By Charles S. Prebish, Damien Keown
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In this respect the Buddhist hell is more like the Christian concept of purgatory. The second difference is that the Buddhist hell is more varied, and is thought to have cold as well as hot areas in which the departed spirits suffer until their evil karma is purged. The world of the ghosts is a realm of suffering of a special kind. The denizens of this realm are pictured as beings who were selfish and greedy in their previous life and who are now suffering the consequences by being denied the ability to enjoy the pleasures they crave.
The gods at different levels live for different periods of time. At the lower levels their lifespans are hundreds of times those of humans, and at the top their lives are measured in millions of years. Time is believed to be relative, however, and the gods perceive it differently according to their station: thus a million years of human time might seem like a week to the gods on the lower levels, and a day to the gods at the summit. The top five heavens are known as the “Pure Abodes,” and are reserved for those known as “non-returners” (anāgāmin): these are individuals in the human world who are on the point of gaining enlightenment and will not be reborn again as human beings.
According to the scriptures, the recollection of his own previous lives, and a vision of how other people die and are reborn in accordance with their karma, both formed a key part of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience as he sat under the Bodhi tree, as we shall see in the next chapter. It is hard to see how that aspect of the experience can be disentangled from the rest of his “awakening,” and if the texts are mistaken about his vision of previous lives, how can we have faith in their claim that the Buddha gained enlightenment?