One right after another, three emails recently arrived at my desk with more or less breathless news of a Buddhist monk whose near-death experience account described his seeing the Buddha in hell. It was Big News on the Internet.

Really! The Buddha in hell! Some letter writers wonder, this must prove that the God of Wrath is real, right? And it proves that Christians are right, right? Well… I looked up the account on Google, and sure enough, it’s an interesting story, though the account goes back quite a few years.

Is it convincing? To my mind, no. Excited Internet commenters notwithstanding, the account sounds patently fake, which makes it a useful example to explore.

If you have read the account, you know that the monk presents a thoroughly believable autobiographical background,  how he was raised in Myanmar (Burma) and came to be living as a monk. It sounds entirely authentic, 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 describes his entering training, and deep respect for his teacher, “the most famous Buddhist monk in all of Myanmar.” It details how he lived for some years devoted to his spiritual practice and to the principles of Buddhism, so scrupulous that he refused even to harm a mosquito that might infect him with malaria, which turned out to be the disease that nearly killed him. Actually, he reports that he had both malaria and yellow fever and grew weaker and weaker.

So far, so good. It’s clear and it’s credible. But now, to my mind, come the problems. They illustrate why readers of near-death experience accounts need to exercise the same discernment they use, one hopes, when receiving an email from Nigeria asking for money. Just because an NDE account says something happened doesn’t mean it’s literally true!

The monk says, “I learned later that I actually died for three days. My body decayed and stunk of death, and my heart stopped beating.”

[Enter Question #1. The “awakened while putrefying” aspect is an imaginative detail but physiologically too much to credit. A genuinely decaying body does not reanimate.]

And then comes his NDE. According to the account, he encountered “a terrible, terrible lake of fire. In Buddhism we do not have a concept of a place like this.”

[Question #2.  Lakes of fire are not uncommon in mystical experiences, and Buddhism does include some kinds of hell (Narakas) featuring fiery torments. Wouldn’t a monk know that?]

“At first I was confused and didn’t know it was hell until I saw Yama, king of hell. Trembling, I asked him his name. He replied, ‘I am the king of hell, the Destroyer.’ The king of hell told me to look into the lake of fire. I looked and I saw the saffron colored robes that Buddhist monks wear…”

[Question #4. Yama has an unmistakable appearance;  why did the monk have to ask who he was? Yama is a deity, not a king. Why would the famous teacher’s robe not be incinerated in all that fire?]

The monk recognized his greatly revered spiritual teacher and protested his being there. Yama responded, “Yes, he was a good teacher but he did not believe in Jesus Christ. That’s why he is in hell.”

[Question #5. Warning lights and sirens: Yama is a Hindu and Buddhist deity. Houston, we have a problem.

Then the monk saw Gautama, the Buddha, in the fire, and asked, “Gautama had good ethnics and good moral character, why is he suffering in this lake of fire?” The king of hell answered me, “It doesn’t matter how good he was. He is in this place because he did not believe in the Eternal God.”

[Question #6. Yama, the Buddhist deity, would also not believe in the Eternal God. Why is he saying these things?]

The Buddha is followed by a Burmese ruler who persecuted Christians, and Goliath, from the Old Testament, who was a hero but blasphemed the Eternal God. There is more to the account, in scenes from biblical stories and an encounter with St. Peter, all in the same vein.

Question #7: NDEs as a category promote compassion and knowledge but not the doctrines of a specific religion. How is it that every incident in this entire account reflects a particularly flavored view of Christian teaching?

It is altogether conceivable that the essence of this account lies in a genuine Burmese NDE. It is quite true that people typically identify religious beings in NDEs according to whatever labels pre-exist in their minds. Thus it is not unusual for a Buddhist monk to say, “I met Yama.” However, NDEs are not carriers of specifically religious dogmas. What is downright bizarre is that the Buddhist deity would be proclaiming Christian doctrine!

That is why I am convinced that one of two things is true:

  • The account is a flat-out Christian testimonial that has been faked as a Buddhist near-death experience, or
  • The account began with an actual Burmese near-death experience; but the hand of a Christian evangelical interpreter lies heavily on top of that NDE.

The narrator had lived for a while in Yangon City (Rangoon), which has a far larger Christian population than other parts of Myanmar, so it is likely that he had heard some Christian teachings. Given the missionary influences in that part of the world, those teachings probably included vivid, revivalist descriptions of hell and judgmental torment—the kind that people remember because they’re so frightening. It is easy to see how that could have influenced the NDE of a credulous hearer. It could even be possible that the monk was moving from his Buddhist beliefs to becoming Christian. In any case, one need only add some later Christian embellishments to come up with the account presented here.

There are too many other questions about this account. A genuinely committed Buddhist, particularly a monk, would surely have to wrestle with the content of that experience for more than two seconds before declaring himself a permanent Christian. (Even Saint Paul withdrew for a time after his epiphany before beginning to teach.) We are told that the monk himself went on to convert “hundreds of other monks” and to travel around and testify to his new-found conservative Christian faith; yet he has conveniently disappeared from public view, so can’t be questioned.

Overall, I find this account, as described, beyond credibility as an accurate original presentation of any NDE, much less one of a committed Buddhist monk.

Two things I believe are really important when trying to understand what any spiritual experience means:

1) Like dreams, visionary experiences carry their messages in symbol, not in the literal, fact-filled terms of everyday speech. Taking them at their literal appearance is rarely accurate.

2) In much the same way, near-death experiences seem universally directed to the human spirit and psychology generally, not to the interests of particular religious views. Within the NDE their elements exist principally as images rather than as doctrinal messages, because interpretation comes when the NDE is turned into language and told as a story.

I am respectful of cross-cultural content because I am an observant Christian whose NDE message was delivered by a totally unfamiliar Chinese Yin/Yang symbol. But the presence of that symbol in my experience was not to say that Buddhism is right and Christianity wrong. It took a very long time for me to understand that it was not delivering an explicit teaching about religious doctrine but was functioning as a symbol—like an arrow pointing beyond itself.

Culturally, we see fire in an experience like the monk’s and immediately think “punishment in eternal torment.” We don’t stop to consider that the presence of God has traditionally been associated with fire, as with Moses and the burning bush. In fact, the Bible includes some ninety references to the presence of God as fire. We can do the same double-check with any element of a spiritual experience—what might this mean, other than what seems to be sitting right on the surface?

Certainly we can look at these troubling experience accounts and choose to interpret them as pointing to a traditional, literal hell. But that is our choice. We can also choose to take the time and trouble to explore what else they might mean, what they may be pointing to about our lives or our way of thinking that could use some change, or that would revolutionize our approach to life itself.

It is clear that some spiritual experiences are really scary. Having worked my way through one, I know just how cataclysmic they can feel. But am I ready, after all these years, to say they point to a concept like eternal physical torment? Not on your life. Or mine, either.

The same universe that has room for these profoundly traumatic events also encloses the peaceful experiences that people describe as heaven. It is worth taking time to look at displays of the Hubble photos showing “what’s out there”—wonderful, serene visions of breathtaking light along with black holes and incomprehensible violence. Why should our spiritual landscape be different than that of our universe? We are required to learn how to be with it all, in ways that make sense to us.

The idea that a God of such immensity would display soul-killing wrath because, as one letter-writer wonderfully put it, two early people “ate fruit and had opinions”…that is so incongruent a notion that it makes no sense to me whatever. (Yet there are great truths buried in the Genesis story!) So, let me openly state my conviction that the expectation of such divine punishment as the monk’s account claims is the product, not of God, but of our projection of human fear, guilt, and rage onto whatever we conceive as Divinity. Our doing, not deity’s!

Similarly, I have come to see that the NDE which at first seemed to destroy my faith has turned out to be a gift. Yes, it is a dubious gift but a genuine one nonetheless, because it has required me to examine these kinds of questions. It has forced me to understandings I could not have had otherwise. Howard Storm’s agonizing shamanic initiation experience stripped him painfully of one existence and exchanged it for one more satisfying. Who’s to say that was punishment?