A Guided Tour of Hell
A Graphic Memoir
Samuel Bercholz
You think the Christian hell is a bother. Wait until you get a gander at the Buddha's Hells. It's like that old weather joke we used to do on the radio: "Today's forecast - - - Fire and Ice, followed by the End of the World."

At ThoughtCo online, Barbara O'Brien offers us a peek about what's awaiting us, those of us who just can't seem ever to stay properly fixed on the Way.

First, these, the various ice hells:

  • Arbuda (hell of freezing while skin blisters)

  • Nirarbuda (hell of freezing while the blisters break open)

  • Atata (hell of shivering)

  • Hahava (hell of shivering and moaning)

  • Huhuva (hell of chattering teeth, plus moaning)

  • Utpala (hell where one's skin turns as blue as a blue lotus)

  • Padma (the lotus hell where one's skin cracks)

  • Mahapadma (the great lotus hell where one becomes so frozen the body falls apart)

That's just one hell. Next, the opposite extreme:

    The hot hells include places where one is cooked in cauldrons or ovens and trapped in white-hot metal houses where demons pierce one with hot metal stakes. People are cut apart with burning saws and crushed by huge hot metal hammers. And as soon as someone is thoroughly cooked, burnt, dismembered or crushed, he or she comes back to life and goes through it all again.
Common names for those who like it hot:

  • Samjiva (hell of reviving or repeating attacks)

  • Kalasutra (hell of black lines or wires; used as guides for the saws)

  • Samghata (hell of being crushed by big hot things)

  • Raurava (hell of screaming while running around on burning ground)

  • Maharaurava (hell of great screaming while being eaten by animals)

  • Tapana (hell of scorching heat, while being pierced by spears)

  • Pratapana (hell of fiercely scorching heat while being pierced by tridents)

  • Avici (hell without interruption while being roasted in ovens)
And if they forced me to choose?

Well, I've always been fond of pot-roast, so I guess I would pick Avici. With onions and potatoes.

As far as ice goes, if I must, I'd probably call for Utpala, where one's skin turns "as blue as a blue lotus." I've always favored the color blue, but was never much for shivering and letting my teeth chatter away.

§   §   §

We learn from this book that in his sixties, Sam Bercholz had a heart attack, which required a "sextuple coronary bypass" at Palm Springs General Hospital. He managed to survive the twelve-hour operation, and they even had him up, wandering the halls shortly after.

But then an infection set in, and since there seemed to be no controlling the fever, they were pretty sure that he was a goner. That, he tells us, when a kindly Buddha figure came and took him on a tour of Buddha hell.

His reports on this Grayline tour of the underworld is about as grisly as you can imagine, especially if you consider the sixteen listed above as the guideline. Except Bercholz's journeys about hell are far more detailed, and include, with each, those who have ended up in hot water, or stuck in the freezer, as it were - - - their payback for unspeakable actions committed while still among the living.

For example, take Omar, who ended up in "the Tunnel of Suicides." Omar had been told that if he went on a suicide mission and bombed "infidels," he would immediately go to the land of milk and honey with many maidens, a "noble martyrdom, with a visit from god." But Omar ended up in a place where "no maidens came to serve them, no god to greet them." What he found was a place where you "only experienced the recurring pain and anguish of being blown apart, constantly becoming their own enemies who were also blown up, maimed and killed." He and a multitude of others, all acting in the name of god, but

    Here in suicide-bomber hell, there was no death to end the cycle of violence. Each time they were dismembered, the molecules of their body parts reformed into new enemies, into new versions of themselves, to experience again and again the sudden bomb blasts and the burning of their lungs, heart and brain.

Get it? You do violence to another human, and you get to go to Buddha hell where you become the people you murdered, not once, but over and over and over again. Even there in hell, he set off explosions, "killing" everyone near him. "But nobody died. Everybody, including Omar, just felt the pain of their hell-bodies being hurled all about - - - then recombining and starting all over again."

    He hated them, they hated him. But they had all been mixed together so many times that really there was no distinction between himself and them.

Then we journey to the land of ice, and meet Parker Lancet. He was a doctor, one who decided to create "the remedy for all suffering." Once he had found the formula, he decided to test it on himself. Because he conducted the test "without "proper clinical protocol," he took an excessive dosage which "caused his own accidental suicide."

I don't know: going to hell just because he blew it with his own medicine? Seems rather harsh: he is remaindered to a frozen city named Nova Urbanus, filled with "uninhabited ice mirages created from beings' habits of seeing walls and window and spires. The building provide no shelter or creature comforts of any kind. Cold winds blow through them without any respite. Some of the cities are like abandoned crystal palaces."

"His relentless wandering produced a huge blister on the bottom of his foot, a crystalline blister of icy torture. The more he walked, the more he was tortured."

    One day after eons of blister fixation, a second crystal blister appeared next to the original one. His attention kept going back and forth, from the agony of the first blister to the agony of the second blister, and back again. He attempted to return to his habit of wandering but when he stepped on the blisters, they cracked and the agony was multiplied by the clusters of crystals. Not only were the clusters on his foot, but the whole world around him seemed like solid ice-covered land, and it, too, began to slowly crack. Over years, clusters formed, vibrating with exactly the same pain as the sores on his foot. Figuratively and literally, his whole world had become an agonizing, vibrating, deadening, ricocheting, claustrophobic-beyond-all-belief city of horror.

§   §   §

At the end of A Guided Tour of Hell, the author explains that "hell in Buddhism is not a place where dead souls go to be punished eternally for sins committed on earth. Instead, it is one of six possible destinations of rebirth for sentient beings, in repetitive cycles of existence known as samsara." And it all has to do with what you are doing right now.

Who, me?

Yes, you. If you are dominated by "anger, hatred, and aggression" . . . guess what? You get to go to hell, do not pass go, do not collect anything (but bad karma). And there are six realms - - - those of the humans, the jealous gods, and the gods. The gods?

Yep. Some gods can be too cruel for their own good. Look at our own. A kindly, loving benevolent divine? Hardly. Read the book of Job to learn the rewards doled out to saintly followers. In fact, our own Christian Divine may, at this very moment, be hobbling about in the Buddha's Arctic, feet covered with grotesque blisters, cursing his fate at not being nicer to those of us who had to put up with the not-so-subtle Christian Hell.

§   §   §

There are several others in the realm of the Buddha, "animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings." Those in this lesser standings in the hierarchy get to come back and do it again and again and again. And, if you mind your p's and q's, after several gadzillion lifetimes, you'll be offered two choices.

One is that you can stay there, in a final resting place of divine joys, or, you will be invited to return and go through all the dreck we call living with but one simple purpose: to serve your time encouraging others to opt out of the repetitious life cycle. You will thus be invited to join with all the future Buddhas, all the Jesus's, and Mohammed's and assorted other holy saints to show humans how to escape this rattly washing machine that we call living.

§   §   §

A Guided Tour of Hell? It's not bad book, although the drawings are a bit out of left field. Still, Bercholz might want to bone up a bit on his Strunk and White; figure out how to write somewhat more sparingly, to avoid the same repetitive style favored by most writers in the religious exposition biz.

For instance, he could spend a month or so studying the original master of the depiction of hell, Durante degli Alighieri. He should take special note of the sly wit to be found throughout La commedia, being those various circles where Dante sticks willy-nilly the people who had given him, too much grief during his own lifetime.

Writer Robert Grimminck tells us that Filippo Argenti was a famous politician, and so Dante stuffed him in the fifth circle of hell, where "the wrathful bit, clawed and clashed with each other in the muddy waters of the river Styx."

    Dante was politically at war with Argenti but it is known that they clashed in personal matters as well. He and his family have been said to have taken all of Dante's possessions when he was forced out of Florence and had also been avid supporters of his continued exile. It is also believed that he once slapped Dante right across his face.

    In Inferno, Argenti accosts Dante as they floated past him, to which Dante replies, "In weeping and in grieving, accursed spirit, may you long remain." After which the other wrathful in the river Styx grabbed him and proceeded to dismember and tear him limb from limb.

My theory is that if one is to presume to tell others of the ultimate truths of life, one must avail oneself of a most energetic phrasing. One of the most elegant pictures of hell is to be found in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce obviously believed the hellfire-and-damnation school of preachers to be a little overwrought, but this did not stop him from putting fiery words in the mouth of a brimstone priest, Father Arnall, who, one critic wrote,

    graphically depicts the pestilential air of the place, spoiled by the stench of rotting bodies, and the fires of hell that rage intensely and eternally. The blood and the brains of the sinner boil with no hope of relief as he lies in hell's lake of fire.

By contrst, Milton utilized an elegant eighteenth century verse style to present us with Paradise Lost, while John Bunyan's Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress is written in the most simple, affecting language, as is the King James version of the Bible which turns out to be as gorgeous as the subject it presumes to reveal. Dante himself wrote at an exalted level, utilizing terza rima, lines of eleven syllables, an elegant style giving Italians a rare example of what could be done with their native language and their bizarre national religion.

We could hope that if Bercholz presumes to write on the same subject in the future, he might bone up on how others have done it, to see if he can - - - at the worst - - - match them.

--- Pamela Wylie
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