrine, it’s not too spooky. In fact, the gold bust is—I hate to say it—kind of tacky. The power of the scene lies in the constant stream of supplicants and the apparently sincerity of their entreaties. Nak appeals to women, particularly those requesting safety for their husbands and lovers (especially that they not be drafted into military service), and to pregnant women and those wanting to get pregnant (though based on her legend, the advisability of the latter groups visiting the ghost is questionable). On the day that I was there, most of the visitors were women diverse ages, with a sampling of men thrown into the mix. I knelt at the ghost’s feet (or lack thereof) and tried to blend into the background as I watched them come and go.

An old woman approached, placed her palms together, and stood very close to the figure, mouthing a silent plea. A family consisting of a father, mother, and little girl crowded around together, the girl peering shyly at the gold woman. A short-haired, butchy woman knelt in intense meditation before the bust for a very long time. Visitors tucked baht notes into Nak’s arms and adorned her with bits of gold leaf.

The existence of the shrine raises a few questions: in a country whose central religion emphasizes both reincarnation and impermanence, why do people seek to keep a ghost tethered to one spot? What does a ghost need with material offerings like clothes and perfume? (This also brings to mind Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes celebration and dumb suppers carried out by Wiccans on Samhain). To what extent is the legend literally believed? And what do visitors stand to gain?

As I left the shrine, Big #3, the Luk Thep, lurked back of mind mind. These baby dolls, with their cherubic faces, ritually charged Buddhist tattoos, and supposed ability to affect the fortunes of their human caretakers, put me in mind of every creepy doll in every horror movie ever. Chucky. Annabelle. The Devil Doll. Magic. I kept an eye out, even as I silently swore I would do nothing to anger the dolls.

Then, on a vendor table near the shrine entrance I spotted one. A normal baby doll, except for the carefully inked gold designs that curved from its back over its shoulder. Then another—and then a stall with several in a cluster. I stopped and fumbled for my iPhone, but before I could get the shot, the stall’s proprietress demanded to know what my business was. Her tone was hostile. Perhaps she was warning me away from the dolls.

I took this as my cue to go, and left Wat Mahabut to melt back into everyday life outside.

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