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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Visions of Hell

Roselyn Debhavalya

Jun. 22, 2015

Thailand’s Buddhist temples are giving their visitors hell in a hair-raising approach to the teaching of morals and good virtue. The number of so-called hell temples has increased, and they are attracting droves of visitors. Dozens of hideous sculptures are dotted around some temple precincts. They are hard to look at, but parents say taking their children to see the imagery can be beneficial.

The garden at Pai Rong Wua temple in Suphan Buri province features gruesome statues that depict in graphic detail how sinners are punished for misdeeds once they go to hell. A thief is shown getting his arm chopped off and harsh penalties for killing, alcohol addiction, lying and gambling are grotesquely portrayed.

It is a far cry from the beautiful sculptures of divine beings and characters from myths and legends that form an important part of Thailand’s Buddhist cultural heritage and are more commonly associated with the nation’s vast network of temples.

On busy days, hundreds of people visit hell temples as tourist drawcards. Parents are bringing their children to show them what it means to lead a moral life amid a materialistic culture.

“When I go back home, I won’t do anything wrong,” says one child at a temple in Chonburi province.

“My parents brought me here when I was a kid. So, I brought my kid here, too,” explains the girl’s mother.

Images of hell are nothing new in Thailand. The country’s National Library says they can be traced back hundreds of years, and excruciating scenes are depicted in Thailand’s oldest existing Buddhist illustrated manuscripts, the “Trai Poom Phra Ruang,” from the early 1300s.

"Thais can get a graphic idea of what heaven and hell are like from these manuscripts. They’re intended to warn people they should be good and avoid bad behavior,” says Boonlert Sananon of the Thai National Library.

About 40 hell temples have sprung up throughout Thailand during the past four decades.

Monk Somchai Manabo instructs children who visit the Pai Rong Wua temple, “If you don’t want to go to hell, you must do good things like following the Five Precepts – don’t kill animals, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t become an alcoholic, don’t lie.”

Efforts to teach Buddhist morality are ongoing at Pai Rong Wua even after 4 decades. Manabo, who is responsible for the temple’s education unit, believes proper guidance is necessary to give people a better understanding of good morals – otherwise, he says, the park is nothing but an unusual tourist attraction.

"Imagining hell might be difficult, especially for kids,” says Manabo. “The temple has built sculptures based on the scriptures and created the hell park that you see today, to teach people about the concepts of Buddhism."

In modernized Thailand, the terrifying sculptures are on morality watch for those seeking to lead wholesome lives without conflict.

Roselyn Debhavalya spoke with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio from Bangkok.

Beppu: Roselyn, why have hell temples been springing up across Thailand in the last few decades? What kind of changes or trends in Thai society are behind the boom?

Debhavalya: Authorities at Thailand’s National Buddhism Office say modern life is changing the way people learn about morality and Buddhism. In the recent past, moral teachings were incorporated in school textbooks. And moral instruction was given at temples or Sunday schools, too. But these days, social pressures have forced children to concentrate on preparing for college. And their parents are busy making a living. The faster Buddhism can be delivered, the better. That’s why the hell sculpture parks have become so popular. They teach morals and Buddhism all in one trip. It’s a phenomenon that says a lot about the modern generation.

Shibuya: Temples in Thailand are teaching children lurid lessons in right and wrong. What does Buddhism mean for Thais?

Debhavalya: Buddhism has always had great spiritual and social significance in Thailand. The country has more than 40,000 temples. They’re in every city and village. Monks’ influence has traditionally extended over people of all ages because the temples were never just places for religious worship. They doubled up as schools, where people learn everything from literature to martial arts. And they’re places where people can socialize and eat traditional food.

In Thai Buddhism, people believe they can go to heaven by earning merit, or tumboon, by doing small, positive things for society and donating food to monks. And with the social change accompanying modernization, people are busy with work and school. They’re looking for a shortcut to heaven. Hell temples exemplify this trend. Popular ones can make tens of thousands of baht each day from donations.

Beppu: Money-spinning temples? Doesn’t that put people off?

Debhavalya: Along with revelations of corruption and scandals surrounding Thai Buddhism, there’s been criticism that hell temples are just a scam to make a quick buck. Temples are meant to be sacred havens of religious worship and study, so it’s ironic that such institutions could turn into highly profitable businesses, especially since Buddha’s teachings dictate that monks shouldn’t dirty their hands with money. But with society and lifestyles changing, it’s also true that monks are feeling pressure to keep their temples financially viable. Many of these temples say that giving alms is equivalent to detaching oneself from greed.