Heaven and Hell?

My twins jostled with each other to get the window seat as we were flying high above the clouds. One of them turns around after intently looking out of the window for sometime and innocently asks ‘where are the fairies?’ ‘I thought they lived in heaven, amongst the clouds.’ They went on to clarify for me that hell was deep under the ground.

That got me wondering on the question of heaven and hell…


As the story goes…

A belligerent samurai once went to visit with a Zen master. He barks, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience.

“Teach me about heaven and hell!”

The Master looks at the samurai and with utter disdain, says,

“Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You dumb, dirty, embarrassing lout. Get out of my sight. I just can’t stand you.”

The samurai gets red in the face, as he flies into a furious rage. He reaches for his sword in anger ready to kill the monk.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the monk softly says,

“That’s hell.”

Startled at seeing the truth in what the master pointed out about the fury that had him in its grip, the samurai calms down, sheaths his sword, and bows respectfully, thanking the monk for the insight.

The monk said softly,

“And that, says the monk, “is heaven.”


This Zen story provides a framework for heaven and hell as seen through the lenses of the Buddhist philosophy. As depicted in this Zen story, heaven and hell exist not as an abstraction in an external world but truly are creations of our own mind. Buddhism view the six states from Hell to Heaven (Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven) all exist within our minds at any given moment of time. It is we who choose to express a given state of mind as we traverse from one state to the other. Maybe, one moment, when we get very angry with our teenage daughter for some irrational behavior, our mind descend into hell and other times when we are altruistic and giving and thinking ideal thought, we are in a heavenly state. Extending it a little, even for the ‘most evil’ person on this planet throughout history, when in an angry state he orders his enemies shot and killed, he may be living in a hell state for that moment. However, the same ‘evil’ person, then reaches home and tenderly holds his child and talks sweetly to her- maybe that is heaven! However, any happiness or satisfaction to be gained in these states depends totally upon circumstances and is therefore transient and subject to change. In these six worlds of existence, we base our entire happiness, indeed our whole identity, on externals.

They go on to define higher states of consciousness. The next two states- Learning and Realization, come about when we recognize that everything experienced in the six paths is impermanent, and we begin to seek some lasting truth. Unlike the six paths, which are passive reactions to the environment, these higher states are achieved through deliberate effort. In the Learning state, we seek the truth through studying the teachings or experience of others. This leads on to Realization, where we seek the truth not through others’ teachings but through our own direct perception of the world. Having realized the impermanence of things, people in these states have won a measure of independence and are no longer prisoner to their own reactions as in the six paths. However, they often tend to be contemptuous of people in the six paths who have not yet reached this understanding. In addition, their search for truth is primarily self-oriented, so there is a great potential for egotism in these two states.

Finally they define two additional stages-Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas are those who aspire to achieve enlightenment and at the same time are equally determined to enable all other beings to do the same. Conscious of the bonds of interdependence that link us to all others, in this state we realize that any happiness we alone enjoy is incomplete, and we devote ourselves to alleviating others’ suffering. Those in this state find their greatest satisfaction in altruistic behavior. Buddhahood is a dynamic state that is difficult to describe. We can partially describe it as a state of perfect freedom, in which we are enlightened to the ultimate truth of life. It is characterized by infinite compassion and boundless wisdom. In this state, we can resolve harmoniously what appear from the standpoint of the nine worlds to be insoluble contradictions. A Buddhist sutra describes the attributes of the Buddha’s life as a true self, perfect freedom from karmic bonds throughout eternity, a life purified of illusion, and absolute happiness.

Reading through the Christian literature, I was intrigued by what Pope John Paul II said in three Wednesday Audiences on July 21,1999. The Pope said, “Heaven is neither an abstraction not a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit,” the Pope said.

In doing so, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is metaphoric according to the Pope, and is inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist.

In doing so he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him. “Incorporeal things are not in place after a manner known and familiar to us, in which way we say that bodies are properly in place; but they are in place after a manner befitting spiritual substances, a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us.”

As in our story, the sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction “Know thyself” speaks to this keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, (at Saanen,Switzerland 1981) was asked a question from the audience ‘Who are you?’ He gently corrects the questioner and re-frames the more important question as “Who Am I? He goes to explain how ‘you are the story of mankind…a part of this whole humanity.’ He however laments that despite this fact, we tend to be corralled in a narrow circle, conditioned, so programmed….that we cannot learn something new.’ He simply calls for self- inquiry, to have a free mind, which is capable of ‘observing the whole history which is embedded in you.’


Alan Watts a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, similarly makes you think on ‘the real you.’


And finally, I found this Tedx video where the speaker is asking us to introspect on these very questions. The speaker ends his argument with a emphatic thought ‘…Heaven-Here and Now, Divine life- Here and Now…”!


Do we know who we really are? Where are we on this journey of self-realization? Are we ready to define Heaven and Hell for ourselves…?


  1. http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2heavn.htm
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Q69, a1, reply1
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Watts





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