Do Buddhists Believe in Heaven and Hell?

Yes, Buddhists have no doubt that both heaven and hell exist, because they are within the scope of saṃsāra; everyone may experience heaven or hell, and in fact, everyone has been to heaven or hell at one time or another.

Those who practice the five precepts and the ten good deeds to a superior degree will be reborn in the heavens, and those who commit the great wickedness of the ten evil deeds or five heinous crimes will go to the hells. When their karmic retribution of suffering ends, hell-dwellers have the potential to be reborn in the heavens, and after their good rewards have been exhausted, sentient beings in the heavens could potentially descend to the hells. For Buddhists, heaven is an enjoyable place but not an everlasting paradise, and hell is a place of agony but is not eternal.

Because people perform varying degrees and amounts of good and evil deeds, heaven and hell have different levels, too. The heavens, according to Buddhism, are comprised of twenty-eight levels, which extend throughout the three realms. Closest to the human realm are the six heavens in the realm of sense desire. Above these are the eighteen heavens in the realm of form, and further up are the four heavens in the realm of formlessness.[1] Actually, by merely performing good deeds, at most one can be reborn in the six heavens within the realm of sense desire. The top five heavens in the realm of form are called the pure abodes; practitioners of the Nikāya path who have attained the third “fruit,” or level of enlightenment, stay in these abodes. Other than these five, the remaining heavens in the realms of form and formlessness are for those who attained high levels of concentration through meditation.

According to Buddhism there are infinite hells, large and small, differentiated by the degree of suffering experienced in each. They are classified into three major groups: the principal hells, the peripheral hells, and the solitary hells. The hells most frequently mentioned in the sūtras are the principal hells, which include the eight vertically stacked great hot hells and the eight horizontally spread great frigid hells. The hell to which one goes depends on the type and amount of evil one has committed. According to folklore, people are arrested and dragged to hell by demonic jailers, but in truth, whether one goes to heaven or hell depends solely on one’s karma. If one has “divine” karmic energy, one will be reborn in a heaven; if one has “infernal” karmic energy, one will end up in a hell.


  1. figure of the twenty-eight heavens of the three realms, is coming soon

SOURCE:

Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A Contemporary Chan Master's Answers to Common Questions. (2007)
by Master Sheng Yen | Translated by Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang. | ISBN 978-1-55643-657-4

ADDITIONAL NOTES ON SOURCE:

Lists of errata, suggested changes and comments by Douglas Gildow