REFLECTIONS ON MARA
Jnana - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC
Dharma Talk at the IBMC --- This morning's talk presents
reflections on the subject of Mara. First we will consider
some of the essential storys from the sutras. This will
provide the background for briefly touching on the historical
origins of the Mara mythology. We'll then shift to a consideration
of the meaning of Mara as symbol in relation to Buddhist
doctrine as well as metaphor, not only historically but
for the present moment. Please understand that this presentation
must necessarily distill a very deep vat of information
into the simple vessel of a Sunday dharma talk, merely skimming
the foam off the top of a complex brew.
Mara is a familiar figure in the rich lore of Buddhism, most
especially as the deva, or supernatural being, whose forces
attack the bodhisattva Siddhartha Gautama as he sat beneath
the pipal tree prior to his Enlightenment. In the sutras there
are numerous variations on and elaborations of this account,
some of them approaching the phantasma- gorical in their detail
and embellishment. Here is a much abbreviated version of standard
canonical accounts. Siddhartha's meditative calm proved so powerful
that the deadly forces hurled at him by Mara were transformed
into flowers of offering that showered gently down upon his
head. Gautama was equally unmoved when, according to some traditions,
Mara sent his beautiful daughters in an attempt to seduce the
bodhisattva. In a final attempt to unseat him, Mara insisted
that he, not Gautama, had a right to the throne of enlightenment
by virtue of his previous meritorious deeds, while all of Mara's
hordes thundered forth their support. In response, the solitary
bodhisattva reached down and touched the ground, calling upon
the earth goddess to bear witness to his countless past deeds
of merit. In acknowledgement the earth gave a great shudder,
at which Mara's fearsome elephant bowed down before the bodhisattva
in submission, and Mara and his armies fled in terror. At this
moment hosts of devas arrived to proclaim Gautama's victory
and to witness his final illumination.
The Buddha's fateful encounter with Mara at Bodhgaya, was not
his initial experience with the Evil One, as he had also been
tempted by Mara in the period between his renunciation of secular
life and his attainment of Enlightenment. However, it is from
the immediate pre-Enlightenment conflict onward that Mara figures
most prominently in accounts of the Buddha and with the Buddha's
subsequent disciples. The second most important encounter of
the Buddha with Mara took place shortly before the Buddha's
death. On this occasion Mara tried to persuade the Buddha to
pass away into parinirvana, but the Buddha knew that he must
delay his passing for a few months.
In the sutras the great majority of Mara's approaches are to
the Buddha, usually when the Buddha is alone, frequently in
meditation. Mara also appears however, when the Buddha is surrounded
by bhikkhus whom he is instructing, or when he is addressing
a large gathering, when he is on his alms-round, or when he
is preparing for sleep. The sutras make clear that Mara may
approach at anytime, day or night.
In each instance Mara's mission is to either discourage the
Buddha from propagating his teachings or to prevent disciples
from attaining emancipation from samsara, whereby they become
free from his grasp. Those who have realized emancipation are
beyond Mara's control and whenever Mara tries to lure them to
his snares, he finds himself completely failing. The sutric
accounts of Mara are thus records of his foiled attempts, even
in his many fearful guises and in a multiplicity of approaches.
A primary theme running through the Pali Canon is that it is
primarily the Buddha, and subsequently the Arahants, who can
discern Mara at all. Initially only the Buddha could recognize
the approach of Mara even though others were present. Later
Mahayana teachings came to extend this ability to be aware of
the presence of Mara to bodhisattvas as well.
To quote Trevor Ling, a scholar of Buddhism: "What these
legendary stories appear to emphasize is the Buddhist insight
into the fact that there appears to be a 'power' which is opposed
to Enlightenment, an enemy who besets the way of all who would
enter into that state. This power seeks notoriously to disturb
the disciple in his meditation. And always he seeks to prevent
knowledge of Enlightenment being communicated to others. With
the majority of mankind his work is easy; but against those
who threaten to leave his realm his greatest effort is put forth;
against those who are Enlightened, he is totally powerless,
and all his attempts are folly. It is he who has been defeated
when a disciple continues in meditation, or becomes fully enlightened."
Put in terms of the conclusions inherent in the Pali Canon with
regard to the Buddha and the Mara legend: (1) In the course
of his Enlightenment the Buddha has won a crucial victory: ignorance
darkness was dispelled; (2) being Enlightened,
he becomes fully aware of the nature of the opposition against
which he has been struggling; (3) to this opposition is given
the name of Mara; of Mara it is said that no power is so hard
As Buddhism developed it created a theory of four kinds of Mara,
as a way of 'reading' Mara. The four are:
(1) the Mara of psychophysical existence; (2) the Mara of compulsions;
(3) the Mara of death; and (4) the Mara who is born of a god.
A fifth kind of Mara is sometimes added, the Mara of conditioning.
These classifications helped early Buddhist teachers to disentangle
Mara's key features.
Where did the notion of Mara come from? The Mara legend is indisputably
connected with the doctrine of the Buddha, but it also seems
safe to say that it was the Dharma coming into contact with
the popular demonology of the time that produced the symbol
of Mara. Just as there can be no shadow without a body to cast
it, there can be no Mara without a Buddha (an awakened one)
to know him. Comparisons between the prevailing attributes of
yakshas, a malevolent form of nature spirit in pre-Buddhist
Indian mythology, and the character of Mara, show significant
similarities. Material belonging originally to the former has,
without much apparent readjustment, been pressed into the service
of the latter. One particularly important borrowing from Vedic
mythology is the drought-demon, Namuci. While Namuci initially
appears in the Pali Canon as himself, he came to be transformed
in early Buddhist texts to be the same as Mara, the god of death.
In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, with its associations
of death-dealing hostility, as a result of drought, was taken
up and used in order to build up the symbol of Mara; this is
what the Evil One is like-he is Namuci, threatening the welfare
of mankind. Mara threatens not by withholding the seasonal rains
but by withholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth.
As important as the concept of Mara is to the Buddhist teachings
the notion of a mythological being responsible for death, evil,
etc. was not limited to Buddhism. This notion formed part of
the common Vedic Brahmanic mythological traditions. Evidence
outside of Brahmanism shows that a mythology of evil, similar
in most respects to that of Mara was known among other non-Brahmanic
religious sects like the Jains. Jain texts from the early Buddhist
period show that they too believed in the existence of some
evil power as obstructive and as powerful as Mara in Buddhism.
This evil power manifests in different forms, either as god
or demon, to obstruct the sage in his attempts to attain enlightenment.
Let's turn now to the symbol of Mara in relation to Buddhist
doctrine and as a metaphor in our daily lives. A first and foremost
symbolic aspect of Mara is that of death, the ender of an existence
which is not ready to be ended as it has not yet succeeded in
attaining enlightenment. Death is the supreme ill. It was regarded
by contemporaries of the Buddha as the inevitable precursor
of further karmic existence, existence that would therefore
be filled with further dukkha. Etymologically, Mara's very name
indicates the god who slays or causes to die, the killer. Death
does not exist in Nirvana, as the cycle of birth and death has
ceased. Not surprisingly, one way in which Nirvana is described
is as the "deathless".
Further didactic evidence of Mara's symbolic role can be discerned
in a series of questions that might be asked. This approach,
for which I am again indebted to Trevor Ling, confirms that
Mara is to be regarded in whatever way it is most useful to
regard him; he is a doctrinal device, not an item of doctrine.
First, what is Mara's domain? Where does he operate? At one
point the Buddha indicated that each of the five skandhas, or
the five aggregates, as well as the mind, mental states and
mental consciousness are all declared to be Mara. Thus, Mara
symbolizes the entire existence of unenlightened humanity. In
other words, Mara's realm is the whole of samsaric existence.
Mara saturates every nook and cranny of life. Only in Nirvana
is his influence unknown. Second, how does Mara operate? Herein
lays the key to Mara's influence over all unenlightened beings.
The Pali Canon gives initial answers, not as alternatives, but
as varying terms. First, Mara behaves like one of the demons
of [then] popular thought. He uses deceptions, disguises, and
threats, he possesses people, and he uses all kinds of horrible
phenomena to terrify or cause confusion. Mara's most effective
weapon is sustaining a climate of fear, whether the fear be
of drought or famine or cancer or terrorism. Identifying with
a desire or fear tightens the knot that binds one to it, and,
thereby, the sway it can have over one.
On a more abstract level are all of the unwholesome moral states
identified collectively as Mara's army or Mara's forces, the
same forces identified by the Bodhisattva during his pre-Enlightenment
struggle with Mara. These are desire, aversion, hunger and thirst,
craving, sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, self-will and cant,
and various forms of self-exaltation. Most prominent among these,
and especially closely connected with Mara, is the first, passion.
Mara's army is just as real to us today as it was to the Buddha.
Mara stands for those patterns of behavior that long for the
security of clinging to something real and permanent rather
than facing the question posed by being a transient and contingent
creature. "It makes no difference what you grasp",
said Buddha, "when someone grasps, Mara stands beside him."
The tempestuous longings and fears that assail us, as well as
the views and opinions that confine us are sufficient evidence
of this. Whether we talk of succumbing to irresistible urges
and addictions or being paralyzed by neurotic obsessions, both
are psychological ways of articulating our current cohabitation
with the devil.
In the course of the Buddha's Enlightenment it is stressed that
he overcame ignorance and darkness, conceptions which are also
used prominently in connection with Mara's activities. Both
are readily associated with the capacity to blind men, in terms
of confusing their understanding.
By whom is Mara conquered? The obvious answer is the Buddha;
an ancient and essential part of the Buddha's title is that
of Mara Conqueror. Mara is also conquered by those who walk
in the path of the Buddha. In the Buddha's case, Mara is, as
Stephen Batchelor describes, "Buddha's devilish twin. Buddha
needs to let go of Mara in order to be Buddha. And not just
once as an episode in the heroic drama of enlightenment. As
long as Buddha lives, he is constantly relinquishing Mara. For
Mara is the self to Buddha's selflessness, the fear to Buddha's
fearlessness, the death to Buddha's deathlessness. The two are
inseparable. Buddha has 'become invisible' to Mara, yet Mara
still stalks him. Mara addresses Buddha as though he were a
stranger, but he is really Gotama's own conflicted humanity
and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition
within human nature. While 'Buddha' stands for a capacity for
awareness, openness, and freedom, "Mara" represents
a capacity for confusion, closure, and restriction." Batchelor
goes on to say that "Buddhanature and maranature are inseparable
from each other. Like a valve that can either be opened or closed,
this organism has the capacity to unfold (buddha) or shut down
Finally, how is Mara conquered? It is in the answer to this
question that the especially Buddhist nature of the symbol of
Mara appears, for the means by which he is conquered are precisely
the means of liberation which are emphasized in Buddhism generally.
Thus the means of conquering Mara coincide very largely with
the means by which the central purposes of Buddhism are realized;
that is, in general terms, by following of the eightfold path
(with a special emphasis on right concentration) and, in particular,
by the practice of meditation. As the Dhammapada states, "Those
who enter the path, and practice meditation, are released from
the bondage of Mara."
To summarize the justification for speaking of Mara as a symbol
of the Evil One is that he is part of the natural order, he
is a 'natural thing'. On the other hand, he is the negative
representation of moral and spiritual truth. From whatever point
of view it is seen, the symbol conveys hostility. He is a continual
reminder of the dukkha which adheres in man's existence, and
which is concealed beneath the appeal of all sensory life; he
is a reminder also that wisdom consists in taking the necessary
steps to ensure the cessation of dukkha.
May we all be peaceful, happy and well. May we all come to attain
release from the grasp of Mara.
by - Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe
In the Numbers
Irreverent Look at Zen in America
European Discovery of Indian Buddhism