There are three things that are sure to come to everyone, no matter who we are. Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, David Beckham, & the Queen of England despite their fame and wealth are just as subject to them as the rest of us. What are these three unavoidable facts of life? Old age, sickness, and death.
Buddhism calls these three aspects of existence the three divine messengers, or devaduta. They’re not called divine because they come from a god, or a heavenly realm, and nor are they literally angelic beings. They’re called divine because they can help us to understand the nature of our lives, inspiring us to develop a wisdom that can free us from their grasp.
Seeing a man or woman eighty, ninety or a hundred years old, frail, forgetful, wrinkled and toothless, is to see ourselves. Maybe not as we are right now, but certainly as we will be if we live long enough. Aching limbs, a balding scalp and blotched skin are our lot if we’re to become old fogies, and every time that we see such a person, we can know that old age has us in our sights.
Observing people afflicted with illness, bed-ridden and out of sorts, we can know that even if we haven’t experienced being seriously ill as yet, our bodies are still prone to sickness. And so are our minds, for not only do terrible illnesses like aids and cancer exist, waiting to strike us down, but also there are diseases of the mind, such as depression and schizophrenia. So, even if we avoid the pain of our bodies becoming crippled with sickness, our minds remain vulnerable to some pretty awful afflictions. (I can attest to this as I worked in a psychiatric hospital in the UK for twelve years.)
The third divine messenger is death. Now, as you’re reading these words, I’ll presume that you haven’t kicked the bucket just yet – but as with everyone else in the history of the human race, it’s wise to remember that this is one race that nobody can win. We’re all destined to fall short of the finishing line and breathe our last at some point in the future. It’s not only those unfortunates in Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other far-flung places featured in the daily news bulletins that will die. Nor is it only distant relatives or associates that are mortal: you and I get nearer our deaths with each breath that we take.
So, what are we to make of these three divine messengers, these harbingers of the nastier side of life? Cry, tear out our hair, or go crazy, perhaps? Well, no. Buddhism encourages us to reflect on them, allying them to ourselves and then using the realization of just how vulnerable we are as these physical and mental creatures called human beings. When we explore the implications of the devaduta, we can develop a sense of urgency in our endeavors to cultivate more compassionate and wise mind states. To awaken to the way things are (the Dharma), and let go of our selfish, not to say impermanent illusory selves and seek a deeper understanding that culminates in the realization of nirvana, the deathless.