My first encounter with the fourth heavenly messenger happened on a dreary afternoon when I was twenty years old. I was munching on a toasted sandwich at a friend’s house. We were both living quite recklessly at that time and feeling increasingly on the edge of “normal” society. Having been in a rock band together since our midteens, we had recently moved on to performance art—which mostly meant conducting weekly “events” in the middle of busy streets and shopping malls near our home in Wellington, New Zealand. Our aim was to make our performances as off-the-wall as possible, and I think we were succeeding, given the number of strange looks (and occasional abuse) we received.
My friend had invited me over that day to watch the film Baraka, knowing I would enjoy it. I had been in quite a contemplative space for the previous few months, and I sensed something was changing in my life. A deep feeling of dissatisfaction had set in, as well as a longing to find some meaning in the world. A scene in the movie unexpectedly cut through the mundane mood of the day and woke something inside me with a feeling of “Yes!” The scene showed a Zen monk slowly, mindfully, pacing up a busy street, ringing a little bell. The poise, peacefulness and composure of this being moved me almost to tears—why, I don’t know. While everyone around him was busy rushing to get “somewhere,” this monk seemed to have already arrived. Wow, I thought. That’s what I want! And at the same time, visions of a spiritual life I had never had before began to arise in me. I could almost taste the feeling.
My next experience of the fourth heavenly messenger came a few months later in the form of a photo of Thai forest monks Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho in a book I had begun reading called The Mind and the Way. My mother, a longtime Buddhist, had sent me the book, perhaps intuiting that a certain ripeness was present in me. I found myself drawn back to the photo over and over again. What was it about that image that struck a chord within me? Rationally I couldn’t figure it out. It was something to do with the vulnerable simplicity of these two men—clad only in robes and looking totally overjoyed for no apparent reason. This was a far cry from the mind-states I found myself in, even while surrounded by privilege and material comfort. The images I was used to seeing—the photos of rock bands and movie stars we are bombarded with in magazines and newspapers—always portrayed a sense of posturing, of “look at me, I’m this.” There was none of that in the photo of these two monks. Their expressions were just open, radiant and humble. Ahh. What a relief.
The samana sanna, or “sign of the seeker,” ended up penetrating quite deep, so much so that I felt I just had to try it on for size. After a year of living on the edge, and feeling less and less inclined to follow the career path that many of my friends seemed to be taking, I decided to pay a visit to Bodhinyanarama Buddhist Monastery in Stokes Valley, near Wellington. It was an act of desperation, in all honesty. I had begun to suffer so much with my own internal fear and self-doubt that this seemed the only way of putting out the fire.
The moment I arrived at the monastery I felt transformed. The serenity and beauty was unlike anything I had felt before. My three-day stay turned into a month, then three months, then a year. I thought that if I could just put on a monk’s “suit”—bingo!—bliss would surely follow. And so I decided to ordain. That’s not to say that I didn’t notice my tendency to idealize life as a monk. And of course, the reality was not always so glamorous, as I soon discovered: same dukkha, same desires, same crazy mind. But something did happen when I began to internalize the external sign of bhikkhu. Just looking at my own reflection—Hey, this guy’s in robes. Oh yeah . . . —often had the effect of awakening in me an internal attunement with the archetype itself. It’s kind of magical how it happens. Osmosis maybe. But it is powerful.
After a few years, the robes, the form of the bhikkhu life, began to catalyze a space of awareness in which I could allow my humanity to arise and be held with compassion and tenderness. I started to feel how the samana sanna was working on me, and I felt extraordinarily grateful. The ever-present reminder of the values and heart qualities symbolized by the bhikkhu’s robes provided a constant mirror to my internal states. All my afflictive energies and emotions arose in reference to this counterpoint. Lust could at least be held in the patient, compassionate context of contentment. When anger burned up my heart, it could be felt in all its violent turbulence against a backdrop of benevolence—a quality that seemed to come forth from the form itself—ever present, ever patient, like an old, wise teacher.
When I was living at Bodhinyanarama and seeing other monks all around every day, the external manifestations of the fourth heavenly messenger were ubiquitous and very powerful. A few years later at Abhayagiri Monastery in California, I remember sometimes finding myself sitting in the midst of the fortnightly group recitation of the monks’ rules and stopping to take the whole thing in. It was like inhaling mountain air. I would look at Ajahn Pasanno and let my heart be touched. Then I would look at Ajahn Amaro and allow myself to be affected. Already my heart was transformed by a feeling of awe, reverence and gratitude for what the bhikkhu life symbolized, for the great gift of the lineage of Ajahn Chah, for the lineage of the Buddha. This wasn’t an activity of the rational mind, but of the heart—which I think is the power of the fourth heavenly messenger. It touches something deep inside that recognizes an archetype and begins to resonate with it. And then the resonance floods the heart, and one is buoyed up by the feeling.
Sometimes as we’d walk through the nearby town of Ukiah, almsbowls over our shoulders, I would try to catch a glimpse of us bhikkhus reflected in a shop window. Sure, I was supposed to keep my eyes downcast, but every time I sneaked a peek my heart would be energized by a palpable joy and exclaim, Yeah! That’s so cool! It sounds kind of funny, I know, but I was deliberately letting myself be affected by the vision, as if it was impersonal. This never failed to wake me up from my mind’s trivial muttering.
One morning a loud shout came from a passing pickup: “You guys rock!” It turned out to be our own endearing white-robed novice, who thought he’d do a “drive-by” to let us know how he was feeling. I smirked all the way back to the monastery. I don’t think his overwhelming desire to express appreciation was about “us” personally; it was about what the archetype itself inspires in the heart. In this culture of mass consumption, possessiveness and the cult of media personalities, it is a rare joy to catch sight of those who have given these things up for something greater and who are willing to open themselves up in vulnerability and humility to the offerings of others.
Over the course of seven years as a monk, however, other aspects of reality began to take their toll on my aspiration to live the bhikkhu life. My body seemed to rebel against the form, most conspicuously with the requirement to eat only in the morning and to accept only those foods that are offered. I found myself becoming very weak and ill, so much so that most of my day was spent in a state of exhaustion and fatigue. Trying to heal my body while living in the monastic form was a huge realm of practice for me, which unfortunately amounted to one painful defeat after another. As much as I personally wished it would be otherwise, the universe seemed to have other plans for me.
So eventually I moved out of the monastery and have been living in the city of Wellington for the last year. My relationship to the samana sanna is undergoing a major overhaul. Just as I needed to take on the form, I now have to be willing to look into what part of my heart was relating to it from a place of clinging. This has forced me to investigate my mind’s tendency to grasp at forms and conventions as being absolute, fixed and “me.”
I’ve also had to find ways of “seeing” the fourth heavenly messenger without actually seeing it. It’s more like intuiting it. I enjoy walking through crowded streets, so I’ve tried to stay attuned to the image of that Zen monk I saw in the movie all those years ago. There’s something delightful about staying centered, calm and at ease in the midst of the outer chaos. Having left the bhikkhu life and the amazing gifts it provides on the external level—the myriad reminders of how to be, what to value and what to trust—I have had to learn how to reconfigure my mode of being. I’ve had to find an inner stillness that doesn’t need reassurance from my external surroundings. Not that this process doesn’t take place in monastic life too; I’ve seen many of my teachers embody it. It’s just taken me until now to recognize its importance.
An example of this came up for me the other day. I was passing by a huge photo of a cow’s tongue poking through a hole, featured in a permanent art exhibit on a busy street. I immediately thought, That’s disgusting! What the heck were they thinking? Why not display something more noble? And on and on. Then I caught the mind in action: Aha! Aversion. This is suffering arising. So I began to attend to the feelings of “yuck” and “not good enough” as they manifested in the mind, heart and even the body. I came back to resting in an awareness that both acknowledged the perceptions and also tuned in to a more fundamental quality of clarity that remained untouched by the mind’s reactivity. Ahh—that felt true. Yet again I was reminded of where a true refuge can be found—and where it can’t. No matter how inspiring (or disgusting) the external world may be, if I’m relying on it for a sense of peace, eventually it’s going to unsettle me.
This isn’t to say I don’t have a shrine or seek out reminders and signs—I do. But something in me is also finding joy at investigating the edge between the outer and the inner. I recall Ajahn Amaro quoting Ajahn Chah: “Remember, the form is 100 percent real and 100 percent unreal.” That’s definitely something I’d like to come to know in my heart.