Based on the Pāli Canon, Teacher of the Devas explores the Buddha’s role as a teacher of humans and devas -- "a vast multitude of gods who are transient beings caught within the cycle of repeated birth and death." It examines the many instances when devas approached the Buddha for spiritual instruction and help. The American author examines the with an eye for practice of the Dharma under the trying conditions of modern American life.
The Encounter with Suffering
Human beings, devas [shining ones, light beings, deities, "angels"], and brahmas [supreme devas, powerful divinities, "Gods"] are the broad categories of beings in the "happy realms of existence."
The human world is marked by a pervasive admixture of happiness and suffering. This dual nature is the main reason why buddhas [supremely enlightened ones] are born here. The uneven quality of human life enables us to realize the unreliable nature of happiness and inspires in us a sense of urgency about the need to win deliverance from suffering.
Unlike the beings in the lower planes, few humans are overwhelmed by unmitigated and excruciating pain. We do, of course, experience physical pain and mental stress, but such experience is generally intermittent. For the most part our suffering is of a more subtle character. We can observe that every pleasure brings along some measure of dissatisfaction.
Our contentment is unsteady and secured with difficulty. We must struggle to satisfy our needs and desires but become anxious the moment we succeed. Even when we are relatively happy we are beset by a deep, subtle kind of suffering. This suffering, which lies below the threshold of painful feeling, stems from the momentary vanishing of all the conditioned formations of body and mind.
In spite of our pain, human beings with an inclination for the Dhamma [Dharma, the Buddha's Teachings] can make the effort to live by the Five Precepts of morality. We can find the energy to train our minds towards the concentration and insight required for awakening [bodhi, enlightenment].
In contrast, devas see far less of the evident kinds of misery in their daily existence. Some brahmas meet no gross suffering except when they look down at beings on lower planes. Many devas instantly obtain whatever sense object they wish for. Brahmas dwell in sublime bliss and equanimity. In the fine-material and immaterial spheres [whereas humans and many lesser devas are stuck in the lowest of three spheres called the sensual sphere] ill will is suppressed, and without it there is no mental unhappiness.
It is difficult for deities to appreciate that everything changes and to recognize that their present pleasure and bliss do not last forever. Like Baka Brahma, many imagine that they are eternal. The subtler forms of suffering tend to escape them as well. Without help from a buddha or a disciple of a buddha, they do not understand that the impersonal conditions that will terminate their felicity are already in operation.
Many of the higher beings, as we have seen, have no idea that they will die, that their worlds and lives are in flux, that they are not fully in control, but are decaying at every instant. So in spite of their excellent concentration and present opulence, they are even at a disadvantage compared to human beings, who are driven by pain and frustration to seek the path to deliverance.
How then can such beings be induced to meditate? Why should they become concerned with suffering and its cessation? We have indicated the answers to those questions in preceding chapters. This is the job of the Buddha as "teacher of the gods."
The Devas aspire to be Human
Some devas long to be reborn as human beings because they are aware of the greater possibility of comprehending impermanence, suffering, and non-self on the human plane. [These are the Three Marks of Existence that inspire one to become enlightened and make an end of all suffering.]
There is no real illness on the deva planes. When a deva faces death, his aura begins to fade and dirt appears on his clothes for the first time. When the gods see these indications of impending death, they tell their friend:
"Go from here, friend, to a good borne. Having gone to a good borne, gain that which is good to gain. Having gained that which is good to gain, become firmly established in it."
"It is human existence, bhikkhus [monastics], that is reckoned by the devas to be a good borne. When a human being acquires faith in the Dhamma-Vinaya [Doctrine and Discipline] taught by the Tathagata, this is reckoned by the devas to be a gain that is good to gain. When faith is steadfast in him, firmly rooted, established, and strong, not to be destroyed by any recluse or brahmin or deva or mara or brahma or [any wandering ascetic, temple priest, deity, destroyer, or creator] by anyone else in the world, this is reckoned by the devas to be firmly established."
The last sentence refers to a stream-enterer. Only stream-enterers (and other noble ones) have such steadfast confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. [These are the Three Jewels -- the teacher, teaching, and taught -- that Buddhists seek guidance from. Those who have reached any stage of enlightenment, the first being called "stream-entry," have perfect and unshakeable confidence in them as guides to liberation from suffering.]
They will definitely attain final awakening and release and until then will never be reborn on a plane below the human one. To become an ariya [a noble one, having broken through the illusion with irreversible insight] is the greatest achievement for any being lost in the round of rebirth. Only by entering the stream to awakening can beings proceed to eliminate all the causes of suffering.
The Buddha explained that the devas view a human existence as an excellent opportunity for growth in morality, giving, faith [confidence], and understanding. With compassionate concern for their dying cohort, they say:
"Go, friend, to a good borne,
To the fellowship of humans.
On becoming human acquire faith
Unsurpassed in the true Dhamma [teaching].
That faith made steadfast,
Become rooted and standing firm,
Will be unshakable for life
In the true Dhamma well proclaimed.
Having abandoned misconduct by body,
Misconduct by speech as well,
Misconduct by mind and whatever else
Is reckoned as a fault,
Having done much that is good
Both by body and by speech,
And done good with a mind
That is boundless and free from clinging,
With that merit as a basis
Made abundant by generosity,
You should establish other people
In the true Dhamma and the holy life.'" (It 83)
The devas urge their friend to become a morally upright [virtuous] human being. One should give up everything unwholesome, be generous and, once established in faith and meritorious deeds, help spread the Buddha's message [of final liberation from suffering].
Not only do wise gods long for human birth to practice the Dhamma, they also rejoice when they observe people establishing themselves in the way to the cessation of suffering. Such deities are convinced that human beings like these are greater than themselves.
In spite of all the magnificent sights, appealing perfumes and tastes, melodious music, and other sensual pleasures they have at their beck and call, these devas understand the unsatisfactory nature of existence sufficiently to value the effort to put an end to samsaric wandering [through countless rebirths].
In the sutta [discourse] preceding the one quoted above, the Buddha spoke of "joyous utterances" devas give forth in three situations:
- (1) when a man is preparing to ordain as a bhikkhu;
- (2) when a person is "engaged in cultivating the...requisites of enlightenment"; and
- (3) when someone attains the goal, utterly destroying the mental defilements.