The traditional legend of the Buddha’s life tells us that throughout his youth and early manhood Prince Siddhattha, the Bodhisatta, lived completely unaware of the most elementary facts concerning human mortality. His father, anxious to protect his sensitive son from exposure to suffering, kept him an unwitting captive of ignorance. Incarcerated in the splendor of his palace, amply supplied with sensual pleasures, and surrounded by merry friends, the prince did not entertain even the faintest suspicion that life could offer anything other than an endless succession of amusements and festivities. It was only on that fateful day in his twenty-ninth year, when curiosity led him out beyond the palace walls, that he encountered the four “divine messengers” that were to change his destiny. The first three were the old man, the sick man and the corpse, who taught him the shocking truths of old age, illness and death; the fourth was a wandering ascetic, who revealed to him the existence of a path whereby all suffering can be fully overcome.
This charming story, which has nurtured the faith of Buddhists through the centuries, enshrines at its heart a profound psychological truth. In the language of myth, it speaks to us not merely of events that may have taken place centuries ago but of a process of awakening through which each of us must pass if the Dhamma is to come to life within ourselves. Beneath the symbolic veneer of the ancient legend, we can see that Prince Siddhattha’s youthful stay in the palace was not so different from the way in which most of us today pass our entire lives—often, sadly, until it is too late to strike out in a new direction. Our homes may not be royal palaces, and the wealth at our disposal may not approach anywhere near that of a north Indian rajah, but we share with the young Prince Siddhattha a blissful (and often willful) oblivion to stark realities that are constantly thrusting themselves on our attention. If the teachings are to be more than the bland, humdrum background of a comfortable life, if they are to become the inspiring, sometimes grating, voice that steers us on to the great path of awakening, we ourselves need to emulate the Bodhisatta in his process of maturation. Joining him on his journey outside the palace walls—the walls of our own self-assuring preconceptions—we must see for ourselves the divine messengers we so often miss because our eyes are fixed on “more important things,” i.e., our mundane preoccupations and goals.
The Buddha says that there are few who are stirred by things that are truly stirring, compared to those, far more numerous, who are not so stirred. The spurs to awakening press in on us from all sides, yet too often, instead of acknowledging them, we respond simply by putting on another layer of clothes to protect ourselves from their sting. This statement is not disproved even by the recent deluge of discussion and literature on aging, life-threatening illnesses and alternative approaches to death and dying. For open and honest awareness is still not sufficient for the divine messengers to get their message across. To convey their message, the message that can goad us on to the path to liberation, something more is needed. We must confront aging, illness and death not simply as inescapable realities with which we must somehow cope at the practical level but as envoys from the beyond, from the far shore, disclosing new dimensions of meaning.
This disclosure takes place at two levels. First, to become divine messengers, the facts of aging, illness and death must jolt us into an awareness of the fragile, precarious nature of our normal day-to-day lives. The first three messengers must impress upon our minds the radical deficiency that runs through all our worldly concerns, extending to conditioned existence in its totality. Thereby they become windows opening upon the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering, which the Buddha says comprises not only birth, aging, illness and death, not only sorrow, grief, pain and misery, but all the physical and mental factors that make up our being-in-the-world. The homeless ascetic must become more than a quaint object of curiosity; he should serve us as a reminder that the way to liberation cuts through the austere landscape of renunciation and inner self-mastery. Clad in his ochre robes, this sedate and dignified figure serves as a pointer to the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path, and its culmination, the truth of suffering’s cessation.
When we meet the divine messengers at this level, they become catalysts that can induce in us a profound internal transformation. We realize that because we are frail and inescapably mortal we must make drastic changes in our existential priorities and personal values. Instead of letting our lives be consumed by transient trivia, by things that are here today and gone tomorrow, we must give weight to “what really counts,” to aims and actions that will exert a lasting influence upon our long-range destinies and our ultimate aim as we meander through the cycle of repeated birth and death.
Before such a revaluation takes place, we generally live in a condition that the Buddha describes by the term pamᾱda, negligence or heedlessness. Imagining ourselves immortal and the world our personal playground, we devote our energies to such “worldly dhammas” as the accumulation of wealth, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, the achievement of status, and the quest for fame and renown. The remedy for heedlessness is the very same quality that was aroused in the Bodhisatta when he met the divine messengers in the streets of Kapilavatthu. This quality, called in Pali samvega, is a “sense of urgency,” an inner commotion or shock that does not allow us to rest content with our habitual adjustment to the world. Instead it drives us to embark on our own journey into homelessness, whether actual or metaphoric. As Prince Siddhattha did after meeting the homeless mendicant, we must leave behind our cozy palaces and plunge into unfamiliar jungles, to work out with diligence an authentic solution to our existential plight.
It is at this point that the second function of the divine messengers comes to prominence. For aging, sickness and death are not only emblems of the unsatisfactory nature of mundane existence but pointers to a deeper reality that lies beyond. In the traditional legend the four divine messengers are gods in disguise. They have been sent down to Earth from the highest heaven to awaken the Bodhisatta to his momentous mission, and once they have delivered their message they resume their celestial forms. This teaches us that the final word of the Dhamma is not surrender, not an injunction to resign ourselves to the cruel fact of our human mortality, nor even to accept our finitude in a mood of joyful celebration. The inevitability of old age, sickness and death is the preliminary message of the Dhamma, the announcement that our house is ablaze. The final message, suggested by the fourth divine messenger, is something else: an ebullient cry that there is a place of safety, an open field beyond the flames, and a clear exit sign pointing the way of escape.
If, in this process of awakening, we must meet old age, sickness and death face to face, that is because the place of safety can be reached only by honest confrontation with the harsh truths about human existence. We cannot reach safety by pretending that the flames that engulf our home are nothing but bouquets of flowers: we must see them as they are, as real flames. When, however, we do look at the divine messengers squarely, without embarrassment or fear, we will find that their faces undergo an unexpected metamorphosis. Before our eyes, by subtle degrees, they change into another face—the face of the Buddha, with its serene smile of triumph over the army of Mara, over the demons of Desire and Death. The divine messengers point to what lies beyond the transient, to a dimension of reality where there is no more aging, no more sickness and no more death. This is the goal and final destination of the Buddhist path—Nibbana, the Unaging, the Illness-free, the Deathless. It is to direct us there that the divine messengers have appeared in our midst, and their message is the good news that this goal is available to us.