LETTERS FROM MARA: part 4
Your first squadron is Sense-Desires,
Your second is called Boredom,
Then Hunger and Thirst compose the third,
And Craving is the fourth in rank,
The fifth is Sloth and Accidy,
While Cowardice lines up as sixth,
The eighth is Malice paired with Obstinacy;
Gain, Honor and Renown, besides,
And ill-won Notoriety,
These are your squadrons, Namuci;
the Black One's fighting squadrons;
None but the brave will
bliss by the victory.
(Sutta Nipata III, 2)
From: His Supreme Excellency the Mara Namuci
To: All Squadron Leaders
Re: Status of Current Projects
Dated: 26th Century of Current Buddha-period
Operational Area: Human Realm, Planet Earth
Greetings to all my hard-working minions! As you are all well
aware, our overall strategy seems to be working smoothly, as
usual. The vast multitude of beings who wander in our little
playground, the Great Samsara, are by and large oblivious to the
true nature of their predicament. We must continue our unceasing
efforts to maintain them in our power. You, my loyal squadron
leaders, are doing a fine job. Let us continue to review your
departments, moving on to the Eighth...
The Host of Malice and Obstinac
"To my Eighth Army--the negative image of the First, the Host of
Sense Desires--it is your duty to see to it that beings fall
into the mental habits of aversion, ill will, anger, hatred, and
spite. The theory behind your work is elementary, but let us
review it briefly.
"Whenever a being makes contact with a sense object--that is, at
each and every conscious moment--an associated feeling arises.
This feeling may be one of either pleasure or displeasure, or
sometimes so subtle as to be, for all practical purposes,
neutral. These feelings register on an extremely rudimentary
level of consciousness and are for the most part completely
natural and automatic. Even the simplest of beings could not
maintain existence without a liking for good-tasting food and a
disliking for harmful conditions.
"These basic feelings are not of our doing, but we can use them
to lure our victims on to the next step. In the case of pleasant
feelings, this job is well left to the able ministrations of the
First Army. It is your job to develop our advantage from the
unhappy feelings. When beings are not mindfully aware of their
own mental processes (and few of them are even marginally aware)
we can turn a simple unpleasant feeling into a complex
proliferation of aversion and resentment. The raw feeling may be
only momentary--of little significance in and of itself--but oh,
what fun we can have with it! It is true, of course, that by
developing these negative mental proliferations, the silly
humans are adding completely unnecessary suffering to whatever
unavoidable physical unpleasantness they may be enduring. But
this is their problem, not ours. We have a job to do.
"Fortunately for us, beings engrossed in unhappiness or anger
are unable to see things clearly. Thus, they cannot begin to
work out their escape and fall into delusion. There are many
tricks we can use to encourage them in this. One of the most
amusing is 'righteous' anger: feed the negative mental
proliferation by justifying it. 'He hurt me, he robbed me, he
threw me down and beat me!' This trick has the added twist of
building up the ego image! We have made excellent progress in
this area lately; their popular psychology now praises the
'empowering' aspect of such anger. Let it remain our little
secret as to who is really empowered.
"A related syndrome we can encourage is the feeling of
victimization. 'Poor me' is a marvelous way to entrench the
concept of 'me'. All types of ill will work by causing beings to
understand the universe in reference to their own arbitrary ego
positions. They cannot begin to see clearly so long as they
operate from such an assumption.
"We have a wide spectrum of emotions to work with. There is the
very mild and temporary flicker of aversion towards the driver
just ahead taking too long to make a left turn. There's the
smoldering resentment towards the inconsiderate boss at work.
Then comes the bitter, lifelong ethnic hatreds that enflame
whole nations. Our pathetic victims can even be made to feel ill
will towards inanimate objects, particularly their own
creations. Nothing is more amusing than to see a human work
himself into a frenzy of anger directed at some malfunctioning
machinery. The senselessness of it hardly deters them at all.
"Obstinacy is the pig-headed refusal to change, a tendency many
humans have. They continue to throw good money after bad, in a
manner of speaking: having once invested some emotional energy
in a grudge, it seems a defeat to let it go, somewhat like
admitting they've been foolish all along. That would never do!
All of these are grist for our mill, all manifestations of the
"Our position in this department is quite sound. As they
multiply themselves upon the face of the earth, they crowd into
each other more and more, getting on each others' nerves.
Nevertheless, we must be vigilant against the one credible
antidote to ill will--that is, the emotion of universal loving
kindness. You may shudder at the name, my minions, but name it I
must. In the old Pali it is metta; to the Greeks it was called
agape. This is the one force against which we cannot stand. So
stop it before it is cultivated! Discredit it as weakness. This
is becoming easy, as compassion is losing its stand amongst
them. It has become quite unfashionable to pity the poor, for
example. Little do they know that it requires real courage of
spirit to practice universal goodwill. Luckily for us, few of
them possess the requisite mettle.
"Should any of them begin to practice mental culture, as for
example by meditating, then it is time to redouble our efforts,
because here is one that might get away. I have touched upon
this issue in my notes to some of the other armies, but in your
specialty you have many opportunities to attack the meditator.
Attack through the body. It is inevitable that the effort to
remain motionless will cause the squirmy little beggars some
discomfort. It takes only a little prodding from us to turn this
into aggravation or self-pity. The nuances are endless; it can
take them a very long time to realize that whereas the bodily
aspect of pain is inevitable, this mental self-torment is
entirely superfluous. We can also encourage resentments against
the teacher, the practice, the food, the weather, and numerous
other external factors. They can wallow in these petty miseries
for hours and hours. Let's not let any of them get away!"
During a pause in his dictation, Mara's secretary fiddles with
the remote control, and the view through the picture window
fades into that of a darkly handsome singer wailing into a
microphone as he does a loose-hipped dance. The near-hysterical
roar of the crowd is plainly audible behind the plaintive song,
"Ooooh! I just love Elvis!"
The Host of Honor, Renown, and Notoriety
Mara takes the remote and gives it the merest flick. The famous
performer is seen some years later, bloated and pasty faced as
he fumbles shakily through a bed-side drawer, searching
desperately amongst the rubbish for his barbiturates.
"It is hard to understand from a rational point of view why
humans crave fame. It seems to destroy so many of the most
gifted among them. The pathological inflation of the
ego-illusion becomes too much for their merely mortal shell. And
yet crave it they do. The prudent may say that 'the wise seek no
notoriety,' but this counsel is drowned by the crowd singing
'the thrill that'll hitcha when you getcha picture on the cover
of the Rolling Stone.
"My loyal minions, we should be clear as to the psychological
basis for this syndrome. The ego illusion is very dear to our
victims. Nevertheless, since it is in reality a mere phantasm,
it is quite hard for them to maintain, generally requiring a
tremendous investment of energy--energy that, needless to say,
becomes unavailable for anything else useful. If this
insubstantial ego can be pumped up with external sources of
energy, such as the adulation of a crowd, they might experience
the sense of a 'net-gain'. Of course, it is all illusory and
very dangerous to the individual, but very intoxicating
"Our resources in this department have been very limited until
quite recently. In years gone by, fame generally meant being
well known among the relatively few inhabitants of one's own
city-state (although we occasionally did a bit better with the
emperor or local big shot).
'Now, however, the stakes are much higher. With the invention of
technology to transmit images from place to place, it has become
possible for an individual's features to become globally
recognizable. Together with this technological possibility, a
powerful cult of celebrity has arisen. The masses seek to
improve their dreary existence by living vicariously through
idols. This is a marvelous system of mutual self-destruction.
Common TV addicts are able to escape having a real life of their
own, instead remaining enthralled by an ersatz astral-plane
existence. How futile and pathetic! But well-suited to our
purposes. And in the end, they typically turn on and devour the
former objects of their worship. We win both ways.
"Of course, this level of fame is necessarily restricted to the
few. But we still have the older, antique type of fame to
ensnare many more.
"This is the desire--often inflated to a positive obsession--to
become well-known and well-regarded in one's own petty sphere.
This is such a simple way of stoking the fires of ego. As long
as they are concerned about their reputations among friends and
associates, they remain trapped in the idea of themselves as
'real' entities. When Joe hears that everyone says, 'Joe is the
best diesel mechanic in the plant,' then he is reassured of the
reality of the concept of 'Joe the diesel mechanic'. This works
just as well if everyone says, 'Joe is the sloppiest excuse for
a mechanic we've ever seen.'
"Generally, beings define themselves according to the ways
others see them. This is the 'persona,' the public mask.
Becoming obsessed with putting on a good front, they eventually
fool themselves and lose track of who they really are. And as
long as they are looking outward, they are not seeing
within--and the outward direction is our territory.
"'Praise and Blame' are yet another potent pair to bring
pleasure and pain. They are the carrot and stick by which we
drive our donkeys down the garden path. It hardly seems to
matter that the objects here are usually such ephemeral ones.
The drive for recognition is a powerful source of craving and
stimulates the 'process of becoming' just as well as more
substantial rewards. 'Praise and Blame' are called the worldly
winds and are among our most useful tricks. The fact that they
are utterly void of substance is amusing to us, but unapparent
to the poor humans. Keep these winds gusting; they can blow
beings around and around Samsara for a long, long time!"
The Host of Self-Praise and Denigration of Others
Mara leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head.
"Sometimes I amaze myself. I mean, where would this organization
be without me? If I wasn't so modest, I'd be damned near
"I've always thought so, Mara. And those armies of yours sure
"What!? Those incompetent bums! If I didn't play the nurse maid
over them constantly, they'd be fouling things up all over the
universe! It's so hard to get decent help these days! But never
"To my bold and powerful Tenth, greetings! Your task is crucial,
and fortunately for us, easy. Generally, humans have the most
unreasonable attitude of taking themselves quite seriously. They
seem unable to disengage mentally from the ego perspective. One
way we can reinforce this primary cognitive illusion is to
foster an attitude of self-praise. Let them think of themselves
as truly wonderful and righteous; fill them up with pride. This
is the task of the first division of the Tenth Army.
"Self-praise fuels all the defilements; it is a masterwork of
delusion. Our victims look into the mirror with rose-colored
glasses. They become unable to see their own faults and bristle
with indignation whenever these are pointed out to them.
Self-praise also fuels attachment and sensuality; after all,
doesn't someone as wonderful as 'me' deserve a little fun? It
also fires up anger, the fierce variety of the self-righteous
who know that their views and opinions are correct and that
everyone else is an idiot. It is so amusing to watch two human
"The forces of the Tenth have a special role to play in those
difficult cases where an individual shows signs of spiritual
progress. If they begin to free themselves from the coarser
snares of my other armies, we can often use their own victories
against them by encouraging a spiritual pride and arrogance.
Whisper in their ear about what wonderful spiritual beings they
are: 'look at me, the great holy man!' This trap has caught many
fish. And don't be overly concerned about the accuracy of their
grandiose opinions; they are capable of the most ludicrous
self-delusion concerning their own merits. Very few of them,
after all, ever develop a knack for introspection, and even
fewer are truly capable of self-criticism. You should be aware
that a large number of them have a very negative self-image. If
handled properly, this should cause no concern. Negative or
positive, a self-image is a self-image. It is this fundamental
perceptual hallucination of a self that keeps them in
bondage--positive and negative versions suit our purposes
equally well. If you can't convince them they're wonderful, then
encourage them to kick themselves for being such losers.
Remember, there are three kinds of conceit: 'I am better than
you, I am worse than you, and I am equal to you.' Any one of
these is a conceit and reinforces duality.
"In fact, there are signs that in the modern culture the
negative form has become predominant. A great many humans don't
like themselves very much, not that I can really blame them.
This complicated phenomenon is ultimately rooted in the rise of
materialism. When a human being denies the fundamental spiritual
nature of being, life becomes hollow. Don't let them guess that
this is the problem; encourage them instead in this view that
they are inadequate. The post-modern environment is very helpful
for this tendency. Since the industrial revolution, they have
been seeking to create a materialist paradise with their
machines, and now their own inventions are rendering them
redundant by the millions.
"The second division of the Tenth Army has the job of promoting
the denigration of others, the complement to self-praise. Many
are the beings who seek to puff themselves up by putting others
down. It is far easier to criticize someone else's defilements
than to work on one's own. Of course, the defects people are
most ready to criticize are also precisely the ones they are
themselves infected with, but they almost never see this when
they are caught up in it. It's really quite amusing to watch.
And they don't care that denigrating others is an illogical
practice and always makes matters worse--they still do it.
"You are our primary vehicle for stirring up ill will and
conflict, and you have many weapons and tactics. Gossip is very
popular. Everyone loves a scandal; never mind whether it's true
so long as it's juicy! How righteous they feel as they cluck
over someone else's peccadilloes! You can stir up this petty
vice anywhere humans gather: school, work, clubs, families, etc.
We have found by long experience that this is even a great
corrupter of monasteries and spiritual communities.
"Don't forget the nastier forms of criticism as well. Their
vicious personal attacks ruin each others' lives. Even more
destructive is the form called prejudice, in which their
hostility is based on non-personal criteria such as language or
skin color. As absurd as it may sound to a rational being,
humans get so worked up over these irrelevancies that whole
nations are plunged into the chaos of war--an activity to be
encouraged, of course, as it is a great devourer of all
spiritual values. All these forms of denigration of others are
based on the delusion of self-righteousness. Subtler and
profounder than all the other damage it does, though, is the
fundamental fact that so long as one is looking for faults
outside, then one is not looking within. This is the one thing
we must never, ever let them do.
"Sign my letter, 'Mara, the Lord of Birth and Death, the
Devourer of Beings and the Spinner of the Wheel', etc. etc. and
so forth. Send one copy to each of my Army Chiefs and one to my
The secretary leaves now with a giggle and a wink. Mara closes
the day's business by quickly surveying his far-flung empire. He
watches the screen and scans the cosmos, observing beings as
they pass in and out of existence. He sees the moral die and
reappear in heaven and the immoral drop into hell. From both
hell and heaven, beings finish their time and reappear on earth.
Around and around in fruitless circles they go, blasted by the
winds of desire--winds fanned by Mara's efforts throughout the
ages. But there on the screen, in a small bamboo hut, an old
woman lies down to die. She is wearing robes and her head is
shaved. With quiet dignity she stretches her frail body out on
the thin woven mat, lying on her right side. Mara watches with
distaste; he knows and fears what is coming but cannot look
away. It's as painful and as compulsive to him as probing a
rotten tooth with one's tongue. The nun quietly and peacefully
expires, and the screen flickers. The automatic software
searches quickly through all realms of existence and comes back
with the dreaded error message: "Being Not Found."
"Bah! Fortunately we don't lose many that way." Mara doesn't
allow himself to speculate too long on the whereabouts of the
old nun; the idea is vaguely disturbing. He continues to review
the many, many more manageable cases that remain within his
jurisdiction. Around and around they go; Mara has been busily at
work for millennia but he too is caught in his own web. As he
relaxes now with the day's tasks done, he pulls a comb from his
vest pocket. The elegant demon-god combs his shiny black hair
reflectively, vanity, of course, being one of his vices. After a
few strokes, he glances at the platinum and tiger-bone comb; his
eyes narrow, his breath stops, and he gets a sick feeling in the
pit of his stomach. Among the black is one gray hair.
Venerable Punnadhammo is the abbot of Arrow River Meditation
Center in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Following ten years at
the center as a lay student of Khema Ananda, he was ordained a
bhikkhu at Wat Pah Nanachat in 1991. For more information about
the center---> Arrow River Meditation Center