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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

Journey to the West (also known as Monkey) relates the story of the Tang Emperor Taizong (reigned 627–650), who is summoned to the Courts of Hell on a grave charge: that he permitted one of his officers to execute the Dragon King of the Jing River, despite having promised to spare the dragon’s life. Demonic constables arrest Taizong in his dreams and escort him through the desolate plains of the Region of Darkness until they arrive at the gargantuan Central Gate of Hell, where the Ten Kings of the underworld gather to hear the case against him. After hearing the charge, Taizong pleads his innocence. He explains that his officer beheaded the dragon in a dream, while dozing off during a game of chess, and that no one could reasonably have prevented this. Furthermore, he argues, the dragon was guilty of a mortal offense, having deliberately altered a command from the Jade Emperor of the Heavens, the supreme being, which is why he was given the death sentence. In fact, Taizong concludes, the case against him is a frivolous diversion, concocted by the dragon in an effort to obscure his own guilt.


Emperor Taizong permitted one of his officers to execute the Dragon King of the Jing River

The Ten Kings then render their verdict. They had, in fact, known all along that the dragon was guilty, but were bound by protocol to hear the case. Taizong may return to the World of Light, but unfortunately he cannot go back the way he came. Instead, he must go through hell in all its splendid horror, following the path that sinners take through its various levels and torments. Fortunately, Taizong is granted safe passage and does not have to undergo those torments. After witnessing unspeakable suffering, he brings back to earth a vivid description so that in future, men may know the full price of their wickedness.

The Transformation Text similarly involves an innocent observer who through extraordinary circumstances lands in hell but is allowed to return to earth. In this case, the protagonist is a monk named Mahamaudgalyayana, or Mulian, who is so devout in his prayers that he gains the status of arhat, or sainthood, which endows him with supernatural powers. Mulian is shocked to learn that his mother, Lady Niladhi, who died when he was young, was sent to Hell for her sins, and vows to release her. He descends the “infernal paths” where he encounters hungry ghosts and lost souls who were mistakenly summoned to hell because of bureaucratic error—they had the same name as a real sinner (overlapping names are more common in China than in the West.) Finally he arrives at the gate of Hell proper, and confronts its sinister overlord, King Yama.

King Yama warns Mulian that it will be difficult to locate Lady Niladhi, let alone alter her fate. At this point, however, a powerful Buddhist angel intervenes. Summoning the proper fiendish bureaucrats, the angel inspects the records and pinpoints Lady Niladhi’s whereabouts. Mulian wends his way though the Bureau of the Underworld, encountering recorders, bookkeepers, karma investigators, wardens, and the fearsome General of the Five Ways. He finally finds his mother, who is nailed to an iron bed with 49 spikes. She confesses that while she was alive, she committed numerous sins and failed to perform meritorious deeds—notably, copying the sutras.

The warden will not release her, so Mulian goes to the Buddha himself to plead for her freedom. In an act of mercy, Buddha releases Lady Niladhi and all the other souls in hell. Sadly, this does not result in their return to earth. Rather, they become hungry ghosts, condemned to wander through a sort of eternal limbo. Through proper ritual and incantation, Mulian is able to have his mother reincarnated, and once her karmic debt has been discharged, she is allowed to ascend to heaven.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009