This will actually be a pretty long story, so hopefully y’all are ready. I’ll be doing a bunch of background, too.
The Chinese Buddhist concept of the Underworld is bound up with the idea that the soul passes through stages. The Underworld represented a phase during which the soul would be punished for its sins, and purified for the next phase in its journey towards Western Paradise. The ruler of the Underworld was Yama, a god, and the Underworld – “Hell” – lay deep beneath the surface of the Earth. People based their idea of the Underworld on the Chinese system of justice. There were 10 panels of judges, and up to 100 levels of Hell, with appropriate punishments for sinners.
The guards who fetched men from the living, and who attended the judges were very frightening creatures. Some were spectres with human arms but with the heads of horses, and there were devils with various kinds of heads and red hair, an unknown hair colour to the Chinese. Everyone had to pass through the Underworld, but there were ways to make the passage less painful. Relatives of the dead would try to make amends for the sins of their family members by saying prayers on their behalf. In this way, the soul’s suffering could be eased.
The following story shows how 1 man saved his mother by holiness.
There was a rich man who, as a disciple of Buddha, lived in a pure way, was kind to men, and refused to eat meat. His family lived in the same way, and they were happy. The man died at a ripe old age, and he was transported by cranes to Paradise, where he would spend eternity living in bliss. After his father’s death, the son Lobu, was called away to a foreign land on business, and before he left he gave part of his inheritance to his mother, telling her to use it when needy monks came to the door. Without the encouragement of her husband or son, the mom (her name was Chingti), began to stray from the strict discipline of a Buddhist life.
She began to eat meat, and ate all kinds of animals. She showed no hospitality to monks who came to her door, even giving one starving monk scraps containing meat, so the unfortunate man committed a heinous act without knowing it. She simply drove other monks from her door, keeping her son’s money. When Lobu returned he asked his mother if she had used the money as he had wanted, and she told him she had, this adding another sin on top of all the others. Not long after she died and was sent to the Underworld.
She was put in the Avici, the worst Hell. After mourning her death, Lobu left home to become a monk, which he had not done before, for he felt he had owed his parents. Now that they were both dead, he felt he should pursue his calling. When he was accepted as a monk, he shaved his head, put on a cassock, and was given the name Mulien. He soon became so wise that he was one of the best of Buddha’s disciples.
One of his achievements was the ability to move through all levels of existence: Earth, Heaven, Paradise, and the Underworld. When he first had command of his skill, he traveled to the Western Paradise to converse with his father, who was pleased to see him, but he was unable to find his mother. He was sad at this and asked Buddha where his mother was. “Your mother has fallen into the Avici and is suffering for her sins. Although you have reached a high level of piety, there is nothing you can do to save her, unless all the monks in the world one day sing prayers foe her and thereby gain her release.”
This news came as a shock to Mulien, who decided that he must rescue his mother. He used his power to descend to the Underworld, and the first people he saw was a group wandering about with nothing to do. Mulien asked them if they had seen Chingti. The people said they hadn’t seen her, and gave an account of their own predicament. “We are the victims of a mistake.”
“We were on Earth and not due for death, but because our names are the same as some in the Book of the Dead, we were brought down here, though we can’t be admitted to the Underworld. Our bodies have already been buried, so we can’t return, either. That is why we wander as lost souls. Relatives mourn us, but that does us no good. The only thing that might help is if they were to do good deeds in our names.”
The lost ones continued their lamenting, and directed Mulien to the Court of King Yama. He went through the gates to the kingdom of Yama, thronged with people. He searched, but unable to find his mother, he shed tears. Seeing this, the attendants at the gates led him to King Yama himself, who rose with great respect. “What brings a pious man like yourself to this place; what do you wish?”
“I seek my mother,” replied Mulien. ” sought her in the Western Paradise, but now I must find her here. Do you know of her?” Yama didn’t know where she was, but he called his subordinates before him to ask if they knew. They told Mulien that his mother had committed sins on Earth and the her records had been sent to the General of the Five Ways.
Mulien set off again. He hadn’t gone far when he met the River of No Hope, where souls were trying to cross but were being driven out by demons with animal heads. Some people had taken off clothes so as to swim across, but they weren’t allowed, and were herded back. The weeping filled Mulien with pity, and he hurried on whilst crying. Finally he arrived at the office of the General, the fiercest of all judges.
In reply to Mulien’s questions, the General sent for his helpers, and 1 officer said, “There was a woman of that type 3 years ago, and she was claimed by the Avici. I suspect that is where she is.”
Mulien asked, “How is it that King Yama doesn’t know my mother’s fate, but everyone must report to him?”
“That isn’t so,” replied the General. “All those who die are divided into good and evil. The good ascend up to Heaven, and the evil go to their punishment. Only people who are neither good nor evil go before Yama, and he decides what form of punishment they deserve and how they will be reborn.” Mulien left the General and went away to the terrible Avici Hell.
He passed many levels on the way, each being different. At each 1 he asked for his mother, and as he drew nearer to the Avici, he could see scores of demons. “Don’t enter here,” they warned. “A foul fog rises from this Hell that turns your flesh to ashes.” At this, Mulien rose from the Underworld and made his way to Buddha, asking to borrow his staff to protect himself.
He returned to Hell, where there were flames everywhere and arrows flying about in strong winds. Using Buddha’s staff, Mulien beat upon the doors and they opened. The custodian of the doors asked what he wanted, and when Mulien asked for his mother,the custodian climbed to a tall tower, and hoisted a white flag. “Is there a woman called Chingti?” he shouted.
There was no reply, so he went to the next tower, hoisted a black flag, and beat a drum. He carried on this way until he came to the 7th compound, where he hoisted a green flag and yelled, “Is there a woman called Chingti here?” This time she was there, suffering on a bed of nails, but she didn’t reply. The custodian beat his drum and asked a second time, and she replied, “I am she.”
“Why didn’t you answer before?” asked the custodian.
“I was afraid,” said Chingti. “I thought you might take me somewhere worse.”
“Outside my door,” said the custodian, “Is a monk who says he is your son.”
For a while Chingti was silent but finally said, “I have no son who’s a monk, it’s a mistake.” The custodian went back to Mulien.
“Monk, why are you claiming this woman as your mother?”
“I’ll explain,” said Mulien. “My old name was Lobu and only after my parents died I became a monk.” When Chingti heard of this, she knew that this must indeed be her son. Mulien was horrified by her. She had wounds all over, flames were sprouting out her mouth, and she looked starved.
He first thought to ask, “Didn’t you receive the offerings of food that I sacrificed?”
To this she replied, “How could they reach me? You may have gained satisfaction by making offerings, but they did no good. It might’ve helped if you copied sutras in my name.” The custodian came to take her away and though Mulien offered to suffer in her place, this wasn’t allowed and he had to leave.
Mulien then went to Buddha, and out of respect, Buddha went to the Underworld, where his radiance dispelled the gloom. Other souls were released, but unfortunately this was too late for Mulien’s mother. She was doomed to walk the Earth as a hungry ghost, with all food instantly turning to ashes as soon as it touched her lips. She begged Mulien for food, as the rules relating to hungry ghosts didn’t apply to food given as alms to a monk. Mulien rushed off with his begging bowl and returned, but this also turned to ashes when she tried to eat.
He was obliged to go to seek the help of Buddha once more. Buddha repeated what he said to Mulien before. “All the monks must sing prayers for her together,” he said. Mulien set about organizing a festival. On July 15th all the priests joined in prayer at all temples, praying for the dead.
This union of prayer was particularly helpful for those in Hell, and on that day all ghosts were able to eat 1 meal. Since that time the Yülanpen festival has been held wherever there are Buddhist followers. After she had eaten, Chingti disappeared again. This time Buddha told Mulien, “Through your piety in organizing the festival, your mother has been released. She has been reincarnated, but could rise no higher than the form of a dog.
“If you wish to see her, go to the city of Wangshe and walk by the doors of the rich men. A dog will come out, and tug at your cassock. That dog will be your mother.” Mulien went to Wangshe and everything happened as Buddha said. The black dog rushed out of a house and took hold of him.
“My son,” she said. “You saved me from torment. Will you also save me from this dog life?”
“Mother,” replied Mulien. “It was a lack of piety which caused you to fall to such torment. But compared with your earlier suffering, aren’t you happier now?”
“It’s true,” replied Chingti. “To hear my master reciting scripture each morning, and never to hear the word ‘Hell’ mentioned, this more than makes up for the impurities of my life.” Mulien led her to the pagoda in the town, and for 7 days he recited scripture without ceasing. In result of this, Chingti was able to leave dog form, hanging the fur on a tree, and resuming the form of a woman. Mulien was overjoyed.
“Now that you are human once more, I beg you, mom, to make yourself deserving of this reincarnation.”
Later Mulien took his mother before Buddha and, walking around him 3 times, asked, “Honoured one, please examine my mother’s destiny to see if there remains any sin for which she hasn’t made amends.”
Buddha did as he was requested and reported that Chingti had paid the penalty of all her sin and they had been expiated by monks at the festical of Yülanpen. So at last, amidst the rejoicing, she was welcomed to the Western Paradise.
So that’s the story. Yayyyyy. I actually sort of doubt anybody would read this in one sitting… I typed it over the course of two hours… and spent at least as long writing it on 11 notebook pages…. Wheeeee