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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
spring 2008| 78 |buddhadharma devaduta is a Pali term that means “divine messenger” (deva is “divine”; duta is “messenger”). depending on the context, deva can also be translated as the shining one, a celestial being, or heavenly one. the ontology and mythol- ogy of this term in the hindu tradition and sanskrit literature is quite complex, and translations such as “angel” or “god” are often used. But they are not part of Bud- dhist frames of reference. in the Pali suttas, the term devaduta is used symbolically for the three messen- gers of old age, sickness, and death. A passage in the Anguttara Nikaya (3:35) makes it explicit: “there are three divine messengers, o monks. What three? ... ‘have you never seen in the world a man—or a woman—at eighty, ninety, or a hundred years, aged, as crooked as a roof bracket, doubled up, supported by a walking stick, tottering, frail, youth gone, teeth broken, grey-haired, scanty-haired, bald, wrinkled, with limbs all blotchy? ... [And] did it never occur to you—an intelligent and mature man—“i too am subject to ageing, i am not exempt from ageing...?’” the passage goes on to make similar observations regarding a sick person and a corpse. the language in this passage is almost identical to one in the Devaduta Sutta (discourse number 130 in Majjhima Nikaya, The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha). Judging by the sutta’s title in the Majjhima Nikaya, we have to conclude that this is where the term devaduta first appears, and that it is later extrapolated into the Anguttara Nikaya. the Devadutta Sutta speaks of five divine messengers that, in addition to an old person, a sick person, and a corpse, include a newborn helpless infant (as a reminder of rebirth because of unwhole- some actions in the past) and a person tortured after committing an evil deed. But old age, sickness, and death are gen- erally considered to be the core of the devaduta teaching. A somewhat humorous take on the term devaduta is offered in the Makkhadeva Sutta. in it the Buddha tells a story about a righteous king named Makkhadeva, whose barber, following the king’s earlier instruc- tions, says upon seeing the first grey hairs appearing on the king’s head, “the divine messengers have appeared, sire; grey hairs are to be seen growing on your majesty’s head” (Majjhima Nikaya, 83:4). the term devaduta is associated with the core foundational story of the Bud- dha’s life. the story, known to almost every Buddhist, says that when the young mu Soeng iS the ReSident ScholaR at the baRRe centeR foR buddhiSt StudieS in baRRe, maSSachuSettS. devaduta Defined by mu Soeng dharma dictionary bRentyoung