Incontinence, Violence, Fraud: Dante’s Buddhist Inferno

For several months, I’ve been studying Dante’s Comedia, and I’m struck by the parallel between the Inferno‘s circles of misery and the Buddha’s description of suffering. In Dante’s scheme, the nine levels of hell are grouped into three areas: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Incontinence is lack of self-restraint; in circles 2, 3, and 4, the lustful and gluttonous are buffeted by winds and rain, and hoarders and squanderers roll heavy boulders, endlessly clashing with each other. Deeper down, in the seventh circle, the violent — against themselves, others, and God — are boiled in pitch, transformed into snakes, and repeatedly dismembered. The freezing lowest circles are inhabited by those who have committed fraud: various ilk of liars and traitors who “cut off the bond of love that nature forges” between men.

It’s gruesome stuff, to be sure, but Buddhism, while decidedly more reserved, points to the same categories. The Buddha identified a triad of “defilements” or kilesas, that cloud the mind. Incontinence is the Buddha’s lobha, usually translated as greed or sensual desire. In The Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi describes lobha as “the desire for pleasure and possessions, the drive for survival, the urge to bolster the sense of ego with power, status, and prestige.” Violence parallels dosa, or aversion, which shows itself as “rejection, irritation, condemnation, hatred, enmity, anger, and violence.” Bhikkhu Bodhi calls delusion, or dosa, “mental darkness”; it is fraud, in which the truth is twisted, subverted, or denied.

Through Virgil, Dante (the author) asserts that the most serious sin of all is fraud, explaining that “God finds it more displeasing.” He later equates it to “mad bestiality”; although it is “man’s peculiar vice,” it reduces a human to an animal. The Buddha, too, emphasized the fundamental importance of truthfulness for any liberating path. Delusion underpins all three kilesas. If liberation is clear-seeing, then delusion is the tap root of suffering.

What is so remarkable about Dante is that his medieval Christian lens recognizes the primacy of the sinner’s mental state, just as Buddhism does. Lust feels like being swept around by a storm; sullen rage is like drowning in mud. In Dante’s hell, the sinners spend eternity in the conditions manifest by their mind state. This resonates with the Buddhist idea that our reality is largely created by our state of mind. What’s more, Dante’s sinners often don’t realize how bad they have it. They’re so wedded to their ideas of what constitutes pleasure and their self-righteous blame of others for their pain that they don’t make the connection between their conditions in hell and the conditions of their own minds. We don’t need to die to relate to Dante’s sinners. It is our commonplace experience not to see how much we suffer and to blame conditions outside our minds for our pain, all the while misapprehending our own agency. I think Dante and the Buddha would have gotten along.

Those of us who require a nonpunitive religion might balk at Christianity’s take on sin and hell. Buddhism is remarkably free of notions of punishment: the Buddha simply pointed to the sources of happiness and suffering and encouraged us to find them for ourselves. Hell is here on earth, he seemed to say, in every moment that the mind is swept away by the kilesas. Christianity and Buddhism usually part ways in their difference in focus on this world vs. the next, but Dante even mixes that up. In the frozen depths of the eighth circle, he meets traitors who he knows are still alive. He learns that the sinners’ bodies have been possessed by demons and their souls sent to hell before their bodies have died. The barrier between living and dead — already weakened by Dante’s ability to travel through hell as a living person and Virgil’s ability to interact with him physically (hugging, carrying, etc.) even though he is but a “shade” — is knocked down. Apparently, the living sometimes occupy hell too. This should come as no surprise to anyone, Buddhist or Christian, who has ever looked deeply into their own mind.