(originally in Sati Sangha newsletter, June, 2017)
Recently I’ve been re-reading Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma in a Secular Age. In this excellent book I was fascinated by his discussion of the Buddha’s exchanges with Mara.
In Buddhism Mara is a demon who represents various unhelpful qualities, everything from death to personal obstructions, such as greed or ignorance. Mara tempts the Buddha, much in the way Satan is said to have tempted Jesus.
Probably the best known story of Mara concerns the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Mara sent 3 women—perhaps even his daughters– to tempt the Buddha away from his vow of sitting under the Bodhi Tree until he obtained enlightenment. Of course Mara lost the battle, the Buddha was not distracted from his pursuit of enlightenment, but the story remains a relevant one for our modern struggles to live wiser, more compassionate lives.
What most interests me in Batchelor’s thinking is his telling of other occasions when Mara arrives to the Buddha and the Buddha simply says, “I know you, Mara” and he, Mara, then disappears. In other words, awareness of Mara and what he is about leads to his ineffectiveness and lack of power over the Buddha. In these situations at least, nothing more is needed than the comprehension of Mara, an understanding of the trap of the hindrances, and in this bare recognition there is transformation and clarity for the Buddha.
Also, it interests me that Mara never goes away permanently, he periodically appears to the Buddha throughout his life. I think here there is a lesson for us, too, for we will have many occasions when we struggle with our own meetings with Mara—whether it’s in the form of our ignorance, or unhealthy desires, our reactivity, or our shortcomings.
But as some of these stories point out, it is by recognizing and knowing Mara that we have the opportunity to transform our lives, to gain wisdom. It’s not a matter of driving or pushing him away, or being hard on ourselves for our lack of success. So, when the neighbor’s leaf blower starts just as we sit down to meditate, we continue with our practice, our curiosity about what’s arising in us. Because it’s probably best not to be inattentive when Mara arrives.