Following is a dharma talk given by John Hobbie, a Bay Area vipassana sangha member, approximately seven months before his death due to complications related to AIDS. The transcript was edited posthumously, and we hope that the edited version captures the spirit in which the talk was originally given.
The legend of the Four Heavenly Messengers is one of the stories involving the early life of the historical Buddha. I refer to it as a “legend” because it has many of the qualities of a good Western fairy tale—including great psychological resonance—and because, on the surface, it is pretty hard to swallow. It is difficult to accept that any twenty-nine-year-old man, let alone an especially intelligent one, could really be so sheltered and oblivious to human suffering. The legend seems to present an unpleasant image of the Buddha as a kind of simpleton. This, of course, upon reflection, is one of the points of the story. The Buddha was a simpleton, just as we are simpletons when we reject the truth of suffering or construct our modern pleasure domes, attempting to avoid the inevitability of sickness, decay and death.
In the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic, there is a famous question-and-answer exchange which is echoed in this legend of the heavenly messengers. Yudishthira, one of the heroes of the epic, is asked a complicated set of riddles by his father, King Dharma (in disguise). Starting with simple questions, the difficulties progress until Yudishthira’s life rests on answering the questions posed. Ultimately he is asked: “What is the greatest wonder of all?”— to which he replies: “Every day, all around us, Death takes lives beyond counting, yet those who live think: Death can never come this day to me.”
And it really is a mystery. It seems to be a fundamental function of human perception to, moment-by-moment, ignore our own mortality. We seem to have been intentionally designed not to look at this fact, and it almost seems that we can’t look at it: that the extinction of the self is literally unthinkable.
So, “The Four Heavenly Messengers” is the tale of how the Buddha came not to know that there was suffering in the world, how he came to miss out on that valuable understanding—and perhaps it explains how we manage to miss out on it as well, but ultimately why the mechanisms we employ to deny it don’t work.
The historical buddha, Prince Siddhartha, was born to King Suddodhana and Queen Maya in a small kingdom in Northern India that borders the Himalaya Mountains. From the very beginning, it was clear that this was an unusual child, beautiful, generous, intelligent and very obedient. All of these traits—the perfections, or paramitas—are seen as the fruit of great work done in many, many earlier births, work done specifically in preparation to manifest as the Buddha.
As was customary in royal families at that time, a series of astrologers was called in to examine the child. The last to come was Asita, one of the great sages of India, who said that Siddhartha would become a great world ruler if he stayed in the world and learned the political arts. But if Siddhartha chose to withdraw from the world, and conquered his own mind, he would become a buddha: He would find liberation from the endless round of birth and death, and he would teach countless others how to do likewise.
King Suddodhana wanted his son to carry on the family business, not to become a religious fanatic in the forest, living on nuts and berries. How could he prevent his son from ever renouncing worldly life? Perhaps if he protected Siddhartha from seeing suffering, Siddhartha would remain satisfied with secular pleasures. So, Suddodhana tried to build a world where Siddhartha would be safe, where he would never encounter the suffering which might propel him towards a spiritual quest.
The plans Suddodhana designed to protect Siddhartha were extravagantly elaborate, almost comic.
First, Siddhartha was given three palaces—one for the summer, one for the winter, and one for the rainy season. This was to protect him from the world at large. The servants, courtiers and ministers of these palaces were all perfect, beautiful people, as though they had been recruited through central casting from television commercials. There was no disease or death anywhere to be found. The beautiful people did not die. Each palace was said to be equipped with 300,000 musicians—women—all of whom played delicately, beautifully, ineffably—it sounds as if a kind of Mozartean muzak was played twenty-four hours a day. In addition, each palace had 300,000 dancing girls for his entertainment, and also had 300,000 courtesans, women who were said to be “indefatigably and single-mindedly devoted to sensual pleasures.”
Siddhartha’s palace was rather like living inside a television set today. Siddhartha had married the most beautiful woman in the world—an international contest had been held—and he had a son whom he loved. It was, by quite a few of today’s standards, a spectacularly good life. Nonetheless, when he heard from a little bird about an exquisite pleasure grove beyond the city, Siddhartha decided he wanted to make a foray into the world.
Suddodhana was no dummy; he knew he could not just forbid the trip. But he could control it. He arranged a parade route that would avoid the ghettoes. All of the cripples, the old and the sick, the crazies, the “homeless” and, in general, the less-than-perfect people were gently shepherded to one corner of the city, to be avoided.
At this point, our story takes a turn in another, darker, direction. A deva, an angelic being living on a higher plane, causes an old person, with a crutch, to appear in the middle of the street, right in front of Siddhartha’s chariot. For the prince, this is a major shock. He has never seen an old person before. He turns to his charioteer and asks, “What is this?”
“My Lord, this is an old person,” he is told. And it is explained to him: the body wears down after a number of years, it gets tired, it begins to move more slowly. It feels sad as those around it also get old and begin to disappear.
“Does this happen to everyone?,” the prince asks.
“Yes, my Lord, sooner or later.”
“Will this happen to me?” And the answer comes,
“Yes, My Lord, inevitably.”
Siddhartha sighed deeply, shook his head, fixed his gaze on the old man, surveyed the festive multitude, and, deeply perturbed, said to the charioteer: “This being so, my son, turn round the horses and travel back quickly to our palace! How can I delight to walk about in parks when my heart is full of the fear of ageing?” *
And we are asked, rhetorically:
“Did you never see a man or woman of eighty, ninety or a hundred years old, frail, crooked as a gable-roof, bent down, resting on crutches, with tottering steps, infirm, youth long since fled, with broken teeth, grey and scanty hair, or bald-headed, wrinkled, with blotched limbs? And did it never occur to you that you are also subject to old age, that you cannot escape it?” **
The prince returns to the palace, and after some weeks is persuaded to venture out again to find the pleasure groves, but he has been deeply shaken. The elaborate preparations are made, but this time, the same friendly deva arranges for a sick person to appear along the parade route, vomiting — very obviously sick. Again the questions:
“What is this?”
“This is a sick person, sickness finds us all, sooner or later”.
“Will this happen to everyone?”
“Yes, my Lord”.
“Will this happen to me?”
“Yes, my Lord, inevitably.”
And again, we are confronted with the question:
“Did you never see a man or woman, who being sick, afflicted and grievously ill, and wallowing in their own filth, was lifted up by some people and put down by others? And did it never occur to you that you are also subject to disease, that you cannot escape it?”
Again, Siddhartha returns to the palace, beginning to feel really depressed. It takes some months to lure him out again, and this time, although the king has made certain that security precautions will not allow any further possible unfortunate events, his friendly deva is waiting for him, with her third gift: a corpse, right in the gutter. He is appalled. He asks the three questions:
“What is this? “
“A dead body, Lord. The animating force has left it: this is only an empty shell”.
“Will this happen to everyone?”
“Yes, my Lord”.
“Will this happen to me?”
“Yes, my lord, inevitably.”
Courageous though he was, the king’s son, on hearing of death, was filled with dismay:
“This is the end which has been fixed for all, and yet the world forgets its fears and takes no heed! Turn back the chariot! This is no time or place for pleasure excursions. How could an intelligent person pay no heed at a time of disaster, when he already knows of his impending destruction?”
And, for the last time, we are asked, like the voice from the whirlwind in Job:
“Did you never see the corpse of a man or a woman, one, two, or three days after death, swollen up, blue-black in colour, and full of corruption? And did it never occur to you that you also are subject to death, that you also cannot escape it?”
And, remarkably, for most of us the answer to these questions is “No.” In a passage from a Buddhist treatise on cultivating the mindfulness of death, we are reminded:
The body we drag along with us is a fertile soil for all sorts of mishaps, and no sensible person would entertain any firm expectation of well-being or of life. . . . Who, unless they be quite mad, would make plans which do not reckon with death, when he sees the world as unsubstantial and frail, like a water bubble?
As I was preparing this talk, I read an article in a magazine about the final, excessively grotesque days of the Shah of Iran. When he was dying, and again, when I read this article I felt an enormous pity for him and I couldn’t honestly explain it; wasn’t this a case of misplaced compassion? What about his victims? He was a hideous human being! And I came to see that it was precisely because the Shah was in the end, a human being—that he couldn’t escape it—that his predicament moved me. All the wealth and power, and Lear Jets, and diplomatic teams; flying from one world capital to another, knowing he was universally despised, dealing with new and terrifying teams of cancer specialists over and over again—and yet even he couldn’t avoid King Yama when he called.
Stephen Levine writes:
“Today, approximately 200,000 people died. Some died by accident. Others by murder. Some by overeating. Others from starvation. Some died while still in the womb. Others of old age. Some died of thirst. Others of drowning. Each died their death as they must. Some died in surrender with their minds open and their hearts at peace. Others died in confusion, suffering from a life that remained unlived, from a death they could not accept.”
Lewis Thomas, in The Lives of a Cell, writes, “It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret with such multitudes doing the dying. We will have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange.”
I remember my maternal grandfather, of whom I was especially fond, dying when I was perhaps six years old. I was sent off to stay with my paternal grandmother. It was considered “a problem” for me to know what was happening; I was too young. It seemed like Grandaddy just evaporated. I felt robbed and cheated of some important piece that belonged to my life as well as his. But for months the topics of Grandaddy and death itself were carefully ignored.
Now, in the decade of the 1980s, an unanticipated epidemic has suddenly spread like deadly nightshade across the morning dampness of the richest country on the planet, and our response, in terms of a national policy, has been like Suddodhana’s, inside-out: Contain it and then ignore it. AIDS has brought up a whole new terror for the medical establishment. Doctors are definitely not used to telling their young patients, “We don’t know what is wrong and we don’t know what to do about it.” And they are not coping well with it. Helplessness wasn’t on the menu at medical school. The idea that modern medicine has a high-tech answer for everything has quite suddenly defaulted. We have swept, in the space of five or six years, from a world in which there were spare body parts for almost anything that could go wrong with you into a world where hospital waste—contaminated blood bags, broken syringes, fecal matter, pieces of fingers—are washing across our vacation beaches. The affected sick are uninsured, largely (they are largely uninsurable, to be honest about it). The national healthcare system has been tottering for years and now gives every impression of being about to topple. Our national response to this eruption of premature old age, sickness and death is, by and large—can we honestly be surprised?—to ignore it.
When my father discusses my illness with me (which is rare) he always tells me, “Buck up, they’re all working on it full time now; a cure is just around the corner—probably next week!” And he believes this, and I think it helps him cope. I actually had a doctor, a respected specialist, tell me not to lose hope because “Modern medical science has made giant strides in the last twenty years, and it is going to make great strides in the next twenty—just you wait and see!” (I wanted to say I’d send him a postcard . . . ) This was a gentleman who deals with death constantly, day after day, but who knows little more than the young Siddhartha about our friends, the heavenly messengers.
Traditional Buddhist teaching suggests that we can be grateful for an affliction, once we have understood that it is the ripening of karma and that its appearance removes the cause. In this understanding, which takes a decidedly long-range view, the illness itself is like the “healing crisis” whose fevers force us to abandon the initial cause of the affliction—which in the Buddhist view is ignorance.
So here we are in the late 1980s, living in Siddhartha’s palace with our televisions, and avoiding the footprints of the heavenly messengers. The real point of the story is that these apparently oppressive problems, inconveniences, curses—are the gifts of the gods. They are sent to awaken us to our true nature, to awaken us to a more profound and accurate understanding of the world: to a clear sense of the way things are.
The other way, the constant pursuit of pleasure, just doesn’t work. It can be lots of fun, and God knows we’ve all tried it, frequently, compulsively, even wistfully—but it just doesn’t deliver what it promises.
I’ve been watching unusual amounts of television lately, and it is amazing to me. I’ve never watched a lot of TV, and suddenly that’s most of what I do for diversion. This is the world we are really, on some level, encouraged to believe in. We are frequently persuaded that what is happening inside that tube is substantially more real than, for instance, riding the Muni home. And very quickly, we notice some things: There are no cripples. Very few sick people. The ones we see hardly sweat! They are in the process, almost always, of getting better; usually immediately, but always within minutes, as the result of swallowing some tablet that nine out of ten doctors and hospitals suggest will relieve symptoms of sickness or symptoms of old age. They are drinking soft drinks that are going to change their lives, or at the least make them happy. All food on television makes people happy. (Although people seem to be continually taking more medicine to deal with the “after-effects.”) There is a narcotic peace in this magic mirror. Everything is repainted, clean, new. Problems are always soluble. The actors have teeth that gleam, they don’t smell, their breath doesn’t smell, they have hair styles that last and hair colors that last longer. The parallels, after all the jokes, between television and Siddhartha’s palace are more than superficial.
For that matter, Walt Disney World or Heritage USA or Great America—clean, well-regulated, ideal pleasure-preserves—could hardly be closer to the palace model, with no visible “disturbing elements.”
They’ve figured out we kill someone on television every four minutes. And perfect, pretty people die their perfect deaths. This is one of the really interesting differences from Siddhartha’s palace: Death is allowed within the universe, but it has nothing to do with us in a literal sense—it will still “never come this day to me.” Television series and movies are obsessed with death and, in particular, the moment of death. We watch it again and again, over and over. We rerun it. We can’t get enough of it, it is a sexual thrill. Whole warehouses of writers are hired to think up new ways to show it, new ways to do it. We see one actress die one way, and three weeks later she’s in another series dying another way. However we look at this phenomena, it is clearly less than a realistic picture of old age, sickness and death.
The TV news, on the other hand, is quite a different flow of blood under the bridge. This is the pornography of death, the real stuff. It is accurate, it is clear, it is sobering; details are shown, and it is exactly like a drug. Quintessentially, these disasters are not happening to us. Stephen Levine writes:
We see five die in a hotel fire in Cleveland, ten killed in a bus accident on the freeway. Three thousand crushed in an earthquake in Italy. The death of a Nobel laureate in his laboratory. A murderer in the electric chair. We partake of the “survivor’s news,” reinforcing the idea that everyone dies but me. Sitting there, watching the death of others, reassures us of our survivorship, of our immortality . . . Seldom do we use the news of another’s death as a recognition of the impermanence of all things.
So, by now you may be thinking back to our title, The Four Heavenly Messengers, and realizing that we’ve only met three. The deva has one more surprise for Siddhartha. Siddhartha decides to leave the palace, renounce his kingdom, abandon his father, desert his wife and son, drop out and pursue an ascetic life. On the night that he leaves, he gets up and wanders through the sleeping palace and he enters the women’s quarters (where he has never been before). And there were 900,000 or so women, sprawled on couches, vaguely disheveled, without makeup, hair stuck to their cheeks and bodies from the sweat, some belching or farting, others drooling, snoring, maybe talking in their sleep—and that really did it for the prince. He was thoroughly repulsed by the body and by sensual pursuit, and from that moment went off seeking its opposite in asceticism, which would prove just as painful and satisfy him less—but it would one day lead him to the Middle Path and from there to Enlightenment. (Some folks find this last story disfiguringly sexist, and perhaps it is; I see it as a first encounter with the reality, instead of the artful manipulation, of the body.)
Siddhartha leaves the palace under the cover of night. Immediately, he sees a being glide toward him, a being invisible to other men and who appears in the guise of a renunciant, in a saffron robe, with a shaved head and a begging bowl. This apparition has been sent to Siddhartha by his old friend, the deva. Before the prince’s very eyes the renunciant then flew up to the sky. For it was a denizen of the heavens, who had seen other buddhas in the past, and who had come to him in this form so as to remind him of the task before him.
So what is renunciation? Lama Yeshe, the Tibetan Lama who died several years ago, wrote:
Most of us do not know what renunciation means. We are disturbed when we hear about giving up attachment to sensual pleasures, which we take to mean having to suffer in order to achieve inner liberation. But renunciation does not mean that we must give up happiness or that it is desirable to suffer. On the contrary, our aim is to achieve a state beyond suffering….
The aim of most of our daily lives is to try to satisfy each physical desire as it arises—day after day, month after month, year after year. We try to achieve happiness by perpetuating something that is essentially transitory. This expectation, stemming from a misconception, can never be fulfilled, and is therefore totally irrational. It is impossible to achieve ultimate happiness until we develop a genuine aversion to this instinctive grasping at pleasure. Until this grasping mind is subdued, it is farcical to say, “I am seeking inner liberation.”
Suzuki Roshi wrote “Renunciation does not consist in giving up the things of this world, but in accepting that they go away.” I have always appreciated this way of looking at it, for this is the strategy of letting go. There is a wonderful passage from Achaan Cha, in which he says:
Do everything with a mind that lets go.
Do not expect any praise or reward.
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom.
Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.
Renunciation really has nothing at all to do with saffron robes, or red robes, or black robes, or yellow hats, or shaving your head or not eating meat: For some these may be strategies that make the process easier, or clearer, while for others they may be traps. Renunciation is about letting go of the “grasping at pleasure.” It is fully accepting that the beautiful cup will someday break, and at the same time fully enjoying the use of the cup now. There is a new understanding possible, whereby the awareness of impermanence can enhance our relationship with the cup, rather than ruin our enjoyment. Renunciation is accepting that this relationship, whatever it may be, will end: either amicably or through sickness or death or aversion, but it will end. It is accepting that that your heart is going to break (if you are lucky), that the most lovely music will come to an end and that every ice cream cone changes its nature from being something special to being a sticky, gooey, highly impermanent mess.
I’d like to end with an excerpt from a letter written by Lama Yeshe describing his hospitalization in India shortly before his death. It was written to his closest friend and “guru brother.” I find this an almost unbearably moving letter. It discusses the difficulties of practice when you are sick, the importance of what the Tibetans call “precious human birth,” and the vital importance of establishing a daily practice now, while you are alert and your faculties are strong:
Never have I known [such] experiences and sufferings . . . First, unending injections throughout the day and night. Second, because the capacity of my heart to pump oxygen was impaired and in order to breathe, I used an oxygen tank from which a rubber tube ran to my nose. This was never disconnected, and caused me great discomfort. Third, I had to constantly take medicine day and night sometimes more than ten pills at a time. Due to this medication my mind was powerlessly overcome with pain every two hours and my memory degenerated. Food lost its taste . . . I had no appetite for more than a month, and whatever food I did eat I threw up and suffered. Some days I could not do my commitments.
My cousin . . . came to see me. I asked him to recite the “self-generation of the body mandala” and “self-entry” and listened with great effort. Often in my mind’s confusion my speech would become garbled and I would laugh at myself and then become sad. I experienced and understood the confused mind even in regards to merely this. It is extremely difficult to maintain control without becoming confused during the stages of death when the four inner elements are being absorbed. It was at this time that I felt the power of my mind degenerating. When I tried to think about different things and ideas, my mind became confused. . .
As my ability to recite prayers of ordinary words degenerated, after considering what to do, I did stabilizing meditation with strong mindfulness and introspection. By the power of this there arose clarity of mind. Within this state I continued stabilizing meditation with great effort and this was of much benefit, though the enemy lethargy often overcame my meditation. . . .
It has been forty-one days since I became ill. The conditions of my body are such that I have become the lord of a cemetery. My mind is like that of a demon, and my speech is like the barking of an old, mad dog. . . . These experiences I am relating to you, my pure, pledged spiritual brother. Keep them secret from the hard-headed intellectuals.
° ° °
May all beings be free from fear.
May all beings have ease of well-being.
May all beings be free from suffering.
John Hobbie would have been forty-three years old today. As I celebrate the day of his birth, I reflect as well on his death eighty-five days ago—both so mysterious and miraculous, both intertwined, just as inseparable as the joy and grief, laughter and tears we who shared in his last days came to know.
John’s life, illness and death profoundly touched many people. This man who spent the last decade of his life committed to AIDS work and dharma practice never wavered in either, and in time they became one and the same thing. He once told me before he was diagnosed that he suspected that what he has been seeking—his life work—would be found through AIDS. I don’t know if he found it, but I have my suspicions.
His dying was not only personal, it became communal as well, giving many a chance to recognize what is possible among us—what we can do for each other, give to each other, be for one another. We really are all in this life together. Sharing John’s death made this real, helping each of us find in ourselves and each other an enormous capacity to love, a great and vast capacity that perhaps we have only just begun to touch. What seems true to me is that this can be a way to live the whole of our lives: living a full connection and total engagement with all of life.
John’s parting desire was that he do it well. I hope he knows what a grand finale it was.
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.