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Hell is a realm or state of eternal punishment. Buddhism denies the existence of hell but does teach that there is a purgatorial state (niraya). Purgatory differs from hell in four important ways:

  1. According to Buddhism no one judges the dead and casts them into purgatory; rather each individual creates a negative destiny for themselves by their negative thoughts and actions in this life, i.e. their kamma.
  2. Purgatory is not eternal but limited and impermanent like every state. After one’s life-span in purgatory is finished one will be reborn into another state.
  3. The suffering of purgatory is not a ‘punishment’ as in the theistic conception of hell but, as said before, the result of one’s negatives actions.
  4. It is not primarily one’s religious beliefs but one’s actions that conditions whether or not one will be reborn in purgatory.

Thus a good Sikh, Jew or Taoist may well have a good rebirth while immoral or evil people who call themselves Buddhist may be reborn in purgatory. Purgatory is one of the six realms of existence one may be reborn into; the others being the human realm, the heaven realm, the realm of animals, of hungry spirits and the realm of jealous spirits. In some of his statements the Buddha indicated that purgatory is an actual location, while in others he seemed to suggest that it is more a state of mind. For example, he said; ‘Fools say that purgatory is under the sea. But I say that purgatory is really a name for painful experience’ (S.IV,206). To the Buddhist, the idea of an endless hell raises yet more doubts about the existence of a God who is supposedly just and loving.

Who Goes to Purgatory

Being reborn in purgatory is conditioned entirely by a person’s immoral thoughts, speech and actions, not by their beliefs. Nowhere in the Tipitaka does it say or even infer that non-Buddhist will be reborn in purgatory simply because they were not Buddhist. Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha cannot prevent a person going to purgatory if they have been immoral.

How One Goes to Purgatory

According to the Buddha, the thing that conditions a person’s experience and future destiny (both in the present and future lives) is kamma, i.e. the sum total of their intentional thoughts, speech and actions (A.III,415). We are not ‘judged’ by our kamma, nor is the experience we have, positive or negative, a ‘reward’ or a ‘punishment’ but simply an effect (vipaka). It is also important to point out that one dirty or malicious thought, one act of theft or violence or one lie will not result in purgatory. It requires, the Buddha said, ‘many evil deeds’ (bahuni ca duccaritani, Sn.665), i.e. evil has to have become a significant part of one's makeup before one ends up in purgatory. This point is reiterated by the Buddha when he said that one or two good deeds done by a predominantly wicked person is unlikely to have much of an effect any more than one or two bad deeds done by a predominantly good person is (A.I,249). It is also true that not all wicked people go to purgatory. If a person committed a particularly terrible deed, the kammic effects of this might manifest themselves in their present life and therefore not lead to purgatory in the next life.

See also: