Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2016; 147 + xi pp., hardcover, $24.95.
There has always been a place in my library—and in my heart—for books that are surpassingly strange. They have often proved rewarding: I have bought more than one book as a curiosity and had it change my life.
Reading Samuel Bercholz’s Guided Tour of Hell did not change my life, though its surpassing strangeness cannot be denied. On the one hand, it is yet another of the growing pile of books devoted to near-death experiences (NDEs). On the other hand, unlike many of them, it recounts not a journey into the light but a Dantesque vision of hell, Buddhist-style.
Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, is a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and its influence shows on every page of this weird and disturbing book. The journey begins when, at age sixty, Bercholz has a heart attack and is scheduled for immediate sextuple coronary bypass surgery. Wheeled into the operating room, he is given general anesthesia, loses consciousness, and in effect dies.
“Here,” he writes, “was an alternative world, thoroughly different from the earthly world I had left behind. My senses were overwhelmed by the unbearable odor of burning flesh and extremes of heat and cold beyond imagination . . . A wordless message was somehow conveyed to me: This is the domain of hell. You have been brought here as a guest, to witness and understand the suffering of beings of all kinds—particularly the suffering of human beings” (emphasis Bercholz’s).
And witness it he does. Accompanied by his guide, whom he calls “the Buddha of Hell,” he experiences “the landscape of hell . . . a vast expanse with countless inhabitants, veritable oceans of suffering beings. The sufferings of each and every one of these beings are due to their own mental conceptions. In fact, their suffering in hell is an unbroken continuation of their own states of mind during life, which persisted even after the death of the physical body . . . It would soon become clear that an inescapable characteristic of hell is the sheer redundancy of self-created sufferings, which pound consciousness in seemingly perpetual cycles.”
In this journey he encounters beings like Momo Drollo, a grotesque giant. In her life she had lived a nomadic life in Tibet, married to two brothers, whose deaths, combined with other misfortunes, suffused her with bitterness. “She lived from her bile, always read to blurt hateful words. She perceived everyone as her enemy, including her children, who could do nothing right.” Although she wanted to be reborn into the family of a wealthy merchant, she ended up in hell.
An even starker case is Afanas Popov, a Russian intellectual who came up with a doomsday machine, “not something that would damage one place or injure one group of people, but a machine that, if Russia were threatened, would destroy the entire world, turning it to dust.” At one point a crisis ensues, and Popov was just about to press the switch when he was shot by his own soldiers. In the hell realm, “his body was like a hologram filled with all the bodies of hell, all the individuals of hell. There was absolutely no separation between himself and these individuals, yet he had contempt and disgust for every part of the body that was made up of other hell-beings. Even though they were no different from his own hell-being, he was claustrophobized by his own fingers, his own feet, his own organs.”
Eventually, of course, the vision ends, and Bercholz regains consciousness to face a long and difficult recovery.
The book has a graphic format, and is luridly illustrated by artist Pema Namdol Thaye, who has been trained in Tibetan traditional art methods. Unfortunately his mastery of American graphics style is little better than adequate, and many of his illustrations, like most mediocre treatments of horrific themes, are less terrifying than they are unpleasant. Indeed the illustrations are the weakest part of Bercholz’s graphic memoir.
This tour through hell raises many questions, of course. The most obvious one is this: Many of those who have reported on their NDEs, including Eben Alexander (see Quest, winter 2015) and Natalie Sudman (see Quest, summer 2017), describe experiences that are unique or at any rate difficult to categorize through theology. But Bercholz’s is quite different: it is practically a textbook description of the hell realms as portrayed in Buddhist literature. To what extent has his spiritual practice conditioned him to see the afterlife in this way? This has long been an issue in the philosophical enquiry into mystical experience: is the visionary seeing only what his religion has conditioned him to see? For Alexander and Sudman, this does not seem to be the case, but it certainly is for Bercholz. Then of course we must ask, does this tend to validate his experience or throw doubt upon it?
No one can say that Bercholz did not have these visions. Do we then have to say that his Tibetan Buddhist practice conditioned his mind so deeply that he saw through its lens even in a coma? Or are we to conclude that he happened to visit the Buddhist hell, which of course would imply Christian and Jewish and Muslim hells? Perhaps a Buddhist would argue that these others are all inferior versions of his own—but then every religion tends to say that sort of thing. In the end, I will have to put this Buddhist Inferno on the shelf of my library dedicated to works of strangeness, and leave it at that.