The Creator of Heaven and Hell (#730)

Some years ago, I came across a version of this story in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps:


Hakuin, the fiery and intensely dynamic Zen master, was once visited by a samurai warrior.“I want to know about heaven and hell,” said the samurai. “Do they really exist?” he asked Hakuin.

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to drive away the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.

“And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.



I loved this story when I first read it and was convinced I understood it – but of course even as I do now, it only made sense at the level of my understanding at the time.

I presumed the story was about positive and negative emotional states.  “Hell” in the story was clearly a “bad feeling” – depression, anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, etc.; “heaven” was synonymous with a “good” feeling” – happiness, peace, humility, gratitude, love, etc.

Since my life at the time was pretty hellacious, it was easy for me to imagine that the goal of life must be simply to feel as few of the “bad” feelings and as many of the “good” feelings as possible.

So I set out to master my emotional states, and cutting edge mental technologies like Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Thought-Field Therapy (TFT) seemed custom-made to suit my new “designer feelings” lifestyle.  And in some ways, it worked.  My life became less and less of a personal hell, and for a time this was more than enough for me to think I had found the secret of a happy life.

Unfortunately, being happy was still a daily struggle, and while it felt like I was winning more than I was losing, I lived each day on the battlefield of my thoughts, chalking up the fear that I might at any point be overcome by a new wave of depression to “a sensible response to the realities of war”.

Then one day I was sitting in a hotel room thousands of miles from home watching a video-taped talk by the theosopher Syd Banks. He was talking about the power of Thought with a capital “T” and telling the story of how his life changed when someone told him “you’re not insecure, Syd – you only think you are.”

Somehow, that one sentence led him directly into an experience of satori and oneness with the whole universe and with it into a whole new understanding of the role of Thought in creating our experience of life.

As someone who had by that point studied, written, and taught about the power of thought with a little “t” for over 15 years, I was pretty sure I already knew all there was to know about the subject, but there was another thing that Syd said that touched a nerve:

We think, and then we experience our thinking as though it were real.
But i
t’s not WHAT you think that matters – it’s THAT you think.
In 1986, my six year battle with depression and suicidal thoughts essentially ended when I realized that the scariest thing about my life was my own thinking.  But even when I saw through the mirage of the “suicide thought” and was able to dismiss it from my mind, I missed something even more fundamental:


We all have the power to create heaven and hell inside us in any moment, via the gift of Thought.  When we respond unquestioningly to those thoughts and act on them, each thought inside us leads to actions that create a corresponding heaven and hell outside us in the world of form.  But when we see each thought for what it really is – simply a seed of heaven or a seed of hell – we can let go of the obsessive personal thinking that clogs the arteries of our minds and make space for our higher wisdom and deeper thoughts to take root.


There is, or so it seems to me, an energy and intelligence behind life.  But that energy is not the creator of our personal experience – it is the raw material of its creation, in the same way as a lump of clay doesn’t express a preference as to whether it is molded into an ashtray or a work of art.

When you begin to see the phenomenal creative power of Thought, you realize that you are the wielder of that power in you as I am the wielder of that power in me.  In fact, each one of us is the creator of our own personal experience of life – no exceptions, no excuses, no fault, no blame, no shame.

And in making the shift from being a “samurai warrior”, doing daily battle with each individual thought, to a “life master”, using the power of Thought to consciously create heaven or hell on earth in any moment, we also make the shift from helpless to hopeful, from control to freedom, and from fear all the way back to love.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may all your success be fun!

With love,

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