As promised, here is a chunk of the first chapter of the new book, The Buddha in Hell and Other Alarms: Distressing Near-Death Experiences in Perspective. Target date for the ebook version is May 31, 2016.
Chapter 1: The Buddha in Hell Redux
A flurry of agitation accompanied the Internet news that a former Buddhist monk in Myanmar (Burma) was claiming that in a near-death experience he had seen the Buddha in hell. He said the deity Yama, king of the Buddhist hells, had shown him a terrible lake of fire which held not only the Buddha but famous spiritual and political figures who were much loved throughout the country. Goliath was in the lake, too, the giant from the Bible. They were there, he said Yama told him, because they did not believe in the Christian God. They did not accept Jesus.
The experience was so stunning, the monk was converted instantly. Although he claimed to have had no prior exposure to Christianity, he began preaching, going from church to church and selling audiotapes about his experience. Reactions varied, of course, from acceptance by those Christians who believed his account to be literally true, rejection by Christians who flatly did not believe it, to resentment and disbelief from his former Buddhist community.
But the Buddha in hell! What are we to make of this? Was he really in hell? Does this mean that Christianity is more true than Buddhism? And if the monk saw a lake of fire, doesn’t that prove that hell is a real place? Well, no…sigh…it doesn’t actually prove any of that. But it does prove how powerful a strong NDE can be.
I looked up the account on Google, and sure enough, there it was, and still is. The story was Big News, though the account was several years old. Actually, there are different versions (which is a clue that wariness will be appropriate). Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating story. Click here to read it or copy this into your search line: http://amightywind.com/whatsnew/071112buddhist.htm
Over a few days I heard from several people breathless with excitement about the story, so I posted something about it on the dancingpastthedark blog (Bush, 2012). What interests me as much as the story itself is that in the four years since then, that post has had hundreds of hits. It is consistently the blog’s most-requested post. Why?
The post I wrote was hastily done, a knee-jerk response to an NDEaccount I saw as far likelier to be a case of missionary manipulation than theological revelation. It was not only skeptical but superficial, and has needed revisiting. So here we are…the Buddha in Hell Redux.
The monk’s story
If you have read the account (which I recommend), you know that a man who gives his name as Athet Pyan Shinthaw Paulu presents what sounds like a believable autobiographical background of his life in Myanmar, how he was raised and came to be living as a monk. It sounds credible, even down to details like the sea crocodile that destroyed his boat. (I looked it up—and yes, there are such crocodiles in that area, and that is the kind of behavior one would expect of them.)
The account tells how he came to enter training to be a monk and describes his respect for his teacher. He became a monk and was renamed U Nata Pannita Ashinthuriya. Then he says he lived for quite a few years devoted to his spiritual practice and to the principles of Buddhism.
So far, so good. It’s clear and it seems (at least to a Western reader) to be credible. The monk reports that he was so scrupulous he refused even to harm a mosquito that might infect him with malaria, which one did, and it turned out to be the disease that nearly killed him. Actually, his account claims that he had both malaria and yellow fever.
The monk continues, “I learned later that I actually died for three days. My body decayed and stunk of death, and my heart stopped beating.”
And then comes his NDE, in which the terrifying deity Yama, king of the Buddhist hells, escorts the monk through a very Christian description of hell, giving Christian reasons why it is occupied by so many Buddhist luminaries who led exemplary lives. I am not going to fall into the pit I did with my first commentary, which was (how could I?) to quibble about the content of his NDE. Read it, or listen to it on YouTube.
The monk awakened, he says, on his funeral pyre, in the presence of his parents and many witnesses. When he climbed out of his coffin the crowd scattered in terror, but he began immediately to tell of his experience, the debut of his quite literal revivalist ministry.
I told them about the men I had seen in the lake of fire, and…that our forefathers and us [sic] have been deceived for thousands of years! I told them everything we believe is a lie.
Such has been the power of his testimony, he says, that his story shocked the whole region, and more than three hundred monks became Christians and started to read the Bible. (He has also said it was seven thousand monks who converted.) Tthe former monk, now called Paul, appears to have supported himself for some time by distributing tapes of his experience and speaking to churches and house groups.
It is all too easy, with such a multi-layered experience account, to dismiss it out of hand as outlandish, which is what I did in my first response to the story. A more careful reading brings up deeper and more important issues.
Skepticism about factual errors and autobiographical truthfulness compound doubts about controversial NDE content. Some statements appear to have been added by someone who does not know Burma, as with the claim that the monk had both malaria and yellow fever. In fact, it is a disease of some parts of South America and Africa. The Centers for Disease Control states explicitly, “There is no yellow fever in Burma.” What else, then, may be untrue?
Is it true that his body was actually decaying when he revived, or is this for dramatic effect?
Quite a long list of issues are plain to Burmese eyes but invisible to most Westerners, such as the observation that a novice monk’s new name would begin with ‘shin,’ never with the ‘U’ he claims. Or that he became a monk at 19, when the entry age for becoming a fully ordained monk is 20. Or that the monk’s “claim to have seen Aung San, the revolutionary leader of Myanmar (father of opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi) in hell ‘because he persecuted and killed Christians, but mostly because he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ’ was completely without foundation. He is a well-known figure in Burmese/Myanmar thinking and history – and there is no evidence at all that he persecuted any Christians, let alone killed any.”
Most troubling to that commenter is the monk’s statement that his teacher died in a car crash in 1983. In fact, his teacher died in 1977, making it doubtful that the monk could have studied under him. (“The Hoax Story of Remarkable Testimony of a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar Burma Who Came Back to Life.”)
A Buddhist reader noted, “With due respect, this is not even a proper Christian message. It is just scare tactics.” http://www.dorjeshugden.com/forum/index.php?topic=2211.0)
Several commenters have noted that, had the story been true, that 300 Buddhist monks had converted to Christianity—and especially if there were as many as 7,000—the news would have spread rapidly beyond any effort of the government-controlled media to suppress it.
We are left wondering, who is this monk, this Athet Pyan Shinthaw Paulu behind so much story-telling and factual distortion? One source says that “A number of people in Myanmar who personally know him, or have met him, believe he is in need of medical help and counselling.”
The thicket of gossip, rumors, and scandal has led to claims that “It is now a serious crime to listen to the tapes, because the government wants to dampen the sensation.”
The rumors and scandal are all yours on Google.
What is not on that Google site is any discussion about the nature of such experiences and how to interpret them. With so much evidence on the down-side of this story, it becomes even more important to look beyond religious tract language and the farcical image of Yama as guide to a Christian hell, beyond the gossip and rumors of mental illness, to find what is really going on. Looking more deeply brought up the underlying story as a classic instance of a life-shattering near-death experience which throws everybody off by its spectacular implausibility.
What I already knew at some level but was ignoring was that the kinds of details which seem most ludicrous to us as onlookers are likely to be the most important and disruptive for the experiencer. I had not looked through the monk’s lens.
Try this for cognitive dissonance: Think about your own deepest faith, whether it’s a religion or an ideology (atheism, materialism, Marxism, etc.)—however you explain how the world really works. Next, imagine yourself in this monk’s position. You find yourself in the worst nightmare you’ve ever had, bigger, crazier, darker, one that is realer than your everyday waking reality; it is so real, it is beyond arguing.
Toward you comes a visible, larger-than-life entity of immense authority. This is his territory, and he towers over you with utterly unquestionable power. He pulls you with him toward a horrid scene: a lake full of fire, and out there, burning, people you recognize, whether living or dead, people you trust, people you follow. They are the ones who have helped you define your world. Why are they out there in this fire? Because, this supernatural being who really knows tells you, they believed the wrong things! They told you the wrong things! And this means that you believe the wrong things, too! It could be you, burning in that lake of fire! And his power and his knowing are so great, you suddenly understand: It’s true: You know nothing true. Everything you believe is a lie! As you stand there, every certainty you have about the world falls away. Your lifetime of faith is pulled apart.
~ ~ ~
And then . . . read the book!
The ebook version of The Buddha in Hell and Other Alarms will be available by late May. Watch this spot for a notice.