For eight weeks in spring I, by necessity, contemplated varioushells, both Christian and Buddhist, on Tuesdays as an instructor for the class "Samurai Epic and the Traditional Noh Theatre of Japan," then on Wednesdays as a student of the Northwest Classics Society class on Dante.
It is only natural to compare the two works. As Dante did in the ‘Divine Comedy’, Genshin, in his‘Ojoyoshu’ (Essentials of Birth) gives a vivid description of the glories of paradise and the horrors of hell. In reading the ‘Ojoyoshu’ one is repeatedly reminded of Dante’s immortal work. I came across Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’ while doing research for my class on the traditional Noh drama of Japan. Because the ‘Samurai Epic’ class focuses on the Japanese war tales and the plays they inspired, most of the plays we studied feature the ghost of a samurai warrior that disappears at the end of the play, having asked a monk to pray for his soul, which must return to Ashura (the Realm of Furious Demons), where the condemned engage in eternal combat. Though horrible, Ashura is not hell, but one of the six migratory states of existence. It is directly below the Realm of Humankind, the "cesspool of perdition and corruption" where we are now.
Genshin, like Dante, painted the glories of Paradise in all the beauty that his imagination could conjure up. Genshin’s vision of Paradise, however, is based on tenth century Kyoto, with lotus ponds and artistic pavilions made of "the Seven Precious Treasures."
Like Dante, Genshin gives hell an elaborate architecture with many levels. The tortures of hell increase as you descend, and to arrive completely into the lowest level, the condemned must fall head first for two thousand years, reminded the entire way of what’s in store for them and why. This is hugely vast when compared to the treck of Dante’s pilgrim. With such a great variety of hells, there is a place for every sinner, with every sinner in his or her place. Those who enter into Genshin's hell, however, do not have to abandon all hope. Time spent in tortures in the lower realms, though excrutiatingly long, are not infinite.
Like Dante, Genshin populates his hell with bizarre creatures. In Dante, these include Cerberus, Medusa, the Minotaur, Harpies, and the Titans of Tartarus. Genshin’s various levels of hell also have their share of monstrosities. There are serpents whose barking voices are like a hundred thousand thunderclaps, and an evil bird the size of an elephant called Emba. Both hells are also peopled, as it were, with devils. In Dante there is a band of antic devils who happily toss public swindlers and grafters into boiling pitch. Similarly, Genshin’s hell crawls with "hell wardens" who have sixty-four eyes and emit iron balls from the tops of their heads, or have eight oxen heads with eighteen horns attached to each head.Not surprisingly, Genshin’s hell is a place of tortures, both numerous and horrific. In a level called Receiving-Limitless-Suffering, wardens use iron shears to cut out the victims’ tongues which, like Prometheus’s liver, grow back repeatedly only to be cut out again and again. The tortures of Genshin’s hell are so awful, in fact, that "if anyone should describe it thoroughly or listen to a full description of it, he would vomit blood and die".
Like Dante, Genshin used remarkable poetic imagery. The souls of heretics, for example, are carried up into the sky by "an evil wind," twirled around like the wheel of a cart, "spinning so fast as to be invisible," then are cut into pieces "as small as grains of sand and scattered in fragments in all directions." To try to escape "is as vain as a mantis fighting against an axe, or a monkey trying to grab the moon." The punishments in Genshin’s hell can also be quite poignant. One punishment reminiscent of the tortures of Tantalus, has sinners parched by the heat reaching for water which dries up and ceases to flow or suddenly turns into flames and burns them. Many of Genshin’s sinners are served with poetic justice, and certain sections even seem somewhat self-serving (one section, for example, is set aside for "those who have burned the bedroom furniture of priests"). But for Genshin, when human beings die, they cease to be human, so the Ojoyoshi lacks the personal enmities found in Dante's Inferno.
The influence the two writers have exerted on the religious life of their times and in subsequent centuries is great. Many Jigoku Zoshi ("hell scrolls") were produced, somewhat revolting, tragically impressive scrolls pictured the different types of hells described in Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’. Like illustrated copies of the Inferno, these had an enormous influence on public art.