A longtime Buddhist philosopher’s near-death experience proves life-altering, enlightening, and horrifying.
Bercholz, the founder of Shambhala Publications, offers a grandly produced graphic memoir chronicling his “ineffable” descent into the volcanic depths of what he perceived as a retributive “Buddhist underworld.” Believing he has experienced death twice, the author details his early life in San Francisco, where he swapped a budding career in political science for book publishing and a “complete Buddhist education” under the tutelage of meditation master Trungpa Rinpoche. On a pilgrimage to India, Bercholz contracted typhus fever, and he recalls following a bright light after hovering painlessly above his hospitalized body. His second deathly encounter arrived three decades later when, in his 60s, he developed a severe post-surgical blood infection and was thrust into a swirling netherworld of volcanic hellfire stacked with writhing bodies and populated by a host of “Hell-beings,” some helpful, some frightening. Bercholz creates character-driven vignettes symbolizing and personifying the “qualities of the myriad denizens of hell” as he’d viewed them personally and from corresponding Buddhist cosmology. These creative allegories tell how the tortured souls became trapped by their unfortunate choices during life. With colorful prose, the author charts his descent into a netherworld guided by a benevolent, sublime, gender-fluid being he dubs the “Buddha of Hell.” The book is strikingly illustrated by celebrated Tibetan artist Thaye, who collaborated with Bercholz in surmounting the narrative’s greatest challenge in “devising a visual language inspired by my cryptic utterances without trying to depict them in the literal sense.” Eventually, the author was miraculously pulled back to consciousness, but he remains forever changed by his surreal travels. A work of mixed genres, Bercholz’s fiery expedition, while extraordinarily frightening, seems to direct readers toward living a good, clean life in the here and now, since the conditions of one’s post-mortem future may very well depend on it.
Darkly fascinating and artfully spirited, the author’s cautionary reawakening is a potent rumination on death and what lies beyond.