When hell is not emptied,
I will not become Buddha

THIS sentiment in Chinese calligraphy is engraved next to the lifesized statue of a Bodhisattva (picture above, right panel) presiding over Singapore’s sprawling Kwong Min Shan crematorium that I have to visit once each year with my wife and her mother.

The visit, during the Ching Ming festival of the dead, provides an opportunity for the living to offer cash, food and paper-craft material goods to the dead. The cash is in the form of “banknotes” with each bill bearing a portrait of Yama, king of Hell, and a figure in the hundreds of billions.

(Aside: Even if these notes were legal tender, they are still insufficient to pay the public debt of the US, reckoned to be over US$16,000 billion, and Japan’s at over US$13,000 billion, according to the latest mid-2012 reports.)

The paper goods for the dead include luxury cars, mansions, Rolex wrist watches, tuxedo suits, handphones and computers. During my Grandma's funeral in 1976, there was a Mercedes limousine for her that included a smartly-dressed Ahmad or chauffeur!

Ching Ming (“clear and bright”) falls around March or early April. As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chinatown with a large extended family that included my Grandma, uncles, aunts and a small army of cousins, Ching Ming was a major event. We would hire a bus to transport the entire clan to a hillside cemetery in Thomson Road where my grandfather was buried. There, we would clear the tall grass around the grave, burn incense sticks and made our offerings.

Today, most dead people are burnt and their ashes stored in an urn in a crematorium, like the one that I went with my wife and her mother.

At Kwong Min Shan, the distinguished-looking bronze statue represents a Bodhisattva, a saint who has made a vow of great compassion not to enter into the bliss of Nirvana (i.e. become a Buddha) until he or she has helped liberated all living beings from their rounds of suffering, thus empyting hell.

But how real is hell and the suffering of its inhabitants?

Hell is real and all in my mind

It is a difficult paradox to understand. On one hand, each living being is driven by the law of an impartial, impersonal, implaccable karma that determines their fate according to their actions, thoughts and motives. Evil action leads to terrible consequences, including a long stint in hell which is depicted as a real place with real pain and suffering.

On the other hand, the entire cosmos resides in my mind. Reality is what I have created and projected. Buddhahood is my mind, is my very own nature. At death, my consciousness will see Buddhas, angels, demons and other entities which the authoritative Tibetan Book of the Dying urges me to recognise as no more than, say, Powerpoint presentations!

All my pleasure and suffering are likewise what I have produced and projected, so that my mind is my own heaven and hell. Moreover, if I examine myself carefully, I will find there is no “I”.

My “self” that I think I know, is just a mental aggregate that arises and disappears, arises and disappears, in one continuous stream.

If I can see, recognise and grasp this fact of impermanence and the non-existence of a self, then I would have achieved realisation, and all my past karmic imprints, obligations and debts would dissipate like the sea foam.

Nonetheless, there is also a separate relative reality where karma operates, where each action has its consequence. A downward spiral of painful rebirths – leading to the lowest hells – awaits the thoughtless, heedless person who has committed negligent, immoral, hurtful acts.

But the Sutras (Buddha’s discourses) also emphasise that my action, speech and interaction with the outside world exist only in my mind, and, realising this fact, I can cut, in one fell stroke, the iron chain of birth > suffering > death > rebirth >.

The answer, I believe, is that both scenarios are true. It’s like the old connundrum in physics – is light a wave or a particle? Just as we know that light behaves as both wave and particle, so there is a separate “real” reality ruled by an inflexible law of karma outside of my mind, and if I can realise this, karma, rebirth and suffering are no more than the phantom creations of my mind.

Mark Twain offered a similar explanation in a dark story, The Mysterious Stranger. He said in the story that after we have gone through many existences, ultimately each person must realise he or she is no more than a single, lonely thought in a companionless universe, and that all else are no more than creatures of this thought. – Ching Ming, Saturday April 19, 2003


Ching Ming offering of incense, food and Hell's banknotes to the long-departed
Offerings to the long-departed at Ching Ming