Mara and the Buddha

(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.

My Favorite Picture



This is my favorite picture of Bodh-Gaya during my visit in January of 2013. It is the traditional location of the Buddha’s enlightenment. There were hundreds of Tibetan monks chanting for most of the 2 days I was there.

All experience is like a dream, but this was more dreamlike than most.

Calm States

Yesterday I attended a dharma talk by a Theravadin teacher and at one point she said, “Meditation is more than just being calm.” I both agree and disagree with this. I’ve heard similar notions expressed many times and to me, this view seems disparaging of calm states. There’s an implication in her statement that just achieving a calm state is not a very advanced practice, or that there are many other things that meditation is about. Maybe so, but I think if someone achieves a calm state in their mediation practice it’s a pretty big deal. As a therapist I meet a lot of people who would be happy to have this happen more often in their lives.

I suppose it depends on how you look at “calm.” For instance, when we’re upset, then meditate and achieve calm, we’ve somehow been able to resolve the problem. We may have become more accepting of something we can’t change, or we may have decided on a solution and feel somewhat at peace with our plan. Or we may have had an insight about the nature of the problem. The point is that during meditation we often are engaged in a process of thinking and feeling about an issue and subsequently reach a place where our suffering has (temporarily) abated.  The result is that we may feel more clear, less angry or hurt. If the point of the Buddhist path is to move from suffering (stress) to the end of suffering, then being calm can be an important sign that this has occurred. I would venture to say this is exactly why most people take up meditation; it certainly isn’t to learn more teaching or become “advanced.” We often meditate to achieve peace and calm.

Only Meditation?


If you go to just about any of the Buddhist centers in my area one of the first things you will be taught are procedures for meditation. There’s so much emphasis on meditation within Buddhist teaching centers in the US, that you’d think that was primarily what the Buddha taught.

I’ve recently been reading several sutras from Majhima Nikaya. I’m struck by how often the Buddha gives advice and teaching other than meditation, or in addition to meditation.

For instance in a sutra called called The Grade of the Tamed (125) a novice bhikkhu is asked by a prince to explain the Dharma. The bhikkhu does–we are not told what he says–but the prince doesn’t understand the teaching, and that is the end of their meeting.

The bhikkhu decides to visit the Buddha and discuss what happened. Then the Buddha proceeds to explain by way of metaphor and teaching how the bhikkhu could have been more effective. The Buddha then summarizes the path of training for the bhikkhu.

Here’s what struck me in this reading, as well as other sutras—the Buddha often speaks to many, many practices in addition to meditation, in training a bhikkhu. In this instance, the Buddha first talks about precepts as initial training: “Come bhikkhu be virtuous, restrained…be perfect in conduct and resort…train by undertaking the training precepts.”

After this rather tall order is accomplished by the bhikkhu, he is ready for the next stage: “Come, bhikkhu, guard the doors of your sense faculties. On seeing a form with the eye, do not grasp at its signs and features….practice the way of restraint.” And as anyone knows who is familiar with Buddhist sutras knows, this identical advice is given for the other 5 sense faculties. The thing is, meditation is not mentioned as the way to accomplish this practice. The bhikkhu is taught to just do it.

After this the bhikkhu is taught to be moderate in eating, and sleeping. As a consequence, when he is now devoted to wakefulness, he next learns mindfulness: “Come bhikkhu, be possessed of mindfulness and full awareness. Act in full awareness when going forward and returning…when looking ahead and looking away….“ Still no mention of meditation: the mindfulness at this point sounds like it is to be practiced within one’s daily activities, not as seated meditation.

It is not until the bhikkhu possesses this mindfulness that the sutra finally provides instructions for meditation, including the four contemplations: body, feelings, mind and mind objects.

The point I am trying to make is that there are many teachings to Buddhism, in addition to meditation, yet we in the West somehow treat meditation as if it included the entire path. It’s clear to me that many other qualities in addition to meditation are involved in being a sincere student of the Buddhist path. We would be wise to learn and practice these broader teachings.