We visited Buddhist Hell on a tropical, serene Sunday afternoon. Trees with long, boat-shaped leaves swished breezily. Tranquil ponds of coyfish wafted moist, algae smells. The cracked bricks under our feet were as untended as the banyans overhead. We sauntered through groups of life-sized statues, letting our eyes roam over their nudity streaked and splattered with dripping, popsicle-red blood. Green rotting stumps of limbs among white, puss-leaking nipples. Tongues exaggeratedly stretched out of mouths like melting taffy. Tortured protruding hipbones like sharp ledges, black eyeball-less sockets. Elongated fingers and ghoulish eyes showed the pain that accompanies getting your tongue ripped out with pliers. Ribs like xylophone keys. Pots simmered with soup made from the burgundy blood of sinners. An astonishingly calm man sat in a cross-legged Indian pose, feeding his own unraveled, bloody intestines to two happy crows.
Wat Saen Suk is a temple in southern Thailand that displays this grotesque zoo of wonders for the good Buddhist education of local laymen. Buddhist Hell helps one more accurately envision the punishments one can look forward to in response to specific sins committed. Each scene of life-size statues is paired with a sign that explains the backstory of the torture demonstrated.
I engrossedly read each sign, learning the punishments that befall one who skins a buffalo or kills an elephant. I earnestly agreed with some of the messages behind the displays. One example was the rape display. I delighted in the view of a turbaned, mustached, Arab man repeatedly and joyfully stabbing a rapist’s groin. Where his penis used to be was now a splashy, bloody pudding of tattered strips of skin. Another one I approved of was the sin of “killing animals with poison”. (I’m looking at you, arsenic fishermen!) Many were quite surprisingly specific: stealing aquatic animals will result in your head turning into a fish, and destroying nature forewarns a deer head in your next life.
But some of the messages made little sense in terms of global sustainability. The one that irked me the most was the one scorning the use of contraception or abortion. The offending woman was seated on a bench, and two men twisted log-thick, metal screws into her torso, from both front and back. Another woman lay nude with her legs spread as an emotionless man jabbed her blood-smeared vagina with a spear. This is dangerous moral to instill, I thought, considering our human virus now scales the seven billion mark.
While I openly commented my approval and disapproval for the morals communicated, a few of the strangest that I came across called for neither. Premarital sex was one such confusion. A thorny tree stood tall, as nude humans climbed up its trunk, mouths gaping in the pain of punctures. From underneath, maliciously barking dogs chewed their rectums that leaked loose blood. That wasn’t all – from above, crows sat on the tree branches, pecking at their eyeballs. This display was the grandest of them all, and strangely pornographic.
Some scenes didn’t have explanatory plaques, so we made up our best guesses: “If you neglect your prayers, a deer, who also specializes part-time as a monk, will scratch your body with a stick.”
One plaque sternly stated, “Those who behave themselves as the hooligans” will turn into horses. And those who “instigate theaters to have a brawl” are given duck heads. If you do drugs, your head is replaced by an appropriately psychedelic shrimp. I wondered what would happen in the hypothetical situation that I should commit more than one of these sins. Would I receive all the punishments at one go? Or would I be thrown the worst common denominator?
After an hour or so of these violent scenes, our initial surprise gave way to giggles and amusement. But the other families there seemingly did not see the comic aspect. A pair of young siblings stared, round-eyed at the hellish milieu around them. A little girl pointed at the woman of the bloody vagina and her mother what it meant. Her dad leaned against a tree, snapping photos casually, as if unaffected by the humor of it. I wondered how literally they saw it.
My friend must have been wondering similar things. He mused, “Surely this is made for kids. Anyone over forty would think …what the fuck?”
“Well, my parents believe you’ll burn in fire and brimstone if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ,” I responded. “This is not that much more absurd.”
While Buddhist Hell demonstrates forewarnings of the devastating tortures that await one who sins, it provides a way out. Scattered around the temple were blue slotted boxes, where one can donate some money to absolve oneself from punishments awaiting. Putting a coin in a box is an easy way to rid oneself of guilt in the present and punishment in the future, but can nurture an irresponsible attitude towards our affects on our surroundings now. Like schools and churches, Wat Saen Suk is another way to create maneuverable, conformed citizens for minimally disturbances in the functioning of a society. If anything I find it perfect for an amusing afternoon of stimulating photography.