Fate in Afterlife, Freedom, and the Origins of the Early Enumeration of Hellish Kings in Early Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture

Dr. Frederick Chen

The introduction of Buddhist concepts of karma and the cycle of rebirth has significantly transformed Chinese perceptions of the destination and mechanism of human fate and the concept of freedom since the early medieval period. The rise of the popular belief in the later medieval period regarding the purgatory journey to the Ten Hells, where the final fate of sentient beings will be judged and determined by the ten hellish kings, has further elaborated the Chinese perception of fate in afterlife. In Indian Buddhism, each heaven is envisaged as the realm of a particular celestial deity, but the various hells with their different tortures are governed by Yama and his messengers; the notion that each hell has its own individual king is hardly visible in early Indian Buddhist sources. How this concept of the enumeration of hellish kings was first formulated in Early Medieval China remains a matter of obscurity. Why is the enumeration of a hellish king for each hell significant for Chinese Buddhists in foreseeing their fate in the cycle of karmic retribution and the purgatory journey in the afterlife? This research project aims to survey why the inclusion of the enumeration is imperative in formulating the early medieval purgatory scriptures, such as the Wen diyu jing 問地獄經and the Jingdu sanmei jing 淨度三昧經, for Chinese Buddhists with regard to perceiving their future fate and liberation.

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