Mara and the Buddha

I. The personified Mara in the suttas, and our psychological encounter with Mara in our daily lives

Most of us have heard of Mara in the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese Agamas. He is sometimes personified as the Evil One, the tempter, the lord of sensuality. He uses forms, sounds, tastes, odors, tactile objects, and all kinds of mental objects as his bait to lure the Buddha and the Buddha’s disciples. Today, most of us do not encounter the personified Mara. However, we do experience encounters with Mara psychologically. How do we discern that Mara is showing up in our minds? How do we drive him away?

II. Mara’s tactic to lure of the Buddha

Once, the Buddha saw people afflicted with punishments in the realms ruled by unrighteous kings. Out of compassion, the Buddha reflected thus: “Is it possible to exercise rulership righteously: without killing and without instigating others to kill, without confiscating and without instigating others to confiscate, without having sorrow and without causing sorrow?” Then, Mara knowing what the Buddha thought by use of his own mind, approached the Buddha and urged him to exercise rulership righteously. The Buddha asked Mara what made him say such to him. Mara answered that it was because the Buddha’s spiritual power was so great, that if he should resolve his mind to turn the Himalayas, the king of mountains, to gold, the Himalayas would turn to gold.

The Buddha answered:
“If there were a mountain made of gold,
made entirely of solid gold,
not double this would suffice for one:
having known this, fare evenly.

“How could a person who has seen the source
from which suffering springs incline to sensual pleasures?
Having known acquisition as a tie in the world,
a person should train for its removal.”
(SN 4:20)

The Buddha saw, though, that Mara did not respect his ability in leadership. Instead, Mara was cunning enough to use this opportunity to tempt the Buddha with the lust for power and thereby keep the Buddha under his control. It is one’s skill in recognizing one’s sensual desires that defeats Mara. Often, our original intention is good. But our underlying tendency to lust for power, for material objects, can alter our original intention. Our conscience tells us to incline or lean neither to power nor to vanity. Therefore, our underlying tendency of leaning to desire hides deep inside our mind. Yet, it rationalizes itself with an obvious moral excuse: “Is it possible to rule with righteousness? Let me have some money so that I can help the poor. Let me make some profit in the stock market, so that I can meditate without worrying later on.” These are the expressions of Mara. One has to develop one’s power in order to see through the tricky bait. In this sutta, sensual desire is personified as Mara. Yet, in real life, Mara is the defilement underlying the tendency to sensual desire. It can manifest itself in many ways, having many types of camouflage, as in the guise of moral cause. It instigates one to all sorts of sensual desires.

This is the reason why the Bodhisatta, before his enlightenment, decided to separate his thoughts into two classes: one comprised sensual desire, ill will and cruelty; the other comprised renunciation, non-ill will and non-cruelty. This too is the reason that the Buddha calls “right view” the forerunner. It is as the dawn after the dark night. If you strengthen it, it will become brighter and brighter, and finally, it will drive away the dark night of the habitual inclination to seek sensual pleasure.

III. How does one defeat Mara?
The secret of defeating Mara is to understand sensual desires, the conditioned origin of sensual desires, their outcome, their cessation and the way leading to their cessation.

IV. What is sensual desire?
What is sensual desire? There are five cords of sensual pleasure. What five? They are “forms cognizable by the eye that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust; sound cognizable by the ear … odors cognizable by the nose … flavors cognizable by the tongue … tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust.”

These are the five cords of sensual desire. However, they are not sensual desires. They are merely the external condition for the arising of sensual desires. The Buddhist texts say:

Sensuality does not lie in the world’s pretty things;
A man’s sensuality lies in thought of passion.
While the world’s pretty things remain as they are,
The wise remove the desire for them.
(AN. VI,63)

V. What is the conditioned origin of sensual desires?
Let me tell a story of how Mara tried to confound the Buddha. After you hear the story, please figure out what the conditioned origin of sensual desires might be.

Once, Mara manifested himself in the guise of a ploughman, carrying a large plough on his shoulder, holding a long goad stick, his hair disheveled, wearing hempen garments, his feet smeared with mud. He approached the Buddha and said to him: “May be you’ve seen my oxen, ascetic?” “What are oxen to you, Evil One?” the Buddha said. “The eye is mine, ascetic, forms are mine, eye-contact and its base of consciousness are mine. Where can you go, ascetic, to escape from me?” (The Buddha replied:) “The eye is yours, Evil One, forms are yours, eye-contact and its base of consciousness are yours, but Evil One, where there is no eye, no forms, no eye-contact and its base of consciousness–there is no place for you there, Evil One.” (SN 4:19)

Why did Mara disguise himself as a ploughman and ask the Buddha if he had seen his oxen? The word “oxen” is balivadda in Pali. Oxen are used to symbolize the sense organs and sense objects. We find this usage in the Kotthita Sutta of the Book of the Six Sense Bases. Ven. Mahakotthita asks Ven. Sariputta thus: “Is the eye the fetter of forms or are the forms the fetter of the eye?” Ven. Sariputta answers: “Friend, Kotthita, the eye is not the fetter of forms nor are forms the fetter of the eye, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there.” Then he gave a simile: “Suppose a black ox and a white ox were yoked together by a single harness or yoke. Would one be speaking rightly if one were to say: ‘The black ox is the fetter of the white ox; the white ox is the fetter of the black ox?'” “No, friend. The black ox is not the fetter of the white ox nor is the white ox the fetter of the black ox, but rather the single harness or yoke by which the two are yoked together: that is the fetter there. So too, friend, the eye is not the fetter of forms … nor are mental phenomena the fetter of the mind, but rather the desire and lust that arises there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there.” [MSOffice1](SN 35:232)

In the above-mentioned sutta, the Ven Sariputta uses the ox metaphorically to mean sense faculty and sense object. So, the Kassaka Sutta uses this same wordplay. When Mara guised himself as a ploughman to confound the Buddha by asking the Buddha if he had seen his oxen, if the Buddha wasn’t able to see through Mara, the Buddha would take balivadda as oxen, thinking that the ploughman was only looking for his lost oxen, and then the Buddha would answer Mara with an ordinary understanding. However, the Buddha knew that the ploughman was only a manifestation of Mara. Therefore, the Buddha countered the ploughman with, “What are oxen to you?” Then, Mara answered by taking balivadda as sense organs, sense objects, etc., and said, “The eye is mine, ascetic, forms are mine, eye-contact and its base of consciousness are mine. Where can you go, ascetic, to escape from me?” The Buddha answered that where there are no sense faculties, no sense objects, no contact and its base of consciousness–there would be no place for Mara to find the Buddha.

The message of the story is expressed in the following verse:
Mara:
“That of which they say “It’s mine.”
And those who speak in terms of “It’s mine.”
You should know thus, O Evil One:
Even my path you will not see.”
The Buddha:
“That which they speak of is not mine,
I’m not one of those who speak of mine.
You should know thus, O Evil One:
Even my path you will not see.”
In a word, when consciousness meets the sense object via sense door, if one thinks in terms of “mine,” one dwells in the domain of Mara. On the contrary, if one does not think in terms of “mine,” one is free from the domain of Mara.

[MSOffice1]You should complete the quotation by applying the simile.

Xing

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