Friday, October 10, 2014

Questioned by the King of Death in Hell

Seth Auberon, Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly, Wiki Yama REVISED
Yamantaka, "Death's Death" (explanation below*), gilded figurine (British Museum/wiki)
You will be what you do, so do good.
Yama is the name of the Buddhist Judge of the Dead, a wrathful deity, and dharmapala who presides over the Buddhist purgatories (narakas, nirayas, or impermanent hells).
Although based on the god Yama of the ancient Brahminical Vedas, the sacred books of modern Hinduism, the Buddhist Yama has developed different myths and functions.
And he has spread far more widely. He is known in every country where Buddhism is established, including Tibet, Nepal, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos,  Malaysia, Singapore, and Alta California (the greatest republic ever known, although stolen by the U.S. and incorporated into its northern states system, but still said by many to be a shangri la).

Rrrr! So long as you cycle in samsara...
Yama, in the Vedas, was the son of the Sun god Surya. He presided over Naraka, the Vedic underworld. In Vedic tradition, Yama was considered to have been the first mortal who died and glimpsed the way to the celestial abodes, the deva lokas. So in virtue of precedence, he became the ruler of the departed.
In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Yama (Gshin.rje) is regarded with horror as the prime mover of Saṃsāra, the Wheel of Rebirth and Re-Death, something Mara might be blamed for more than Yama.

But he is also revered as a "guardian of spiritual practice." In the popular "Wheel of Life," or Bhavachakra, where six to 31 planes of rebirth are depicted between his monstrous jaws or in his arms.

Yama is sometimes shown with a consort, Yami, whose name is associated with "night" in Sanskrit.
Yama in Theravada Buddhism
Small part of Angkor Wat panel depicts a heaven and hell, Angkor, Cambodia (Sam)
  • Heaven and Hell: The upper part of this panel describes life in the heavens, the lower part life in the hells. It is 60 meters long and shows Yama, the "God of the Dead," sitting on a buffalo, assisted by his two assessors, Dharma and Sitragupta. There are 36 short inscriptions that describe 37 of the countless heavenly worlds and 32 of the hells, all contained within the general 31 Planes of Existence. Life in celestial worlds is depicted by the rich mansions and palaces, a flying apsara (celestial nymph), and the lavish draperies. Life in the lower hells is all about torture, which can be gruesome with the breaking of bones, use of hot irons, and the piercing of heads with nails. More
Yama is understood by Theravāda Buddhists as a God of the Dead, supervising the various Buddhist "hells," which are worlds below the human plane.
These worlds are generally referred to collectively as "the downfall," distinct from the Christian conception in that they are not literally permanent. They are figuratively permanent, lasting an "eternity" (kalpa) or more, but still technically impermanent and therefore closer to the popular Catholic conception of purgatories.
Yama's exact role is vague in canonical texts. It is made clearer through elaborate tales, extra-canonical texts, and popular myths which, inherited from other traditions, are sometimes inconsistent with Buddhist philosophy.
The Five Remembrances (Angelarenai/flickr)
In the Pali language canon, the Buddha states that a person who has ill-treated his or her parents, recluses (shramanas, wandering ascetics, generally Buddhist monastics), noble (enlightened) persons (referred to as Brahmins but not caste Brahmins who are simply born into privileged status), and elders (theras and theris, good people in general, long time monastics in specific) is taken at death to Yama.

Yama then asks, "Did you never consider your conduct in light of birth, aging, sickness, worldly retribution, and death?"
In response to Yama's questions, ignoble people often answer that they failed to consider the karmic consequences (vipaka, phala) of their reprehensible actions. As a result they end up in brutal (infernal) worlds until that unwholesome action has sufficiently exhausted its result. The residual effects may not exhaust themselves and they find release only to suffer for that action again in the future.
Woe is samsara, plagued by dukkha!
[For reasons that are hard to accept, and only slightly less difficult to understand through the Abhidharma, the "Higher Teaching," actions/karma performed in the human world have disproportionate consequences when they mature in the future.

One act of generosity, if it matures at the right moment, which is very hard to depend on, can lead to another human life of great wealth. Simply abstaining from breaking the Five Precepts can lead to a lower heavenly rebirth. Conversely, a single reprehensible act can lead one to be reborn in a woeful destination with essentially no way to escape for what seems like mute eternities.

Performing one of the Ten Courses of Unwholesome Action, types of karma that lead like corridors to unfortunate rebirths, can dog one over many lives until it is finally exhausted. By itself one deed can take one to a painful rebirth. And if it becomes a habit or character trait, it can snowball until one is doomed the lowest hells. Chance of escape? A snowball's chance in hell. Who can believe? It makes no sense! But it does: One action is not one citta, which serves as the seed for the result (vipaka), the future fruit (phala). There are millions of cittas (individual "moments" within the process of consciousness) in an action, whether good or bad, each able to give rise to a result. Do lots of good, as it will help in all endeavors.]
In extra-canonical Pali texts, the great scholar, Ven. Buddhaghosa described Yama as a vimānapeta, "a being in a mixed state," sometimes enjoying celestial comforts [like vimanas, spacecraft, space platforms, heavenly mansions] and at other times receiving the more unpleasant results of karma.
Bodies on display (
However, as a king, Yama's rule is considered just. After all, it is not the judge who condemns one to the consequences of the actions one has willed and carried out.
It is a person's own doing by one's choice of actions. We are always free to choose, even when we insist we have no choice. Having no choice is tantamount to having no imagination, no ability to see things in another way, like realizing that we always have the alternative of simply stopping. (See the original "Bedazzled").
In fact, in popular belief in Theravāda Buddhist countries, Yama does living beings a great favor: Before they ever end up being judged at death, the King/God of the Dead sends them Four Messengers: sickness, old age, punishments, and other calamities among humans as warnings to behave well.
When we die we are summoned to appear before Yama, who is said to examine our character and to dispatch us to an appropriate rebirth Yama presides over -- be it on the human plane (of which there are many worlds), one of the many heavens, or one of the eight great purgatories ("hells" in that they last a long time and can be full of dreadful torments).

There are thought to be several Yamas, each presiding over a distinct hellish world. Theravāda sources sometimes speak of two Yamas or four Yamas.
Yamantaka Vajra Bhairav
*NOTE ON DEATH'S DEATH: A Tibetan origin myth explains that once upon a time, a holy man was told that if he meditated for the next 50 years, he would achieve enlightenment. He meditated in a cave for 49 years, 11 months and 29 days, until he was interrupted by two thieves who broke in with a stolen bull. After beheading the bull in front of him, they ignored his requests to be spared for but a few minutes and beheaded him as well. In his near-enlightened fury, he became Yama, the God of Death, took the bull's head for his own, and killed the two thieves, drinking their blood from cups made of their skulls. Still enraged, he decided to kill everyone in Tibet. They prayed to the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, who took up their cause and transformed himself into Yamāntaka ("Death's death") similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and horrific. In their battle, everywhere Yama turned, he found infinite versions of himself. Mañjuśrī as Yamāntaka defeated Yama, and turned him into a protector of Buddhism. He is generally considered a wrathful deity.

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