“Six times a day we come out of the pool to drink blood. If we refuse…frightening demons come and torture us with metal rods before being thrown back into the blood pool. In the blood pool, countless insect like creatures with metal snouts come to pierce our skin and worm into our flesh to suck our blood.” [From Duncan Williams’ “The Other Side of Zen”]
The Ketsubonkyø, or the Blood-bowl Sutra, is a sutra composed in China around the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th.4 It describes how Mokuren(Mu-lien, Maudgalyåyana), disciple of the Buddha famous for his supernatural or magical powers, descended to hell to save his mother. This narrative differs from the classic Mokuren story, as told in the Yü-lan p’en ching (Urabonkyø), which we explored in Chapter Three. In that story as it appears in the Buddhist cannon, Mokuren saves his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. Here, however, we find her sunk in hell submerged in an enormous pond, or lake, of menstrual and birth blood. She is in the company of a multitude of women there who suffer abuse at the hands of the hell wardens and are forced to drink the blood. They are punished like this, the sutra explains, because the blood produced by their bodies spills on the ground and offends the earth gods, or ends up in rivers from which the water to make tea for holy men is drawn. This hell, called chi no ike jigoku (blood pool hell) in Japanese, threatens damnation for the sin of female biology. (It is worth noting that late medieval Japanese visual representations illustrate another hell for women who are unable to bearchildren, the umazume jigoku). [from Childbirth, Violence and the Mother’s Body by Hank Glassman]
Bussetsu Mokuren shokyo ketsubon kyo
[from “Menstration Sutra Belief in Japan” Takemi Momoka
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 10/2-3 1983]
Once the Buddha took 1250 biksus into the middle of the Deer Park. At that time, the venerable Mokuren put the following question to the Buddha: Once I went to such-and-such a prefecture, and saw in the middle of a large field there a Hell composed of a pond of menstruation blood. This pond was some 84,000 jujana wide, and in the middle women who were wearing handcuffs and ankle chains were undergoing hardships. The demon who was the lord of this Hell came here three times a day and forced the women sinners to drink the polluted blood; if they refused to do so, he would beat them with an iron rod. Their screams of anguish could be heard from great distances away. The sight of this made me very sad, and so I asked the Lord of the Hell why the women were being forced to undergo such hardships. He replied that the blood the women had shed during the birth of their children had polluted the deity of the earth and that, furthermore, when they washed their polluted garments in the river, that water was gathered up by a number of virtuous men and woman and used to make tea to serve to holy men. Because of these acts of uncleanliness, the women were now forced to undergo sufferings.
Thus Mokuren used his holy powers to come to the seat of the Buddha and to inform him of what he had seen with his eyes. He asked, then, what he needed t o do for the women to be saved from their punishments in the pond of blood. The Buddha then answered, teaching Mokuren how t o save the women. He said it would be necessary for them to respect the three treasures of filial piety, to call on Mokuren, to hold a Blood Pool Liberation service, to hold a Blood Pool Feast, to read sutras, to have an esoteric ceremony, then to make a boat and float it off. At that time a five-colored lotus flower would appear in the middle of the Blood Pond. Then, he said, all of the women sinners would be saved, and reborn in the Buddha’s land.