In the book of long discourses, there is a sutta, called the Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14), in which the Buddha, our Buddha, Gotama, tells the story of an earlier Buddha, Vipassi. The Buddha Vipassi was the son of a king and was born under special conditions and with physical signs that indicated that he was destined to be a great person, specifically a great world ruler or a great spiritual leader. Similar to the legends around the Buddha Gotama, the prince Vipassi was heavily protected from the outside world by his father, the king, and led a very sheltered life in three seasonal palaces built by his father that were resplendent with sensual pleasure, in order to insure that the prince would become a great king rather than lead a religious life.
As time passes in these palaces, this particular Buddha grows restless and ventures out of one of the palaces to explore the pleasure gardens that exist beyond its confines. On the first such expedition, he goes out with his charioteer and comes upon an old man. Upon inquiring of the charioteer what the old man is, he is led to reflect on the fact that he himself will one day become an old man. The prince is very disturbed by this knowledge and retreats back to the distractions of sensual indulgence within the palaces built by his father. The charioteer reports back to the king what has happened, and the king redoubles his effort to shelter the prince from any further knowledge of the real world outside the palaces.
But, the prince’s restlessness continues to grow and once again he ventures forth, with the charioteer, to visit another pleasure garden outside the confines of the palaces. This time he runs into a sick man. Once again, the charioteer explains to him that the sick man is not something all that unusual, and that, in fact, the prince and the charioteer himself would undoubtedly become sick at some point in their lives. The prince once again is very upset by this realization and retreats back to one of the palaces to indulge in his sensual distractions. And once again the king, upon hearing from the charioteer what had transpired on the outing, renews his effort to shelter his son from any upsetting truth that he might be exposed to outside the palaces.
However, the life of indulgence continues to bore the prince, and once again he goes forth with the charioteer to visit the outside pleasure gardens. This time he comes upon a dead man. And upon consultation with the charioteer, the prince now learns that death is inevitable, and that he, himself, and the charioteer are not exempt from this seeming catastrophe. Completely disillusioned at this point, the prince goes back to one of the palaces, grim and dejected, and once again the king makes every effort to amuse the young prince with sensual pleasures and to protect him from any exposure to unpleasant things.
As you might suspect, the prince, in spite of being completely immersed in sensual indulgence within the palaces, decides to make one more trip beyond the palaces to the pleasure gardens and on this final trip, he encounters a recluse who has a shaved head and wears the traditional yellow robes of a recluse. When the prince learns that this man is practicing the Dhamma in order to find a way to escape the suffering inherent in the conditioned world, he is intrigued. And he tells the charioteer to return to the palace without him, since he is determined to become a recluse himself and to practice Dhamma in order to learn how to transcend the existential dilemma of aging, sickness, and death.
And so we have these three allegorical entities, divine messengers in the guise of old-age, sickness, and death, that make an appearance here and there in the suttas and in our own lives. They are known as the divine messengers both because it is said they literally come from divine realms in disguise to make their point and also, more importantly, because they serve to give us a transcendental wake up call, an urgent summons to venture out of our palaces of sensual distraction, denial, and delusion and to live our lives better before it is too late.
We come upon the three divine messengers again in both the middle length discourses and the numerical discourses in the Devaduta Sutta (MN 130) in which a freshly dead man encounters King Yama, who is the monarch of a certain hell realm. This man has done such things in his life, as not respecting his parents or the leaders within his community, not particularly heinous deeds it would seem in and of themselves. However, this sutta, as you will see, is more about the serious consequences of negligence in the performance of wholesome deeds than it is about the commission of unwholesome deeds. When the man arrives before King Yama, the king asks him if he ever encountered the first divine messenger during his human life. The man says he never encountered such a divine messenger when he was a human. Then King Yama says to him: “But, didn’t you ever see a woman or a man, aged eighty, ninety or a hundred years, frail, bent like a roof bracket, crooked, leaning on a stick, shakily going along, ailing, youth and vigour gone, with broken teeth, with grey and scanty hair or none, wrinkled, with blotched limbs?” And the man replies: “Well, yes, of course, I have seen this.” Then King Yama says: “Didn’t it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, ’I too am subject to old age and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind’?” And the man replies, “Well, no, I guess that never occurred to me.”
And then King Yama asks him if he ever encountered the second divine messenger in the human realm. And the man entering the hell realm says no he never encountered a second divine messenger while he was in the human realm. And King Yama says to him, “But didn’t you ever see a woman or a man who was sick and in pain, seriously ill, lying in his own filth, having to be lifted up by some and put to bed by others?’ The man replies, “Yes, I have seen this.’“King Yama says, ‘Didn’t it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, “I too am subject to illness and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind’?” And the man replies, “No, that never occurred to me.”
Then King Yama again questions the man, this time about the third divine messenger, saying: “Did you ever see the third divine messenger appearing among humankind?”
The man says, “No, I did not see any third divine messenger.”
King Yama asks, “But didn’t you ever see a woman or a man, one, two or three days dead, the corpse swollen, discoloured and festering?”
The man replies, “Yes, I have indeed seen this.”
King Yama asks, “Then didn’t it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, ’I too am subject to death and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind’?”
The man replies, “No, it didn’t occur to me.”
King Yama responds, “Through negligence you have failed to do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind. Well, you will be treated as befits your negligence. That evil action of yours was not done by mother or father, brothers, sisters, friends, or companions, nor by relatives, devas, ascetics, or brahmins. But you alone have done the evil deed, and you will have to experience the fruit.”
Then, having questioned the man concerning the third divine messenger, King Yama becomes silent.
Thereupon the wardens of hell inflict many kinds of torment on the man on account of which he suffers grievous, severe, sharp, and bitter pain. Yet he does not die until that evil deed of his has been worked out.
In this sutta, there are two ways that we can look at what it has to say. One way is to take it at face value and understand that there is a place somewhere called hell where people who are not respectful of their parents and community leaders and choose not to do noble deeds will have to undergo excruciating torture meted out by a ruthless tyrant known as King Yama. Or we can look at it as a mythologically symbolic story that points out that the foundation of liberation, that is sila or moral behavior, is more than simply following most of the rules of what not to do. Our choice in how we view this sutta is important. The Buddha himself said “Bhikkhus, these two things misrepresent what I say. Which two? One who explains a discourse whose meaning requires interpretation as a discourse whose meaning is explicit, and one who explains a discourse whose meaning is explicit as a discourse whose meaning requires interpretation. These two misrepresent what I say.” The ancient commentaries say that discourses that speak of truly ultimate things, like selflessness, impermanence, conditioned arising, and so on, are explicit discourses that are not to be interpreted. Discourses that are about people and their experiences are not considered to be explicit and require interpretation. My inclination is to view this as a sutta that requires interpretation because it does not speak directly of ultimate things and it speaks of unenlightened people in conditioned, worldly situations. In short, it is a dramatic story that is easy for a certain audience to grasp that contains a worthy teaching within it, not unlike the best of novels, theater, movies and television today.
I believe the real point of the story is that what we choose to ignore is of great consequence. It is said that kamma is intention. Ignorance, or choosing to ignore, is really in many ways the intention not to have certain noble intentions, to be negligent, to look away and ignore the opportunities to do what is noble in thought, word, and deed. Choosing not to do noble acts puts us in jeopardy, even if our infraction of the rules of what not to do is minimal. This sutta makes it clear that just keeping the precepts is not enough! The sutta makes it clear that the hell of horrendous pain and suffering has a cause and that cause includes missed opportunities to do what is right and noble. As to how these sensory sufferings manifest, I don’t think it matters if it be in some kind of hell somewhere after we die or as some kind of injury or disease or malfunction right here and now in the human realm. But there are two important things to remember about kamma and its consequences. On the one hand, it is important to know that death is not an escape from it and on the other hand, even after death, there is no eternal damnation to worry about. Once the debt is paid, it is paid in full for good. So remember that the next time you are in pain or suffering unduly. Whether or not we accept the literal description in the sutta of what can transpire after death to an unelightened person who has not lived a good life, as Buddhists, we do have to at least accept the fact that unwholesome acts will inevitably lead to unhappy results, and wholesome acts will lead to happy results. Only by creating no more kamma is there an end to kamma and its consequences. Since we live with the divine messengers all the time there is really no excuse to think that we are somehow exempt from them because we don’t bother to acknowledge them. The truth is we know our lives can turn on a dime and that there is an urgency to make our lives ones of wholesomeness, lives of “noble deeds by body, speech, and mind”, before it is too late. In our hearts, we all know that this and only this will lead to the happy results we all want.
There is one more sutta, the Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5:57) in the numerical discourses that we should look at. It advises us to frequently contemplate the divine messengers, so that we may live our lives free from all the various forms of heedlessness that come from ignoring them. The sutta says that we should reflect that we are personally subject to old age, that we are not exempt from old age, that we are personally subject to illness and we are not exempt from illness, and that we are personally subject to death and are not exempt from death. Also, the sutta reminds us that we will be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to us at some point. And that only we are the owners of our actions, the heir of our actions, the heir of whatever wholesome or unwholesome acts that we do. The sutta reviews what the benefits of these contemplations are. It says, concerning the contemplation on old age, that in their youth, beings are intoxicated with their youth, and when they are intoxicated with their youth, they engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon the reality of old age, the intoxication with youth is either completely abandoned or diminished. Similarly, the sutta says that we are often intoxicated with our healthiness, when we are free from illness, and that once again we engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind, unless we reflect upon the inevitability of sickness. Then it goes on to say that we can become intoxicated with life itself, and engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind, if we don’t contemplate on the inevitability of death. One of three most important points in this sutta is that we really can become intoxicated by our youth, health, and our simply being alive and through this intoxication we become heedless and negligent, just as we do under the influence of alcohol and drugs, doing that which we shouldn’t do and not doing that which we should do. And like the previous sutta on the divine messengers, this sutta says it is we alone who are responsible for our actions (inaction being one of the possible actions) and they alone determine what lies ahead. And so, depending on those actions, and on whether they are wholesome or unwholesome, skillful or unskillful, noble or ignoble, our kamma ultimately becomes either our best friend, or our worst enemy.