Pass the Pepto Baptismal: The “Hell Being Community” at Wat Phai Rong Wua
But did you realize that there is a homologous idea in Theravada Buddhism? Sure, there are differences in terms of non-essentials. For instance, the Buddhist notion of “hell” does not involve the “lake of fire” that we all know and love from Christianity. But the meta-ethical underlay of both worldviews operates, to varying degrees, on the premise that an individual’s chosen actions are to be compelled by the threat of a stick. It’s the same “do this – or alternatively, don’t do this – or else!” Without the threat of the stick, one is apt to "do wrong." Clearly one's actions are not to be chosen on the basis of goal-orientation and the pursuit of personal values.
There is a noteworthy difference between Buddhism and Christianity though. The notion of Karma stands behind the causal process which determines one’s fate as the consequence of his personal behavior. But unlike the Christian notion of divine judgment, Karma cannot be overruled by any being. That's right, there’s no “get out of jail free” card, no god that can come along and arbitrarily pull someone from the consequences of his own choices and actions and “save” him from what he rightfully deserves. Also, in Buddhism, one can have a say, through his own personal choices, in the fate he is to have after his present life, while in Christianity this is all pre-determined beforehand, irrespective of one’s chosen actions. So in Buddhism there is a kind of ‘tyranny of justice’ of sorts unknown to Christianity. Clearly Buddhism holds justice in higher regard than does Christianity.
On my most recent trip to Thailand, I made it a point to visit Wat Phai Rong Wua (which roughly translates to “temple of the bamboo barn”), a vast temple compound in Suphanburi province which is home to one of the most unforgettable exhibits I have ever seen. Known as the “hell being community” or “city of hell,” this exhibit displays hundreds of life-size (and larger) plaster sculptures depicting every variant of torture and torment one could imagine as a graphic illustration of what awaits those who misbehave in the afterlife to come.
Wat Phai Rong Wua is famous among the Thais as a place of veneration, but it is virtually unknown to foreigners. This is not one of the temples that you’re likely going to visit if you’re traveling through Thailand on a group tour, for instance. I myself saw no westerners there on either of my two visits to this most curious site. On my first visit to Wat Phai Rong Wua, in 2006, I was not prepared for what I was about to see. I took only a few pictures and really had too little time to take in what the temple grounds had to offer. So on this trip, I made it a priority to revisit Wat Phai Rong Wua, and take as many photos as I could of the horrific depictions showcased at the temple’s hell exhibit.
My photos are now online. I invite my readers to check them out here.
As you look through these photos, consider the effort that must have been put into erecting this monument to eternal suffering. Somebody really took this seriously.
While Thailand is, delightfully, as untouched by Christianity as any society on earth today could be, it is still home to an extremely mystical culture. Buddhism, like Christianity, has its own assortment of invisible magic beings, though they are not theistic in nature, and they tend to have more colorful personalities than those found in the Christian religion. This is actually ironic given the Vantillian school’s tendency to cast non-Christian religions as “impersonal.” In Buddhism, some of these magic beings are even not invisible at all to begin with. Take for example the notorious graseu, which is a witch consisting of a floating head attached only to its entrails (no broomstick!). Descriptions of this malevolent being bring to mind the image of a kite flying through the air, with a long tail of internal organs flapping in the wind as it flies from haunt to haunt. I joked with my hosts that I was hungry from some “gang graseu” – i.e., "witch soup" – and they really enjoyed that one. Unfortunately I could find no depictions of the graseu at the hell being community of Wat Phai Rong Wua.
If you’re ever planning a trip to Thailand and have never been there, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ve traveled to this precious kingdom five times now, and it never fails to amaze me. But there are precautions one should keep in mind while visiting “the land of smiles.” If you’re traveling with a group, you’ll probably be better insulated. But I have never traveled with a group in Thailand, and have always mingled only with the locals, which I think is preferable anyway. (Seriously, why go to the other side of the earth only to sit next to some obese sixty-year-old from Indiana the whole time? No, I'm not knocking Indiana...) Then again, moving among the locals can expose you to certain unpleasantries that westerners might not be used to. For me, that’s still preferable to hanging around the established tourist traps, which nauseate me to no end.
by Dawson Bethrick