Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Chinese Underworld

In a small Buddhist temple in Hu County, near Xi’An City in Shaanxi Province is found a graphic depiction of the Chinese concept of the underworld. Bearing similarities to the Egyptian Court of Osiris, it graphically pictures the fate of the wicked before they are reincarnated into another life.

The main figure of this mural is the god of death, and the ruler of hell, Yan Luo. With his black face and evil look, he stands in priestly robes waiting for the soul of the deceased to be brought before him for judgement. Yan Luo has two assistants, “Ox-Head” and “Horse-Face”, who meet the soul as soon as it enters the underworld. They escort the wicked soul to Yan Luo for judgment. The scene is very similar to the Egyptian portrayal of Osiris and his cohorts, Anubis and Thoth.

In the Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” “Ox-Head” and “Horse-Face” are sent to capture the Monkey King, Su Wu Kong. The Monkey King overpowers the two demons, and scares them away, allowing the Monkey King to journey into the court of Yan Luo. There, the Monkey King erases his name and those of his people from the records, granting him and his monkeys immortality.

According to tradition, Yan Luo was originally assigned to the First Court of Hell. He proved too sympathetic and lenient, and as a result too many souls were crossing the Golden Bridge to Heaven. As a result, Yan Luo was reassigned by the Jade Emperor to the Fifth Court of Hell, named the Hell of Wailing, Gouging and Boiling (the number of levels of Hades various, and can number up to eighteen in some legends). Over time Yan Luo developed a relish for meting out punishment.

How a person dies is said to impact how he is brought into Hades, and how long he will remain there. If the person dies a natural death, his soul immediately is brought to the guards of hell, where he is chained and marched into Hades. After seven days, however, the soul is allowed to return to the mortal world to visit his family and loved ones. In the mean time, the soul’s family has prepared food offerings of fruit, meat, and rice, and burns “Hell” money, all in an attempt to distract the guards in order to allow the soul more time to be with his family.

If a person dies accidentally, the soul is confused and will wander for several days. After seven days, he will learn that he has died, and return to his family. At this point, having waited at the soul’s residence, the guards of hell will escort the deceased into the next plane of existence to be judged.

If a person dies a brutal or unjust death, or if he commits suicide, his soul is consigned to spend eternity in a state of rage and anger. No guards will come for such a soul, and it is required to relive its last moments again and again throughout eternity. The place where the death occurred is considered haunted by the living. To cleanse such a location, often a Buddhist or Taoist monk will be called in to perform an exorcism, but it is considered a risky undertaking, since the soul is often angry and viscious.

Upon death, most souls arrive by escort into the halls of Hades. There they will meet the thousands of other souls who have also recently died, as well as witness the punishment being carried out on the souls of those condemned as wicked. The soul will be brought before the Mirror of Retribution, and in its clear and polished face the life of the deceased will be replayed. No transgression will be hidden. If the person lived a righteous and caring life, they will be allowed to progress to Paradise to dwell in happiness. The vast majority, however, are found guilty of selfishness, greed, and other transgressions, and will be assigned another level of Hades for judgment and punishment.

After suffering the punishment for his sins, the soul is ultimately brought to Xue Luan Wang, the being in charge of Reincarnating the soul back to the mortal sphere. The soul will move up or down the spiritual ladder, depending on their actions in mortality. The wicked may return as an animal or insect, while the obedient will return as a human. The soul will be given a drink of broth by Mong Po, which will cause all recollections and memories to be wiped away from the soul’s mind, and Mong Po will then escort the soul to the Wheel of Reincarnation to be reborn into mortality.

Yan Luo is the supreme ruler of the Chinese underworld (and of the Fifth Court of Hades), and the depictions on the wall show the end of those who act against the Buddhist strictures of kindness and morality.