Meet the divine messengers
The traditional legend of the Buddha’s life tells us that throughout his youth and early manhood Prince Siddhatta, 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 splendour 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 Siddhartha’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 Siddhatta a blissful (and often wilful) 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.
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 pamada, 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.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1972, served as longtime editor for the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He has translated many texts from the Pali Canon and presently resides at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York.