Source: 1510, 30 July 2012
A Christian once asked me ‘Do you believe in hell?’ I answered ‘Of course I do.’ Yet as soon as these words had left my mouth, I sank into reflection. I had clearly never seen anything like the burning lakes of sulphur described in the Bible. And could the scenes of Yama’s palace and mountains of daggers and seas of flames seen in paintings from the world of men ever really be recreated in reality? I really did not know. Amid such thoughts, the ground beneath my feet went soft, the world seemed to sink around me and I fell into a subterranean pit.
When I stopped falling, before my eyes appeared a room decorated in the style of the Renaissance. I pushed open the door and saw an Italian sitting in his studio, reading. My arrival evidently startled the Italian, for he stared curiously at me.
‘I’m sorry, could you tell me what place this is?’ I asked, whilst simultaneously taking measure of the room. I saw the table was piled high with manuscripts, the title ‘The Divine Comedy’ written on them.
‘Are you Chinese? Welcome.’ The Italian stood up to embrace me. ‘Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Dante Aligheri.’
‘Ah, I know you, I’ve read your book!’ I cried out in alarm. ‘As far as I know, you travelled through hell under the guidance of Virgil. Dare I ask, is this hell?’
‘This is not hell. Some call it purgatory. If you’ve read my book, you should know that this place was arranged specially for philosophers.’
‘Ah, I remember – Plato, Socrates both are here?’
‘And also China’s Lao-tze, Confucius and Chuang Tzu.’ Dante said.
‘Interesting. I’d thought they would be in paradise. I’ve heard some Christians say that all those who don’t believe in Christ will go to hell, yet instead it is that those philosophers and thinkers who don’t believe in Christ although they can’t go to heaven, they don’t necessarily go to hell either.’
‘Do you know where the difference in nature between your world and mine is? Dante asked. Not waiting for my reply, he continued to speak, ‘Your world is made from words. Were those words to be pulled out, your world would collapse. Take those two words, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, for example: your world created those words, and used them to refer to a place you imagined. But in reality, those words have no meaning: what you understand by the words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ is as distant from the real heaven and hell as the skies are far.’
Dante’s speech aroused my curiosity, and I asked: ‘So what are the real heaven and hell like?’
‘Let’s do it like this – I’ll take you to see the real hell. Then you’ll understand.’
Hearing these words, I was very excited and hurriedly found my fan, as I thought hell must certainly be very hot. ‘Don’t bother. Hell is not at all hot, but it’s very tight.’
‘Tight, what does that mean?’
Unwittingly time had passed, and we came to place rather like a family Christian church, and I saw many Christians singing psalms. A woman saw us and, brimming with enthusiasm, invited us to come over, saying ‘God loves you’ as she stuffed books of catechism into our hands. She suddenly saw that I had in my hand prayer beads, and at once her smile vanished and her brows puckered, showing an expression of surprise. ‘So you aren’t brothers after all.’ Following which, she led us into a small room, on the door of which was inscribed ‘Admire those who follow the Way’. I saw a woman who looked a like a kindergarten teacher solemnly instructing those inside ‘Every word of the Bible is accurate and unmistaken. With faith, sins an be forgiven, without faith, you will go to hell…’ The first woman whispered a few sentences in the teacher’s ear. The teacher then pulled me to one side, and asked right in my face ‘Do you believe in God, creator of heaven and earth?’ Following this, she spewed forth an unceasing torrent of machine gun-like gospel in my direction, as though she wanted me to swallow it. Her worrying, hurried intonation was like a steel needle that pierced into the brain, and caused head-splitting headaches. I panicked and fled, rushing back to Dante shouting ‘Weren’t you going to take me to hell?’ Why did we end up in this place?’ But Dante just laughed, and said ‘Didn’t you want to see the real hell? Hell is not at all hot, it is very tight.’
I still doubted him. We now came to a place full of Buddhist statues, the table stacked high with great piles of paper money offerings. A great master was presently lecturing on the correct path, spittle flying off his forked tongue in all directions. His speech was full of profound Buddhist terms, as he attacked certain sects for not really following the Buddhist doctrine and certain masters for their lack of true understanding, and so on and so forth. He emphasized that only his teachings were fully orthodox, and only he could lead people to enlightenment. He wanted people not to doubt a thing of what he said. His words clearly won many satisfied onlookers. At this moment, from a corner came the sound of snoring. Apparently a man had already drifted off to sleep as he listened. Seeing this, the master flew into a violent rage, and bellowed ‘How does this kind of idiot deserve to listen to my lecture, throw him out!’ The crowds all turned to stare indignantly at the snorer. The snorer awoke, stretched himself, said one single sentence ‘All things living know the way, everyone, everything, everywhere’, then stood up and left.
I pondered whether the master’s theories had merit with lowered head, but Dante patted my shoulder and said ‘No need to seek the truth, but observe with interest.’
‘But are the master’s arguments true?’ I asked.
‘Do you not feel that as soon as a theory presents itself as absolute, then it is necessarily untrue?’
‘So it seems. But then why does the master champion such an unconditional theory, and why are people so stubbornly committed to such absolutism?’ I asked.
Unwittingly, we had once again arrived in another place, a classroom teaching pyramid schemes, where a guide, radiating enthusiasm, was lecturing on the science of success: ‘If only you believe that you can succeed, then you will most certainly succeed, certainly earn yourself stacks of cash…’ I frowned, and hurriedly backed away. I felt that the greatest flaw in this science of success was that it saw the success of a man’s life only as success in the eyes of others, as economic success, and made this the only kind of success. I felt that if I did not get out fast enough, such absolutist ‘glue’ would adhere to my soul itself.
‘You seem afraid.’ Dante said.
‘I now understand why Buddha said this was the world of the five turbid evils. Turbid, though, really means viscous, clinging. This world is clinging, full of absolutist ‘glue’, and once you are stuck in it, you are on the road to death.’
‘In reality, that ‘viscosity’ is no more than an idea. We exist in a relative, uncertain world. The relative, uncertain nature of the world is the origin of people’s anxiety. It makes people feel as though only with great difficulty can they grasp their place in the world. Thus, they desperately wish to grab hold of anything considered absolute, and launch themselves towards the certainty they crave. This makes them feel more at ease. Why is it that the people people hate most are precisely the people they also love the most? Because as people see it, the people they love the most should be the people they have the best grasp of, those they are most certain of. As soon as a loved one shows that they cannot be grasped, the anxiety that lies in the deepest layer of people’s hearts is also awoken, and this then causes them to feel great bitterness. In this world there is too much love and hate, too much feeling, and this produces massacres, all of which have their origins in this. And in reality, the world and other people are destined to be ungraspable. Therefore, some extremely intelligent people have grasped this weak point of the human character, and hawk the ‘absolute’ to people. This absolute can be some kind of religious belief, or it can also be some secular conviction. In brief, as such ‘absolutes’ give people the promise of stability, they blunt people’s anxiety. People put their happiness in money, so that they can buy ‘certainty.”
All of a sudden, I understood a little, and asked, ‘So what you are saying is that ‘hell is tight’ really means that hell is a form of ‘either-or’ thinking that turns all things into absolutes, and uses absolutism to bind yourself and others together, and so through that mutual, tight binding searches for a place with a feeling of safety? Hell thus is really a kind of obsessive mental illness?’
‘You have some perception of it.’
‘But then hell is not a place full of mountains of daggers and seas of fires, where people endure torment? This place you have brought me to seems to have little suffering in it?’ I asked.
‘Jesus said: Heaven is like mustard. Actually, the real hell is also like mustard. It is not eye-catching, so much so that it cannot be seen. But it can grow. The hell of the legends is no more than a ‘mustard seed’ grown to its ultimate form. Hell’s ‘mustard seed’ is in latent form in our lives, but you can live with it. Hell attempts to bind you to absolutes, to cause you to lose the ability to calmly observe, consider and choose freely. Hell is both the cage of sin, and its trap, hell is being bound, and hell is saying ‘this is the way it must be’.
‘Your relativism is all very good, but the world needs some absolutes, like morality.’ I retorted. ‘You can’t be telling me that people shouldn’t be subject to moral bindings, surely? If men are subject to morals, would you still call it hell?’
‘Morality does not command. It comes from an innate sense of right and wrong. Only when people know the possibility of all kinds of non-moral behaviors can they make free choices for their life. Morality does not bind people, what binds people is precisely ignorance about morality. And so, the contradictions of morality are not immoral, but ignorance is. The opposite of morality is not immorality, it is ignorance. Ignorance brings anxiety, and anxiety leads people to compulsively chase certainty. But when people find they cannot catch such certainty, this produces enmity. Of all the hostility and persecution that happens between people, there is none that does not have its origin in this. The profound enmities in people’s hearts are the bricks from which hell is built.’
‘Dante, sir, you didn’t deserve to go to hell, and so you truly understand it.’ I sighed admiringly.
‘Truthfully, when Virgil led me down, I absolutely did not understand the nature of hell. Later, in purgatory, I met Chuang Tzu, and it was a sentence of his that led me to understand the nature of what I had seen.’
‘Chuang Tzu also understands hell? But in his works he practically never mentions hell!’ I was stunned.
‘In that case, I’ll give his words to you, to serve as a footnote to these travels through hell – When a spring dries up, the fish gather on the land. Rather than keeping each other moist there by the damp around them,and keeping each other wet by their slime, it would be better for them to forget each other in new rivers and lakes.
Whilst I was considering the meaning of these words, Dante vanished and I returned to the earthly realm.