Buddhist Hell, Natural Law in Asian Culture

The following sample essay on Buddhist Hell, Natural law in Asian culture. Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. Apologies to Aquinas for starting off on an unholy note, but he’d be comforted to find that the Hell I grew up with synthesized and agreed with much of his ethical theory.

Hell is quite literally in Singapore – with the magnificent Haw Par Villa displaying a reconstruction of the rings of the Underworld, complete with dim lighting and an eerie Chinese opera soundtrack.

I’m fairly certain that no primary school student here has escaped the trauma of touring the villa in the name of cultural education.

Legal theory in Asia is, aptly, a spectre that always haunts, and this is a plunge into the fiery depths of the Underworld, as a reflection of cultural views towards legality.

Beyond Dante’s vaguely legalistic portrayal of Hell, not a single myth of the Afterlife encapsulates the importance of natural law as much as Buddhism does.

The Afterlife, in East Asian mythology, is a fully-functioning legal system governed and run by Yeomra, the equivalent of Hades. Equipped with prosecutors who move up the ranks by indicting paragons, Hell also assigns souls with defense counsel based on how virtuously one has led his past life. It consists of a variation of seven courts, in a hierarchy with stare decisis in place. Only the souls who pass all trials are reincarnated or attain nirvana.

Natural law, as championed by Aquinas, is the order of the universe, determined by God.

Get quality help now
Writer Lyla

Proficient in: Buddhism

5 (876)

“ Have been using her for a while and please believe when I tell you, she never fail. Thanks Writer Lyla you are indeed awesome ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

It refers to normative properties that are inherent by virtue of human nature, and binding rules of moral behavior. This form of justice is meted out by the Kings of Hell.

The seven rings of Buddhist Hell echo the universalism of the moral standards applied across its believers. The trials involve a specific group of moral crimes that are considered most reprehensible in Asian culture, and everyone who falls into Hell after death are judged by the same standards. Three of seven courts are discussed here, with relevance to the development and conceptualization of legal theory, hand in hand with mythology.


Souls guilty of murder are tossed into glowing lava in the centre of a volcano. This trial differs from criminal trials in the human realm – indirect murders are also taken into account, and souls can be indicted for such an offence.

This is reminiscent of the Hart-Fuller debate, which posed the example of a woman relying on the prevailing legal regulations of the Third Reich denouncing her husband as a political dissident. The positive law of the Underworld is considerably oppressive, though not necessarily comparable to the Nazi regime. A fireman who, in a utilitarian decision, saves the lives of multiple victims, but sacrifices his colleague trapped under rubble in the burning building, will still be charged with murder in the Volcano of the Damned.

The question posed here is the same: whether law’s validity depends on credentials as just, or otherwise morally acceptable. The punishment of the Afterworld sits, surprisingly, well with Hart’s response. Since the fireman had committed no crime under the positive law of the human realm, the only legally valid way of criminalizing him would be by passing a piece of retrospective legislation (in Hell). However, morally, it would not be fair to punish him for causing a single death that has breathed life to many. This inner morality, as perpetuated by Fuller, ironically, pushes for change to the laws within this age-old legend – which demolishes the universality of the moral standards pushed by Buddhism. But this is inevitable with the passage of time, and the change in dynamics between morals and law. Fuller represents that law is divided from arbitrary power, and states that the Nazi laws were so evil that they could not possibly have been valid law.

This would then, by association, mean that Fuller would have thought that the laws of Hell are evil enough to not constitute justifiable law. I strongly suggest he prepare a response for King Yeomra for when he takes a trip under, though we will never learn of the outcome of that debate.


In this ring of Hell, souls are subjected to the reflection of large mirrors of karma, which show their sins. The damned are impaled on the shards of a broken mirror. This presents the question of whether competing legal theories are simply reflections of each other.

The myth of Hell is exposed to children early in their years, when they’re still gullible and terrified at the prospect of possibly being hauled through harsh punishments after death. It is used as a concept to instill morals within them – do not murder, do not lie, do not do wrong. However, these two purposes belong to vastly different schools of legal theory.

Austin’s version of legal positivism proposed a model of law as commands backed up by sanctions, against a backdrop of sovereignty. This is exactly what Buddhist Afterlife seeks to portray – the law to be abided by is done out of fear of horrifying retribution, while the judges of each court of Hell are sovereigns above this law. As distinguished by Hart, the souls are “obliged” to follow the law, just as a bank teller is obliged to give a robber money at gunpoint, but is there a moral “obligation” for them to do so?

The answer is likely to be yes, that there is a moral obligation for one to live upright, without committing the weighty sins of murder, violence etc. There is an indelible connection between morals and the laws of the Underworld – the whole creation of such a fantasy was for the purpose of moral critique. This then goes against the concept of legal positivism, which states that law is distinct from morals. The very idea of Hell itself is made up of such an inherent contradiction.


This is where our journey has taken us – on a contemplation of the theories behind the development and variations of legal systems. There can be no perfect theory of law – justice evades us like a carp swimming through a broken net. Perhaps, the notion of Hell, with its omniscient judges, provides a utopian vision of how law should be – all sinners get their just deserts. Here, the punishment that awaits guilty souls is a lengthy freezing in one of the many human-sized ice cubes that line the walls of the Valley of Injustice.

Subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules is reminiscent of Fuller’s “inner morality” and fidelity to law. Indeed, I doubt that King Yeomra would have been much of a Hartian, given how law and morality seem to be tightly interlocked past the gates of the Afterlife. Beyond my skepticism of the existence of both Heaven and Hell, the fervent popularity of such conceptualizations has undoubtedly rooted itself in the growth of morality within legality, with religion as a crutch. The general public (in Singapore, at the very least) seems to be steering towards a populist, anti-positivist stance in legality.


I still am inclined to believe in Lama Yeshe, whose unorthodox voice in Buddhism assures us of safety after death in the coming quote. “There is no miserable place waiting for you, no hell realm… waiting to turn you into ice cream.” In any case, if trials await, it is all I can do to pray that legal theory will pull me through to reincarnation.

Cite this page

Buddhist Hell, Natural Law in Asian Culture. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/better-to-reign-in-hell-than-to-serve-in-heaven-apologies-to-best-essay/

Buddhist Hell, Natural Law in Asian Culture
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7