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Teachings of the Buddha: The Human Condition and Divine Messengers

by Bhikkhu Bodhi
September 27, 2013
Fri, 09/27/2013 - 10:30 -- bbodhi

To change from a self-stultifying way of life to one that is truly fruitful and inwardly rewarding, we must realize that our actions have consequences for ourselves, consequences that can rebound upon us both in this life and in subsequent lives.

Today’s sutta establishes this point eloquently: when we fail to recognize the “divine messengers” in our midst, when we miss the hidden warning signals of old age, illness, and death, we become negligent and behave recklessly, creating unwholesome kamma with the potential to yield dreadful consequences.

Messengers

“Bhikkhus, there are these three divine messengers. What three?

“Here, bhikkhus, someone engages in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. In consequence, with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the plane of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell. There the wardens of hell grab him by both arms and show him to King Yama, [saying]: ‘This person, your majesty, did not behave properly towards his mother and father; he did not behave properly towards ascetics and brahmins; and he did not honor the elders of the family. May your majesty inflict due punishment on him!’

“Then King Yama questions, interrogates, and cross-examines him about the first divine messenger: ‘Good man, didn’t you see the first divine messenger that appeared among human beings?’ And he replies: ‘No, lord, I didn’t see him.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘But, good man, didn’t you ever see among human beings a man or a woman, eighty, ninety or a hundred years of age, frail, bent like a roof bracket, crooked, wobbling as they go along leaning on a stick, ailing, youth gone, with broken teeth, with grey and scanty hair or bald, with wrinkled skin and blotched limbs?’ And the man replies: ‘Yes, lord, I have seen this.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘Good man, didn’t it occur to you, an intelligent and mature person: “I too am subject to old age, I am not exempt from old age. Let me now do good by body, speech, and mind”?’ – ‘No, lord, I could not. I was heedless.’

“Then King Yama says: ‘Through heedlessness, good man, you failed to do good by body, speech, or mind. Surely, they will treat you in a way that fits your heedlessness. That bad kamma of yours was not done by your mother or father, nor by your brother or sister, nor by your friends and companions, nor by your relatives and family members, nor by the deities, nor by ascetics and brahmins. Rather, you were the one who did that bad kamma, and you yourself will have to experience its result.’

“When King Yama has questioned, interrogated, and cross-examined him about the first divine messenger, he again questions, interrogates, and cross-examines him about the second divine messenger: ‘Good man, didn’t you see the second divine messenger that appeared among human beings?’ And he replies: ‘No, lord, I didn’t see him.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘But, good man, didn’t you ever see among human beings a man or a woman, sick, afflicted, gravely ill, lying in his own urine and excrement, having to be lifted up by some and put down by others?’ And he replies: ‘Yes, lord, I have seen this.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘Good man, didn’t it occur to you, an intelligent and mature person: “I too am subject to illness, I am not exempt from illness. Let me now do good by body, speech, and mind”?’ – ‘No, lord, I could not. I was heedless.’

“Then King Yama says: ‘Through heedlessness, good man, you failed to do good by body, speech, or mind. Surely, they will treat you in a way that fits your heedlessness. That bad kamma of yours was not done by your mother or father, nor by your brother or sister, nor by your friends and companions, nor by your relatives and family members, nor by the deities, nor by ascetics and brahmins. Rather, you were the one who did that bad kamma, and you yourself will have to experience its result.’

“When King Yama has questioned, interrogated, and cross-examined him about the second divine messenger, he again questions, interrogates, and cross-examines him about the third divine messenger: ‘Good man, didn’t you see the third divine messenger that appeared among human beings?’ And he replies: ‘No, lord, I didn’t see him.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘But, good man, didn’t you ever see among human beings a man or a woman, one, two, or three days dead, the corpse bloated, livid, and festering?’ And he replies: ‘Yes, lord, I have seen this.’

“Then King Yama says to him: ‘Good man, didn’t it occur to you, an intelligent and mature person: “I too am subject to death, I am not exempt from death. Let me now do good by body, speech, and mind”?’ – ‘No, lord, I could not. I was heedless.’

“Then King Yama says: ‘Through heedlessness, good man, you failed to do good by body, speech, or mind. Surely, they will treat you in a way that fits your heedlessness. That bad kamma of yours was not done by your mother or father, nor by your brother or sister, nor by your friends and companions, nor by your relatives and family members, nor by the deities, nor by ascetics and brahmins. Rather, you were the one who did that bad kamma, and you yourself will have to experience its result.’

ND 3:35

To read more on divine messengers from The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, click here.

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