Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Worlds of Hell and Hunger

When the rich make war it's the poor that die.

~ Jean-Paul Sartre

The World of Hell

The Japanese word for hell, jigoku (Sanskrit naraka), suggests an "underground prison." Buddhist texts describe various hells, including hot hells and cold hells. Hell represents the basest human condition in which one is fettered by agony, completely lacking in freedom.

Nichiren writes, "Hell is a dreadful dwelling of fire." If we consider hell as a potential state of life, it describes being so overwhelmed that our suffering seems to engulf us completely, like roaring flames. Nichiren also states, "Rage is the world of hell." Rage, here, means desperation and resentment arising from the inability to quell misery, with no hope of respite from torment. We could also say that in the world of hell we are controlled by destructive impulses. War, which embodies extremes of human misery, can be considered an expression of the world of hell.

The World of Hunger

The world of hungry spirits, or hunger, is characterized by overwhelming desires and the suffering that comes from those going unfulfilled.

The Japanese term gaki (Sanskrit preta), translated as "hungry spirit" or "hungry ghost," originally referred to the dead. This is because the dead were thought to be in a constant state of starvation. The world of hunger is a condition in which our mind and body burn with constant intense craving.

Nichiren Daishonin writes, "The realm of hungry spirits is a pitiful place where, driven by starvation, they devour their own children." He also says, "Greed is the world of hungry spirits." To be hungry to the point of devouring one's own children is to be ruled by the misery of craving that knows no bounds.

Desire in itself is neither good nor bad. Without a sense of hunger when our bodies need nourishment, we would starve to death. Desires and wants can provide impetus for self-improvement, for human advancement. In the world of hunger, however, we are unable to use desires creatively. We become slaves to them and suffer as a result.