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Adapted from the 2009 Dhammapala Monastery newsletter

If you approach our monastery in the dark on your first visit here high in the Kander Valley, when you step outside the next morning you’ll probably rub your eyes in disbelief at the sheer magnificence of the rock face stretching into the sky right behind the monastery.

Dhammapala mountain
A view of the mountains
from the windows of Dhammapala Monastery

Often the monks get asked if they’re worried by this precarious situation. Their answers might be succinct, slightly bored or even humorous, and may involve commenting on the insubstantiality of all formations – to which of course even the hardest rocks belong.

This year, on an idyllic summer morning, the mountains responded. There was an enormous bang coming from the upper area of the cliff face, right next to the high waterfall near the monastery. A huge cloud of rubble and dust drifted into the valley, accompanied by threatening rumbling noises. After all the commotion calmed down an impressive trail of destruction became visible. On their way down huge boulders had cut trees to mid size, leaving deep craters when they hit the valley floor. Our neighbour's house was badly damaged by flying rocks and debris – fortunately he happened to be on the side of his house that wasn’t flattened and he was not harmed. Some tourists nearby and the postman had to run for their lives. In the end the house and the postman’s car had been demolished, but miraculously no human beings were hurt.

In the Buddhist Canon there’s a simile where the image of mountains is used as a symbol for impending danger. The Buddha asks King Pasenadi of Kosala what he had been doing before he came to see him. The king speaks openly about his preoccupation with duties ‘as is customary for rulers, who get intoxicated by power and are possessed by greed for sensual things.’ The Buddha then leads King Pasenadi into a guided visualization, asking him to imagine trustworthy messengers coming to him from each of the four cardinal directions and saying, ‘Your majesty, there is a great mountain tall as the sky moving in our direction and squashing all living things in its path. Please do what seems fit.’ The Buddha asks the king what he would do in such a no-escape-possible situation. The king doesn’t hesitate: ‘What else is there to do when faced with such inevitable destruction but to orient oneself towards the Dhamma, by righteous living and meritorious conduct.’ The Buddha then confronts the king with the observation that ageing and death are approaching him just like those mountains. It dawns on the king that he is in dire straits and that only a way of living devoted to Dhamma can help. He recognizes that all his military might, all his strategic political advisers and well-meaning friends, all his immense wealth can’t help. Everything seems useless. The Buddha supports the king in his insight and points out that a wise person derives confidence from the Triple Refuge (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) and gives themselves to the practice of Dhamma.

When rock slides tumble unexpected down mountains and we’re able to step out of the way, we can still say, ‘Well, that was lucky,’ or, ‘I’m sorry about the ones who got hit!’ Temporarily shaken out of our habitual perspective we may stop to consider our own vulnerability. But the sudden effect such an extreme event has on us usually doesn’t hold our attention long; after a phase of shock or wonder we go back to business as usual. However, in the same way the mountains from the four directions were approaching the king unnoticed, necessitating informants to make him aware of his situation, so the ‘divine messengers’ (devaduta) of ageing, sickness and death approach us quietly.

They are called heavenly messengers not because it feels divine to get old and sick but because they can make us aware of a reality that reveals itself completely only after we have established a direct relationship with them. A mental realization alone of ageing, sickness and death is not sufficient to fully comprehend their true message. But maybe we can suspect they are messengers from an unknown realm, pointing us to an altogether different dimension of being, if we include the fourth of the devadutas – the meditating monk, who in the Buddha’s life story appeared before him after the other messengers of ageing, sickness and death. Awareness of these first three – as representatives of our own fragility and transience – points to the limitation of a life in which we feel trapped by the futile endeavour to control processes of nature. The meditating samana as the fourth member of the team represents the human potential to realize in this very life the complete eradication of the suffering we experience in the face of ageing, sickness and death.

For the past two years, through regular visits I’ve had the privilege of accompanying my mother on the last ‘steps’ of her life. During this time she has become a divine messenger for me. For her, being in a care home means slowly taking leave of this world. And as if she had intended to prepare her loved ones cautiously for the inevitable, her mental and physical functions are only gradually winding down step by step. At the outset her diminishing eyesight turned into complete blindness. This impaired her physical coordination, leading to a fall and to disability of movement. This in turn led to less mental flexibility and a decline in her capacity to communicate, until she became almost totally silent. Her hands and feet remain in one crooked position, her fingers and toes having lost their ability to stretch. Her few modest movements, such as scratching her nose, are performed incredibly slowly but signify a last small act of self-reliance. Her skin is becoming darker and spottier and has lost most of its elasticity. Eating, excreting and body care are laborious. Her motionless gaze sometimes takes on the expression of being very, very tired of life. Now and then a deep sigh leaves her chest: an expression of release or of satiety? She leaves us uncertain, as explanations no longer seem relevant.

I’m surprised by her relative ease with all this, by the occasional sign of humour which she expresses in a characteristic way: a gentle hum, her last form of vocal expression. I’m grateful for how the slowness of this process urges me to stop, to look closely, to feel with and experience consciously every nuance of change in her well-being. Something natural is happening and there’s a strange perfection in it all, despite the unpleasant circumstances. Someone, close to me, is carefully, persistently presenting in front of my eyes what happens in the end to that which is born and grows. I give her permission to put down the burden, so that she can feel free to follow her kammic destination. For me she has already partly gone along her way, as she is no longer the person I imagined her to be. What is changing is not only an ageing body with its connected mental setup, but at the same time the dissolution of the last subtle resistances to this process, which I can detect in myself as her concerned son.

In the stories of the Buddha’s life the four divine messengers are in truth gods from a higher heavenly plane, who dressed up temporarily to fulfil an earthly mission. Their task was to awaken Prince Siddhattha, the Buddha-to-be, from his trance of earthly delusion. In his case this worked wonderfully, and after they had done their job the ‘fantastic four’ changed back to their divine form. Prince Siddhattha immediately followed the path of a meditating monk and became a homeless wandering ascetic. His aim was to escape those incessantly approaching mountains and the encroaching feeling of uneasiness, which he experienced just as we do when confronted with our own mental/physical finiteness or that of someone close to us. 

Homelessness can also be understood metaphorically: when it dawns upon us that the house of our bodies cannot provide real safety. The Buddha used another alarming image by saying that this house is in flames – the flames of deluded identification with all appearances concerning body and mind. But when we listen carefully to the message of the fourth devaduta, who signals that there is a place of true refuge and safety, an open space, where the flames don’t find any more fuel and cannot survive – only then do we find release from the tribulations of human existence. When the processes connected with ageing, sickness and death have lost their threat and we have become fully aware that all internal and external creations don’t really have an owner – then we’re home. The deathless (amata dhamma) is our safe and reliable reality. Where death can’t get to there is no more birth – and where nobody is born, nobody dies. What is unborn, uncreated and without any origin is realized – nibbana – the indestructible peace of heart. 

Ajahn Khemasiri

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