2021-11-07-The Buddha as The Four Heavenly Messangers
6:49PM Nov 7, 2021
So what's been on in my heart, my mind lately is the story of the last days of the Buddha's life. There's a text called the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which is the longest sutta, the longest discourse of longest kind of texts from this early tradition that is also unique. And being kind of a travel log kind of describes the travels that Buddha did in the last time period of his time. And it kind of also is set up to be, maybe because it was, the Buddha knew he was dying, he was old, to prepare his community for his departure and his absence there. And so giving his last teachings, his last instructions at this crucial point. But it's also you get to see this man walking across India and how he engages with his sickness, old age and death and dying. And it's, I think it's quite inspiring to see the conscious, careful, considerate way in which he went about his last period of time. So I wanted to share that and talk a little bit about it. And the story of the last days of the Buddha's life, last days, last months, it's the text itself might span something like some we don't know, exactly somewhere between six and nine months of time. And it kind of is bookends his path of practice. And he refers to how he started. In this text, he refers to how he started his practice 50, more than 50 years before, when he was 29. And now he's about 80. And, and there's a kind of, I think, mostly probably most likely a myth about the Buddha's beginning of his path. But he started, he was 29. That's what, what brought him at that age, ripe age to engage in spiritual practice and set out for is to seek for some solution to his suffering. The classic myth is that he was kind of a prisoner of the palace, until that age, that somehow his father wanted to protect him from the sufferings of the world. And so, kept him kind of in this within the palace walls and had different palaces that he moved between, but he was protected from seeing some of the challenges that people live under and, and, and I can imagine that they, probably any of us if we lived that kind of way, kind of cooped up in in a wealthy suburb growing up that way and the walls around their compound and everything that there probably be some frustration some challenge some feeling like this is not life, this is no you're not connected and, and there to be some kind of restlessness and maybe even built up pressure. And that takes the form of the Buddha then jumping over the wall of sneaking out and, and then he say, he snuck out four times. And each time he saw a different one of what's been called the heavenly messengers. And, and when I was 10, or 11, I was in Nepal, and, and in Kathmandu, and Kathmandu was pretty simple city town when I was there in 1965. I went back 20 years later, and I don't think there were any asphalted roads when I was there. And the dirt road in front of the palace, King lived and and literally the first time I saw a body body of a child, being carried down to the river to be burnt, died and so there was like, so I can imagine a kind of, so the Buddha Buddha saw these three heavenly messengers first trip out, he saw someone who was sick, that says that he never knew anybody was sick before maybe was really sick for something. And so he was shocked. And he, he was told that this is the nature of life, this what happens to people. The next time he went out, he saw an old person that shocked him, because he was slipped such a protected life, right. And he was told this is what happens if you're lucky enough, he'd get old. And the next time he went out, he saw what I saw when I was 11. And you saw someone who was dead.
And, and he was told that's what happens. And then the fourth time he went out, he saw a ascetic, spiritual seeker renunciant. And the renunciant was somehow just walking through town, very peacefully. And he'd never seen anybody who embodied such kind of peace is something about the renunciant caught his attention. And, and just to kind of indicate how that's possible in this world of sickness, old age and death, to brutal world of turmoil of restlessness of this pressure, this, probably this deep, deep need that he had from being so cooped up, that there was a solution, there was a way out, there was some some other way another approach to life. So he saw these four heavenly messengers, and that sparked him to then to actually leave his palace life, to jump over the wall fifth time, and to go off to become a renunciant himself a contemplative. And which he did for the next over 50 years of his life. And then, at some point, he had his solution to his suffering, he became enlightened. And then he taught. And then he comes to the end of his life. And there's kind of a, a wonderful, kind of parallel, or something, repeating of the same thing, of sickness out these heavenly messengers. But this time, he's the Heavenly Messenger, in a story that takes him as being an old person that takes him as being sick, or repeatedly sick in this last days of his life, and depicts him as dying. And he's the renunciant, he's the peaceful one. He's the messenger of what's possible in this life, that we can resolve our suffering and somehow become a peaceful, a messenger of peace, a teacher of peace, an embodiment of this. So it's kind of like a wonderful completion, to have that at the end of his life, that he becomes these heavenly messengers. So we become the dharma, the dharma is not just something to treat as an external thing, we tap into touch into periodically as possible to become it in some very profound way. And so when he, when you need, he had started off practicing this whatever it was, he was feeling, as a young man when he was 29, that he felt he had to leave the palace leave his leave his marriage, his family, even with that pressure was like inside of him, we get a little more sense of this from this. Which is probably the closer to probably what actually happened to him than the myth of going out and seeing the heavenly messengers. So he's talking about how he was, what, what he was feeling before he became enlightened. And then it's kind of just is describing his distress. And so here he is, he is on but not enlightened, yet he hasn't discovered his piece yet. So he said, distressed young man. Violence gives birth to fear. Just look at people and their corals. I will speak of my dismay, and the way that I was shaken. Seeing people thrashing about that like fish in little water, and seeing them feuding with each other, I became afraid. The world is completely without a core. Everywhere, things are changing. I felt discontent at seeing only conflict to the very end. Then I saw an arrow here, hard to see imbedded in the heart. pierced by this arrow, people dash about in all directions. When the arrows pulled out, they don't run and they don't sink. And then goes on little bit. Then there's one more verse I'm gonna read that maybe a little bit captures what the results of pulling out the arrow
was kidded instruct He gives furthers what was before, let it wither away, what will be later, do nothing with it, not grasping what's in between, you'll live at peace. So don't be too caught up in the past or the future. Live here, this is where the pieces to be found. So in this text then the story of his last days he's it's some of what he wrote there is still true. And you kind of have to read it a little bit into the text. And some of its pretty explicit. But the taught his time as he was dying is changing the world that he knew, is radically changing. And if you're old enough, that's what you see sometimes. But some of the challenges we have in our modern times were challenges that they had back then and isn't like our challenges is to have a little bit different technology that goes with it. But this human challenges are so similar back then, but the Buddha, his time he had to live with this as well. And the text big it opens with a king. He's in this town living at a town full time being with it, king lives in the king senses, a messenger has ministered to the Buddha, with the instructions that he wants to check in with the Buddha about how good ideas for him to attack his neighboring country. That's how it begins wars afoot. Now the King who wants to go attack neighboring his neighboring country, he killed his own father, who was a friend of the Buddha, and they'd spent many decades kind of in contact with each other. So that represents that Buddha's if things were changing and not what they had been for the Buddha, the other king who is even closer to who lived the further to the north. He also had been usurped by his his son, just in the last year or so the Buddha's life and it was sent into exile and died in exile. And, and it's possible by the Buddha was way down near Raji, Raji, Raji, Raji Chuck Raja gear in India, but about 170 80 miles from where he was going to die from his home country.
And so there was all this turmoil, political turmoil going on in this time and war was afoot. And there's other kind of legends that, that, during that last year of the Buddha's life, there was even at his home country was attacked, and then first attacked and repelled and then attacked, and then many people killed. And so that's kind of the background that's kind of for the this, the Buddha starting to walk from a Raj gear north towards his home country. He's an 80 year old man. And we're so and he's walking across the plains of India. And the distance in some ways is not so great. But he ends up walking about 180 miles. But he takes about six to nine months to do that. He stopped for the rains, retreats along the way, and he stops many places along the way. I think someone who's relatively fit could probably do that walk in three weeks. So he's taking his time, he's not in a hurry. And I just love this idea that he's not in a hurry, maybe because he's old and tired and sick and creaky. That maybe he has to walk really slow and take his time and rest a lot. One of the repeated refrains in this last text is the Buddha telling his fellow monks who are traveling with him. I'm tired, let's go sit down. I'm tired, I need to lay down. You don't have to go. I don't think you see that almost anywhere else in the sutras. But this can happen to repeatedly this man who needs to rest. And so he starts heading north. And comes across more evidence of war is about to happen between these two countries that he spent a good part of his adult life visiting and traveling through and teaching and he goes a little bit further and he gets to learn to that. He has to made the most senior disciples sorry, put on mukha Liana and he learns that Sorry Buddha has died. And then he learns at MOCA Yana, his other senior disciple had been killed. So things are changing and this is what he's living and so and the Buddha's just seems like the the sense I get from the attacks, he's just walking peacefully, calmly, steadily. He's not affected by this, he certainly knows it. But somehow his piece is more powerful than what's happening around. And, and kind of some of the things he says it's kind of like the his life around him as is different than what can be expected. And so he's not like, fighting it, or he's not surprised by it. He's just walking peacefully, calmly living his life teaching, doing his final teaching that he has to do as he goes along. But idiot, he's the he's, you know, he's the heavenly messengers. So she stopped at some point for the what's called the rains retreat, that three four month period where monastics are staying, one put in one place, supposed to be during the monsoon season. And so he was doing that the, during the rains, he was attacked by a severe sickness, with sharp pains, as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully, clearly aware, and without complaining, he thought, it is not fitting that I should attain final nibbana. without addressing my followers and taking leave of the order of monks. I must hold this disease in check by energy, and apply myself to the force of life. So it's a powerful statement, there's, you couldn't go down to the local doctor and get some little medicine to pump him up or keep them going and not feel pain, there wasn't such thing. So, he had to kind of apply himself in practice and energy and, and kind of keep his lifeforce going not to let it go it go out. I've heard that our people come to a juncture. And when they get too old or sick, where the you know, they can almost feel the choice between still keeping life energy going and, and then letting it dissipate and move into death. So he decided to stay stay alive, he had withheld more work to do. And, and then his,
when he gets better from a sickness, his main attendant, monk named an under came to him and said, I have seen the Buddha I've seen you in comfort. And I've seen you patiently enduring when you're sick. And when I saw you this way, sick, my body was like a drunkards, I lost my bearings, and things were unclear to me, because of the Buddhist sickness. The only thing that was of some comfort to me was the thought, the Buddha will not attained following vinyl nibbana, until he has made some statement about the order of monks. So last last instructions, you know, and, but here's, you know, again, everything's kind of falling apart here is senior disciple says, he still kind of lost it, when the Buddha was dying. So the Buddha says, you know, the wood and then answers, it says this. But the final statement to the order of monks. But Ananda, what does the order of monastics expect of me if I have taught the dhamma making no inner or outer, meaning no inner s, esoteric teachings that secret and you know, in in the public teachings, I've made no distinction between the inner and outer the secret or the special teaching and I have no teacher teachers fist. In respect to teachings, teachers fist apparently is at the heart, you hold things inside hidden and teachers in your fist, and you only had given to people if they do something, you know, so apparently, that was something people would do, too. There was a there were other religions that time that the Buddha were there, they were clearly secret doctrines and although only taught to some people, he never could be shared with other people. So he didn't hit that thought his way. And then he says, interesting, if there is anyone who thinks, I shall take charge of the order, the monastic order, or that monastic order should refer to me. Let him make some statement about the order. Let him do what he does. But I do Buddha doesn't think in that way. So why should I make a statement about the monastic order? I think we're saying he's not a signing anyone to be the successor, there's no one who's going to be the leader of it. And then he goes on. And this is a very touching description of the Buddha being old. Ananda, I am now old, worn out venerable one who has traversed life's path, I've reached the term of life, which is at just as an old cart is made to go by being held together by straps. So my body has kept going by being strapped up. It's only when I withdraw my attention from outward signs from outward experiences of the world. And by the cessation of certain feelings, quieting down of certain feelings. And I enter into deep concentrated meditation called the Signless that my body knows comfort. me there's no pain medication back then. Right? So who knows what kind of physical pain he had. And so but he had this powerful mind of meditation that he had ability to drop into. And so he was able to find his peace and comfort there and maybe refresh their memory. He was trying to he kept this lifeforce going, I suspect that this deep meditation is part of what helped that continue. And then he gave us a one of the most important last teachings he said, of his teaching career. So therefore, it starts at therefore, maybe, therefore, of getting you know, given that we're all you know, gonna get sick or die. So all of us someday, or there will become at least one of the heavenly messengers. Or at least one. Somebody, you'll probably be to some three. And hopefully, some of you may quickly you know, there'll be the last one, the last Heavenly Messenger, person who walks peacefully in this world. The bridgehead, therefore, you should live as islands unto yourselves. Being your own refuge with no one else as your refuge,
with a dhamma as an island with a dharma as your refuge with no other refuge. And how does one live as an island onto oneself with no other refuge? Here, a person abides contemplating the body as body earnestly, clearly aware, mindful. And then having put away all hankerings, and fretting for the world, and likewise, with regard to feelings, mind and mind objects. This is how a person lives in Ireland onto oneself, with oneself as one's own the refuge. So this would he gives his mindfulness practice for foundations of mindfulness. So the last thing that Buddha, one of the last teachings, the Buddha gives is not a doctrine, but rather a teaching about practice, instructions for practice. And this he repeats in different ways. As he goes along here, that practice is what he's interested in. And it's so he has another place where he teaches. Those matters which I have discovered and proclaimed, should be thoroughly learned by you practice developed and cultivated. So this holy life may endure for a long time, that it may be for the benefit and happiness of many people living out of care for the world for the benefit and happiness of gods and humans. So this is a powerful statement, I think, where he's talking about, this is what he discovered. I'm going to tell you what I discovered. And you should take this in and learn this well, but not only for your own sake, but for the welfare and happiness of others just going to be you're going to be universal benefit for the world. What a wonderful thing to be dedicated to. So here's going to tell you what he discovered. And what he says, are practices. And he gives a list of practices that he discovered. So again, the practice is what's important for him. So the list is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness the four right efforts, the four roads to power, the five spiritual faculties, the five mental powers, the seven factors of enlightenment and the Noble Eightfold Path. So this is So that's quite a list. But you know that they paid. But what I want to emphasize here at the end of his life, he's emphasizing practice. And you'll see when he comes back to that, again a little bit later, this goes along here. So he's going along, walking north, slowly depressed thing along the way. And at some point, he is invited to meal by a local blacksmith, who provides him with some local food that we don't know exactly what it was just a lot of you can't believe all the scholarship around trying to figure out what food this is. But it's either some kind of mushroom. It's called pig's delight. So it's either mushrooms that takes like, or it's some pork dish. But we don't, you know, we don't know. But probably the most likely thing, it's some kind of mushroom. And that apparently, is maybe maybe even poisonous or something. So, after having a meal, with a blacksmith, the Buddha was attacked by a severe sickness, with bloody diarrhea, and with sharp pains, as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully and clearly aware and without complaint. So again, here we have few sometimes we know that the image we have on the altar here of the Buddha, which is quite common, is you know, the Buddha is always well poised and healthy and young and embodiment of the ideal and sometimes we kind of project this ideal spiritual perfection to the Buddha came, certainly he just kind of floated in a cloud was easy and light, nice and comfortable, and, you know, all the way to his death. But you know, his description, you know, old, his body creaking and held together with straps, and he had a bad back and they did somewhere else. He described yourself as hunched over, you know, we think of stuff right and dignified, but he himself described himself as hunched over in his old age. And, and so it's very human. So you know, it's kind of like the idea of almost like we can, we can feel ourselves see ourselves in here and,
and the world's falling around, his disciples are dying, he's sick and old, and, and he's the, he's the Heavenly Messenger for peace, he's calm, he's mindfully steady. He has a practice. He's still teaching, he's still motivated. And he keeps walking on his pilgrimage going north and keeps going. And then at some point, if the crosses a river, and comes to a solid Grove, salt groves, the salt trees are kind of majestic trees of northern India, they're kind of like the redwood trees of India, apparently quite beautiful and tall. And, and, and he came to this grove. And he said, the pair a bed between two psalteries. With my head to the north, I think one more time, he's saying I'm tired, and want to lie down. So they did and he lied down there, placing one foot to the other. And that he he laid down, mindful and clearly aware. So always self possessed is always present in a nice way for what he's doing. And then that's kind of like the last time he got he laid down, and then you think he was there, I don't know, for a day or two. And this to that story goes and different people came to visit him and he had final teachings for people and the very last person who came to the Buddha asking questions, wanting to be taught can to the Buddha and said, you know, is lots of people, lots of spiritual teachers around all teaching the truth? Who's teaching the real truth? How do we know what the real truth is? It's a reasonable question. And, and, as he does other times, people ask that kind of pointed question. He doesn't answer it directly. What he answers is, he says, I'm not going to answer that. But wherever the Eightfold Path is, that's where you find people who become free. So wherever there's the practice, this is what I'm interested in. The truth is not so important. What am interest is the practice. And here he's pointing to the Eightfold Path is the practice. And so that's the last thing he said to his unity was of someone who came to him for for teaching. And then he he gathered his monks around him, this monastic community and asked them you know, I'm about to die. This is it and, and but you have any last questions, this is your chance. And I think he asked them three times and that no one had any questions for him, which I think maybe it was very satisfying, right? I mean, he said, he was very concerned about setting this leaving behind a legacy of people who enough people who had tasted the fruit of the dharma, both monastic and lay, so that somehow demented could keep going. And he was, he had ascertained in his own mind that in fact, now in his old age, there were enough people who had tasted the fruit of the practice, that he was not needed anymore. And, but he gave the monk still one last chance to get clarify something. And when none of them answered, then he asked the question, then he said. Now, I'll tell you this. All conditioned things are of a nature to decay. Practice tirelessly. So all things will pass, all things will change, disappear. And then the last words you said was practice tireless tirelessly. So again, practice, practice, practice, that's what he was, that's what he was most about, keep practicing. And then we come to the very end. Then the Buddha entered meditation, and through the first jhana, leaving that he entered the second, the third and the fourth, leaving the fourth jhana, he entered the sphere of infinite space, then the sphere of infinite consciousness and the sphere of nothingness, in the sphere of neither perception nor non perception. And then into the cessation of feeling and perception
is kinda like he's doing it this is this was his meditation life going through the states of meditation. And here just as he was dying, he went on one last tour, visiting them one last pilgrimage going through these deep states of meditation. And then, and then we reached this very high state called cessation of feeling and perception. A Nanda asked another monk named Anna Rhoda, as the Buddha passed away, and nirodha, who was a highly skilled meditator himself, could read or see that Buddha Nope, not yet. And, and so then the Buddha left the attainment of the cessation of feeling perception, and it goes backwards through them, and to the sphere of neither perception nor non perception, then into the sphere, no, no thingness, the sphere of infinite consciousness, the sphere of finite space. And then back to the fourth jhana, the third, the second in the first three is going up and down the ladder. And then he goes up again, to the fourth jhana. And the fourth jhana is considered to be the place where it's easiest to let go fully, either to let go into enlightenment, or let go into passing away. So here's some person who saw this is not a this is a child, he was fully and a Master of himself. This last time, last period of his life he was in, he knew how to die, he engaged in a practice that brought him into a very wonderful space, where the mind is very peaceful, very Aquinas, very still. Where it just in that state, it just feels like the most wonderful thing you can do is to just continue that process of letting go. To enter those deep states of meditation, you have to do a lot of letting go to get there. And things become very thin, there's very little left to hold on to. And then whatever is left to hold on to maybe the life force or something. They just feel so good to let go of that as well. So rather than death being like this drag, remember he said earlier, don't concern yourself with what's in the future. Don't concern yourself in the past. Just practice and here he is practicing as he was dying and it's a practice involves a letting go. That feels so healthy and so good. Like one of the best things It feels you can do. He was ready to die. He died. Too old sick man. It was It was his time. And he died with one of the most wonderful things he said was peaceful, most wondrous, most luminous thing you can do with it letting find a letting go. So and then he, you know that he died. So this is a story of a man old man who had found his peace. The world was falling around, falling apart around him the world that he knew. And he was at peace anyway. He was calm, he was wise, He was caring for his, the world around him, he stopped and talked to people and lots of people came to see him and he would continue to talk and teach. And he did a slow and hurried walk, some people think he was trying to walk back to his home country. And if that's the case, the world is falling around, falling apart. And one form of that was he he wasn't able to reach his home. And he went back to back to his home country. And he died in the kind of in the woods by his people around him. But, you know, nothing to ceremonious, nothing to you nothing really special about the place, in fact that Nanda kind of complained kind of like, what are you doing dying here, this is like that a special place in the middle of nowhere. And, and so. So then, the Heavenly Messenger, the Messenger of that it's possible to live in this world, with a profound peace, and to die with a profound peace. And what a fantastically positive, helpful message, it is possible to be in this world and find our peace, to have pulled at this story, to pull out the arrow in the heart.
The eye, the metaphor of an arrow in a heart, means that some of the deepest sufferings and wounds and the weight carry with us is something that's been at doesn't belong in there, it's external. And it can be pulled out. Our suffering is not inherent. It's not innate, like it's just there. And it's always there. And it has to always be there. It's a some ways a foreign object. And so to practice, to pull that arrow out. And when you do, then you're at peace. So the Buddha's life, the Buddha, the end of his life, and so we live in a time of change. We live in a time of strife. We live in a time where families are ripping apart. We don't have sons, yet, I think, you know, killing their parents, they take over the throne. But we have all kinds of challenges. And I think the message from the Buddha is, yes, this is what happens in this life. Don't let that distract you. From your ability to practice. Keep your confidence in your courage and your dedication, to practice no matter what and all this so that you can be a person who is at peace with it, not at peace, you know, kind of kind of a naive acceptance of it. But the kind of a peace where you're at peace, so that you can make a difference in this world. So you could be a messenger for the happiness and welfare of this world. You can be a peacemaker in this world, wherever you go. to whatever degree that you can do this. Maybe you can be a Heavenly Messenger, you will be as I said, maybe you can be the Heavenly Messenger that demonstrates peace. And I knew I knew, I knew one person I've known a few people actually, but one person in particular, who's probably became the Heavenly Messenger, when she was dying. And so, and if you practice then you can know that's when you need to practice you're preparing to die. And now the practice is support you. So, take out, take out your arrow. And then you can live unhurriedly peacefully in this life, taking care of your life that you should live in what you need. Take care of like the Buddha was taking care of everything before he died don't die too soon. But do practice soon. So thank you and be well and take care of yourselves and remember to practice. Thank you