Chinese Folktales

24. How Mu Lien Got His Mother Out of Hell

MU LIEN was a famous Buddhist in the Tang dynasty. He entered a monastery as a young man, awakened to the understanding of the mind and became a Buddha. But his mother was rude and envious of nature. She despised the gifts of god, trampled bread under foot and allowed remnants of food to lie about her floor. And whenever a beggar came and asked for some food she ignored him. In later years she developed difficulties in swallowing and had to suffer hunger for many days. Then she died. Two devils dragged her away. The way to the beyond led over the mountain of deeds and the river of the underworld, and the devils tormented her in every possible manner. When she arrived in the underworld the god of the dead was very angry ordered her to be locked up in the hell of hunger. Hunger made her insides grumble like thunder but she was not given a single grain to eat. When ever she cried out with hunger all the hungry spirits joined in. Therefore the wardens pinned her tongue down with an iron awl so she could not utter a sound, and they lit two lamps in front of her eyes so she could not see anything. She would have preferred to die all over again, but she was not granted that favour.

At that time Mu Lien had reached the grade of Buddha. He knew that his mother was dead. So he descended to the underworld and stepped before the god of the dead. He wanted to bring his mother an alms dish of rice. The ruler of the dead gave him permission but warned him: ‘l fear she will want to eat but will not be able to do so. None can escape the punishment they have brought upon themselves.’

Mu Lien went to the hell of hunger and demanded to see his mother. The wardens extinguished the lamps in front of her eyes and released her tongue. When Mu Lien saw his mother he threw himself down before her, sobbing, and his mother, too, cried and said: ‘I am very hungry.’ Mu Lien brought her his alms dish. But as she tried to the food the fire inside her flashed out through her mouth so she could not eat anything. Thereupon the wardens dragged her back into hell and locked the door upon her.

Mu Lien was bitterly angry and with all his strength struck the prison door with his iron rod until it burst open. Then he took his mother on his back and carried her up into heaven. But hundreds and thousands of hungry devils pushed out behind him and scattered in all directions and sneaked back into life. The god of the dead did not dare oppose the boundless power of a Buddha but he got the god of the great mountain to report the affair to the Lord of Heaven. The Lord of Heaven decided: ‘Mu Lien saved his mother; this shows a praiseworthy filial mind. His mother therefore shall be pardoned. But he also allowed all the locked-up criminals to escape and bring disaster to living men. For that reason Mu Lien must go back to earth to round up all those hungry devils and get them back to hell. Only then will he be readmitted to heaven.’

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty the Huang-chow rebellion broke out in which many hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Those were the hungry who had sneaked back into the world. But Huang-chow was Mu Lien Who in this manner discharged his task.