For several months now, these blog posts have been steps on a journey which I described as “to get down underneath all the preconceptions and assumptions, all the theories and doctrines, and ask, ‘What is bedrock?’ Is it possible to get beyond overlays of supposition to something so simple I am able to trust it? Can we begin to see near-death experiences through lenses other than doctrinal or disbelieving?”

Since then, I have largely been exploring the concept of hell, which, at least in the widespread Western Christian version, looks like Dante’s Inferno. This version has been described with various degrees of sadistic theological relish since roughly the second century CE, culminating in the sixteenth century with Dante’s depiction, and is still terrorizing the millions of people who believe it represents the biblical view of God’s wrath as hell in an afterlife.

My view is that as an actual place, the infernalist hell does not exist. (Neither, I believe, does that kind of wrath exist, but that’s for a different day.) Poll after poll now shows that the majority of Westerners agree, most of them assuming that hell is merely a misguided Christian notion. However, we cannot so easily dismiss the entire concept, particularly in an age of global awareness. Eastern cultures, as well as the Christian West, share similar descriptions of afterlife judgment. A Tibetan tradition is that of the delogs.

In the words of Elizabeth Johnson, writing for Columbia University’s Asian Highlands Project, “A phenomenon known for centuries throughout Tibet and the Himalaya, “delog” refers to a man or woman who has died, traveled through the various realms between life and rebirth and then reawakens to tell the tale.” Some delogs make the journey not only once but repeatedly.

…if you look inside yourselves there are demons.

Ithaca College professor Lee Bailey, PhD, writing for the Journal of Near-Death Studies in 2001, pointed out that the descriptions of after-death delights and trials which make up the work we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (or Bardo Thodol) are also catalogued in the personal histories of the remarkable delogs, contemporary and historical:

“Seemingly dead for several hours or days, these people revive spontaneously and tell detailed accounts of otherworldly journeys, describing elaborate versions of Buddhist otherworldly landscapes and characters and emphasizing the moral and spiritual teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. These delogs are a bridge between contemporary near-death experiences and ancient shamanic practices.”

The delog’s journeys, like NDEs, typically include inexpressibly beautiful landscapes of flowers, sweet fragrances, spiritual masters, and at least one report of a luminous mansion of light. Unlike contemporary NDEs, they  invariably also have a distressing aspect. As Bailey reports,

“In typical accounts of delogs, as young persons they have been gravely ill and seem to be dead to those grieving around them. But instead, they later report, they had risen up above their bodies, which then they did not recognize as their own. Next these persons’ dazed souls enter into a raucous hereafter, guided by their personal deity. They are taken to meet the horrifying Lord of Death himself. They are led on a shocking tour of Hell, where they see numerous condemned souls miserably suffering punishments befitting their sins, such as the nun who hears the unending cries of her own baby whom she murdered. The anguished sinners send urgent messages back to the living, begging family to do rituals to aid in their salvation and exhorting others to live an ethical life. The astonished travelers meet  deceased parents and travel to paradise. Returning to the throne of the Lord of Death, they observe the dreadful judgment of souls with a bridge, a scale, or a mirror. They themselves are judged and given a message to send back. Their consciousnesses return to their bodies on earth. They deliver the various messages and exhort all to practice their Tibetan Buddhist religion faithfully.”

One delog account from the 17th century included descriptions of terrifying divinities of yellow, red, and green, a bridge over an ocean of fire, and tied-up victims being beaten for having eaten meat. Then she was taken to meet Yama, the terrible Lord of Death.

“Protected by her personal divinity, she entered his palace and trembled as she saw his ugly, red face, wide-eyed and fanged. Wearing a tiger skin, skulls, and flames, he held the fateful mirror of existence, a sword, and water. His frightening voice rumbled like a thousand dragons. He was attended by numerous ugly, animal-headed acolytes and a nasty, little, black demon holding black pebbles signifying the sinful deeds of each poor person to be judged. But a white deity held white pebbles that would weigh against the black deeds. This vast army of beasts was chanting “execute! execute!” or whacking off the heads of the weeping victims.”

Just as today’s experiencers return with a mission, and the NDErs of Plato’s Er and the Venerable Bede bring back cautionary messages for the living, so also the delogs come back to transmit moral lessons. From a long list of Yama’s instructions to a young delog come the following, reported by Bailey:

Transmit this message to lamas: Let them attempt to be perfect guides for human beings. …Transmit this message to government functionaries: do not give without reason illegal punishments, for it is a reason to fall into hell. …Transmit this message to nuns: renounce domestic tasks and force yourselves to practice religion. …Transmit this message to the mani pa of the world: convert the royalty to Buddhism but do not exaggerate your stories. …Transmit this message to the laity: respect your parents, offer food, be sincere, do not beat animals; if you look inside yourselves there are demons. Live so that you will have no shame in my presence.

It all sounds remarkably medieval European, as Kenneth Ring noted some years back. However, whereas in the Western, Augustinian view, hell is eternal physical torment without hope of release, and the Tibetan accounts describe hellish horrors, the delog accounts reflect the Hindu and Buddhist doctrines that retributive punishment may be cumulative, but it is temporary, and rebirth is certain.

[To be continued]