The armies of Mara confront the Buddha. "The Assault of Mara," painting on silk, early tenth century C.E., Dunhuang, China. © Reunion des Musees Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.
The armies of Mara confront the Buddha. “The Assault of Mara,” painting on silk, early tenth century C.E., Dunhuang, China. © Reunion des Musees Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

In popular mythology, devils are quixotic and cruel tyrants who relish tormenting their victims. Their vitality obscures how the demonic is subjectively experienced as a state of existential and psychological paralysis. When seized by a demon, one feels suffocated, oppressed, and fatigued as one struggles to be free from what entraps one. The devil is a way of talking about that which blocks one’s path in life, frustrates one’s aspirations, makes one feel stuck, hemmed in, obstructed. While the Hebrew “Satan” means “adversary,” the Greek diabolos means “one who throws something across the path.” In India, Buddha called the devil “Mara,” which in Pali and Sanskrit means “killer.”

In an early discourse entitled “The Striving,” Gotama recalls:

I was living on the bank of the Neranjara River, engaged in deep struggle, practicing meditation with all my strength in the effort to find freedom. Then Mara came up to me and started talking in words, appearing to be full of sympathy: “You are so thin and pale,” he said. “You must be nearly dead. It would be far better to live. You could do much good by leading a holy life.”

The Devil appears to have Buddha’s best interests at heart. At first glance what he says seems reasonable. Mara discourages Buddha’s asceticism and extols a life dedicated to doing good in the world. He does not encourage Gotama to do anything evil. His aim is to weaken his resolve to be free from the compulsive drives that trap him in cycles of anguish.

While speaking to Gotama, Mara “stood right next to Buddha.” The devil insinuates himself in such a way that he seems to be part of Buddha’s own thinking. But Buddha recognizes him. “I see your troops all around me, Mara,” he says, “But I will proceed with the struggle. Even if the whole world cannot defeat your army, I will destroy it with the power of wisdom, just as an unfired pot is smashed by a stone.”

To show his potency, Mara is depicted as a warlord mounted on an elephant, commanding a legion of troops. Buddha did not consider “any power so hard to conquer as the power of Mara.” He enumerates the armies under Mara’s command as sensual desire, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, lethargy, fear, doubt, restlessness, longing for gain, praise, honor and fame, and extolling oneself while disparaging others. Gotama tells of how he struggled to be free from these forces, which seemed to besiege and attack him, blur his vision, darken his understanding, and thus divert him from his goal of freedom.

Identifying with a desire or a fear tightens the knot that binds one to it and thereby increases the sway it can have over one. Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him. Instead of perceiving them as forces of an avenging army intent on his destruction, he recognized that they were no more solid than brittle, unfired pots that crumble on being struck by a well-aimed stone. As soon as Buddha stopped compulsively identifying the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arose within him as “me” or “mine,” Mara could no longer influence him.

This does not mean that Buddha was unaware of these thoughts and feelings or that they no longer occurred to him. Rather than deleting them, he discovered a way of being with them by which they could gain no purchase on him. Mara describes this with an analogy:

I remember once seeing a crow hovering above a lump of fat on the ground. “Food!” it thought. But the lump turned out to be a rock, hard and inedible; the crow flew away in disgust. I, too, have had enough; I’m like that crow pecking at a rock; I am finished with Gotama.

Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition within human natures. While “Buddha” stands for a capacity for awareness, openness, and freedom, “Mara” represents a capacity for confusion, closure, and restriction. To live with the devil is to live with the perpetual conflict between one’s Buddha-nature and one’s Mara-nature. When Buddha-nature prevails, fixations ease and the world brightens, revealing itself as empty, contingent, and fluid. When Mara-nature dominates, fixations tighten, and the world appears opaque, necessary, static. William Blake evokes a similar opposition in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Buddha-nature and Mara-nature are inseparable. Like a valve that can either be opened or closed, this organism has the capacity to unfold (Buddha) or shut down (Mara). The Sanskrit term translated as “nature” is garbha, which means “womb.” Buddha-nature is like the empty, warm, fertile space from which I was born. My womblike nature suggests that I am not the necessary, static self I feel myself to be, but a contingent creature with an extraordinary but often untapped capacity for growth and change. My Mara-nature, however, is that side of me that compulsively resists such transformation, refuses to be touched and impregnated with any ideas other than its own certainties, and stubbornly clings to the illusion of being a frozen and isolated self.

Or think of it like this: “Buddha-nature” stands for that open perspective whence one is free to respond to the call of others; “Mara-nature” stands for those fixed positions that prompt one to react. While a perspective allows the possibility of pursuing a path into the unknown, a position ensures that you never stray from the territory you have already staked out. Designating that territory as “Buddhist” or “postmodern” does not prevent it from becoming another stronghold of Mara. What was once a perspective can crystallize into a position. Convinced that you were moving ahead, you find that you have only traced another circle.

The Devil in Our DNA
Tricycle
interviews Stephen Batchelor.

Your new book, Living with the Devil, seems to argue that the Buddha still experienced troubling thoughts and emotions after he attained nirvana. Yes. What a lot of traditional Buddhists probably won’t like about this book is that it suggests that the Buddha—even the Buddha—continued to experience negative mind states. This is the only way I can explain passages in the early canon in which Mara keeps appearing before and challenging the Buddha after his enlightenment. That does not mean, however, that the Buddha was affected by these thoughts and emotions in the same way we are. His enlightenment enabled him to have a radically different relationship to these things, such that he was freed from their domination. The orthodox Buddhist view in virtually every school is that the Buddha is perfect: he simply doesn’t have a negative thought or self-centered emotion. The three poisons—hatred, greed, and delusion—have literally been cut off at the root, “never to arise again.” That, to me, is psychologically questionable and neurobiologically difficult to understand.

But isn’t it a core Buddhist tenet that the three poisons can be entirely extinguished? Even the early traditions make a distinction between what they call “nirvana with residue” and “nirvana without residue.” In other words, as long as the Buddha was still in his body, he was still subject to the “residue” of his previous karmic conditioning. Only when he died, and entered parinirvana [the complete cessation of personality and sensory experience] was his freedom no longer restrained by residual karma. This suggests that as long as one is living in a body, in the sensory world, one is still tied in some way to the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion—even if one is a Buddha. Otherwise, how do you make sense of the numerous passages in which Mara confronts the Buddha after the enlightenment? Buddha is said to have conquered Mara, but Mara keeps on reappearing. What can that mean?

That Mara exists independently of the Buddha . . . Yes, which is precisely what I have difficulty with. Traditional Buddhists would argue that Mara is a god, a deva, who comes down to earth, has a little chat with the Buddha, then goes off again. But I don’t inhabit a world populated by gods and spirits that magically appear and disappear. For me, the question is: “How do these texts speak to us in a way that does not require supernaturalistic beliefs?” I find supernaturalism to be an enormous obstacle in communicating Buddhist ideas. Not only does it take us away from our direct experience of the world, but it also dehumanizes the Buddha. In being represented as perfect, the Buddha loses something of his humanity. But if you think of Mara as a way of talking about an aspect of the Buddha’s own experience, then the Buddha is made human again.

What would be a “naturalistic” explanation for Mara’s appearing to Buddha after the enlightenment? I would understand greed, hatred, delusion, the big “baddies” in Buddhism, to originate from within our physical organism, our nervous system, our brain, which has developed over millions of years. The origins of hatred, craving, and so on would seem to be found in our own evolution. I can’t see where else they could come from. Unless, of course, one adopts the supernaturalistic notion of a formless, ethereal mind that somehow inhabits and affects the body while being essentially different from it—a dualistic idea I find hard to comprehend. And if our delusions are physiological in origin, then we have to ask how and to what extent a spiritual practice such as meditation can transform or remove them. Meditation would seem, as research suggests, to be capable of changing certain neural patterns in the brain. But can it completely eradicate such primal instincts as fear and desire? Maybe—but as long as we remain embodied animals, I doubt it.

So, Mara is with us until the end, built into our DNA, a part of everything? Yes. Even the evolutionary process itself, and the fact that we have to die, is Mara. The fact that the world is an unpredictable, uncontrollable place is Mara. Mara is identified with all five skandhas, or aggregates: the totality of our psychophysical existence is Mara. That doesn’t just mean our bodies and our minds; it also includes the sensory world itself. This is an idea that a lot of people will balk at. But actually it’s the classical Buddhist doctrine of Mara.

Then how is it we work against Mara? It seems that when consciousness evolves to a certain degree of conceptual self-awareness, we discover a curious freedom in which we are no longer driven by the blind forces of biology. We start asking questions like: “What is this existence?” “How can I lead a good life?” “Who am I?” As soon as we start exploring such questions, and try to put into practice the Buddha’s core insights into no-self, impermanence, and suffering, we find ourselves “going against the stream” of biological drives, as well as the constant shifting and unraveling of the phenomenal world itself. The Buddha called all this “Mara’s stream.”

Could you have Buddha, then, without Mara? Liberation only makes sense as a liberation from something. So Mara is necessarily part of that equation. You cannot have Buddha without Mara. Rather than thinking of the conquest of Mara as a one-off heroic episode in the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, we can understand it as a process that continues in each moment. Buddha is Buddha because in each moment he is conquering Mara. Mara is always there. Mara is the condition without which there could be no freedom and no path. In this sense, Mara and Buddha cannot be separated.

What happens when we do separate them? We fall into the trap of duality. Duality, both philosophically and psychologically, is this tempting idea that if only we could totally eliminate what we find unacceptable and evil, then we would be left exclusively with what we value and regard as good. This is not only naive, but dangerous. It is the kind of simplistic thinking that drives the conflicts currently bedeviling our world. It rests on the premise that you can have light with no darkness, good with no evil, Buddha with no Mara. But all these things are meaningless independent of their opposites. Our understanding of Buddha is dependent upon our understanding of Mara, just as our experience of freedom is dependent on our experience of bondage.

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