For a religion without a god (not even a benevolent one, never mind one filled with malice), and certainly without a devil, Buddhism has an unseemly preoccupation with torture. Buddhist hells—and there are many of them—are filled with pain, and Buddhist writings (including the collected sayings of the Buddha himself) have left us graphic descriptions of the torments suffered by those who have not yet expunged the evils that they did in life.

Many of these evils, alas, have to do with sex. Sex and rule-breaking.

Take the hell of the sword-leaf trees. The trees in this hell are 65 kilometres tall, with thorns 40 centimetres long. The wardens of hell drag sinners up the trees and throw them down, shearing their flesh and piercing their bodies. Those who in life ignored their families and had affairs, leaving their spouses to suffer, are all sent here. In another variant, when (presumably male) offenders look up to the top of the trees they see there “seductive and soft-bodied” women. Mesmerized, they rush up the tree, its leaves cutting their flesh and tendons, shearing their bones, shredding their bodies into pieces. Revived by the winds of karma, they look down and see the seductive, soft bodies on the ground. Deceived by karma, they let desire control their actions, and rush down the trees, again being cut into pieces. This goes on for many thousands of cycles.

Another example, recounted by Professor Donald S Lopez in the on-line journal Aeon in September, concerns the rules laid down by the Buddha himself. As Lopez wrote, “Buddhist monks follow a lot of rules – 253 in one tradition, 200 in another. As the story goes, all of these rules were made by the Buddha himself. However, he did not announce them all at once, like Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Instead, they’re said to have evolved organically, with the Buddha making a rule only after he judged a particular deed to be a misdeed. The first of the rules to be established was not against murder; it was against sex.

“The inciting incident was when a man named Sudinna left his wife and parents to become a monk. Some time later, he came home and made love to his wife – not for love or lust, but at the urging of his mother. She worried that if she and her husband died without an heir, the king would seize their property. Although there was no rule against monks having sex at the time, Sudinna felt guilty and told some other monks what had happened. Those monks tattled to the Buddha, who summoned Sudinna for perhaps the worst scolding in Buddhist literature:

“Worthless man, it would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a poisonous snake than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman’s vagina. Why is that? For that reason you would undergo death or death-like suffering, but you would not on that account, at the breakup of the body, after death, fall into deprivation, the bad destination, the abyss, hell.”


(Professor Lopez is the Arthur E Link distinguished university professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of a dozen books, including The Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love and Sex (2018), co-edited and translated with Thupten Jinpa.)