A Dhamma Reflection from Ajahn Amaro
These are frightening times. The uncertainty and stress in the air on account of the coronavirus pandemic is palpable and, at least for our human family, life as we know it has been radically disrupted. Furthermore, the menace of that disruption continuing is like an ominous fog ahead of us on the road – we have no idea how thick it really is and for how long it will continue.
The Buddha called such threats – specifically those of ageing, sickness and death – ‘Devaduta’, ‘Heavenly Messengers’, which might seem a very odd name to use for them. Surely these form a hellish prospect, rather than their optimistic opposite… So, what did he mean by this?
The ‘heavenly’ aspect comes from a fourth member of the group. In the stories of the Buddha’s life, before his enlightenment and while still a prince, it was the sight of an old person, a sick person and a dead person that filled him with fear and dread as he was told that all living beings were subject to such shocking states. However, following the witnessing of these three, the sight of a religious seeker then filled him with hope – there was a way to relate to this universal condition that led to a quality of well-being that transcended the bounds of human life as he had known it.
‘Why, being myself subject to birth, aging, ailment, death, sorrow and defilement, do I seek after what is also subject to these things? Suppose, being myself subject to these things, seeing danger in them, I sought after the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme release from bondage, Nibbāna?’(M 26.13)
This reflection led him to leave the household life and to seek, and realize, enlightenment. It was a search and a realization that countless beings have benefitted from since that time.
The fourth member of the group of Heavenly Messengers (our spiritual potential) represents the skilful response to the presence of the first three. Ageing, sickness and death are inexorably present in our lives – a fact no more apparent than at times like the current coronavirus pandemic – however, the fourth of the Heavenly Messengers is the answer to the question: ‘What can best be done with our lives in the face of that ageing, sickness and death?’ The religious seeker symbolizes the possibility of understanding and thereby transcending the limits set by the first three messengers.
So why did the Buddha refer to them all as ‘heavenly’, and not just the fourth one? I would say there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, to encourage a change of attitude towards ageing, sickness and death. Instinctually we regard all these as wrong or bad, some kind of accidental, unfortunate aberration. By calling them ‘heavenly’ the Buddha is using a shock tactic to get our attention, going against the grain of our habits. He is encouraging these qualities to be seen as aspects of nature to be understood and respected, rather than feared and hated. This does not mean our lives need to be passively subservient to the ravages of ageing, sickness and death – we can certainly do a lot to work with and ameliorate their effects – but we can also, through a change of attitude, see these no longer as bad or wrong or ‘something that shouldn’t be’ but merely as attributes of nature that need to be understood and worked with wisely.
The second reason I would say the Buddha called them the four Heavenly Messengers follows on from the first. It is that the presence of ageing, sickness and death, and reminders of our spiritual potential, can be a cause for great wisdom to arise. The first three form part of the list of ‘Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection’. The Buddha encouraged the daily consideration that:
‘I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond ageing; I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness; I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying…’(A 5.57)
The purpose of this is to arouse a profound realism and to help free the heart from habitual, compulsive and debilitating fears. It is to engender the wisdom that: ‘The body is intrinsically changing (anicca); it is unable to permanently satisfy (dukkha); and, is not who and what we are, it has no owner (anattā).
Once again, such reflections are encouraged to help change the attitude from one of identification with and attachment to the body and the mind, with its feelings and thoughts, to an attitude of awakened awareness – attuned to the nature of the way things are but without any burdensome, stressful grasping.
These changes of attitude are the ‘fourth message’ – which tells us that, essentially: ‘Pain is one thing but suffering about it is another.’ This change of view is spelled out in a short teaching by the Buddha called ‘The Arrow’ (S 36.6).
In it he uses the image of a soldier on a battlefield. He describes the experience of physical pain as like the soldier being shot with a single arrow. No one can escape being hit with that ‘first arrow’, not even an Arahant or the Buddha himself. The fact of nature is that pain is inevitable. The second arrow is all the fretting, resenting, fearing, negotiating that can go on around that pain. This ‘second arrow’ is avoidable and it is this that is ending when the Buddha describes ‘The ending of suffering’ as the Third Noble Truth. Thus, in short, it is the truth that: suffering is optional.
So, how to best to change the attitude, to prevent that second arrow from hitting home and impaling the heart? How can we learn to be at peace with pain and not create suffering out of it? And how to best train ourselves to function effectively during these traumatic times? How can we genuinely help each other, without creating exhaustion or more suffering for ourselves and those around us?
In another grouping of four qualities, the Buddha’s teaching outlines what are called ‘The Sublime Attitudes’ or ‘Divine Abidings’ (Brahma-vihāras). These represent a change of view, a different way of emotionally relating to our own life and to the lives of other living beings. These four are:
1) Loving-kindness (mettā) – this represents a basic benevolence in relationship to yourself and all beings. Loving-kindness has two modes; firstly the expressive, as embodied in the wish, ‘May I and everyone abide in well-being’; secondly, the receptive, a radical acceptance of all things, as in the attitude, ‘Whether I like it or not, here it is. This is the way things are. Nature in this moment is this way.’ It is a ‘not dwelling in aversion’ towards anything external or internal.
2) Compassion (karuṇā) – this embodies a sympathetic relationship to the sufferings of yourself and all beings. Unlike European notions of compassion it does not mean suffering on account of the sufferings of others, but rather that the heart is open with an appreciative empathy. It is the listening heart that does not try to compulsively fix all wrongs but which attunes to what is needed first – then responds as appropriate.
3) Sympathetic joy (muditā) – this is rejoicing in the good fortune and well-being of others. In stressful times like these it is easy to become frazzled, overwhelmed and reactive in our emotional states. We can forget to enjoy the goodness that is present and only focus on the wrongs; or we resent the blessings that others have, or their freedom from disease and difficulty when others have to suffer. To have muditā is the opposite of envy or jealousy; it is the heart free of self-obsession which rejoices in the blessings of others.
4) Serenity, equanimity (upekkhā) – in the midst of turbulence, the heart can be serene. This is not by blanking out, numbing or indifference – rather the heart is vast, open, attuned to all activity; it is ‘the still point of the turning world’. When all is agitation, turmoil, tumult and confusion, the essence of upekkhā is emotional balance in relationship to that. It is the attitude of heart that fully knows the surging states, inner and outer, but is not pulled into their vortex. By seeing the natural laws of cause and effect in action, it remains serene: ‘After the thunder, there comes the rain.’ In some respects upekkhā is the fulfilment of the ‘radical acceptance’ aspect of mettā. It completes the circle.
During these testing and scary times, regardless of where we are – isolated in our home, in a hazmat suit in a hospital by someone’s bedside or as a patient ourselves, in a monastery or in the work-place – we can heed the Heavenly Messages, choose to attune to reality and make these four Sublime Attitudes our place of abiding. We have that power. It is a power that can be used for the good of others and ourselves. Please put it to work and see for yourself how the changes of attitude that come with cultivating these four qualities can literally transform the hellish into the heavenly.
We can do this, moment by moment, if we choose to make the effort.