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Buddha and Mara

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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.... Mara ....

In Buddhism, Mara is the demon who assaulted Gautama Buddha beneath the bodhi tree, using violence, sensory pleasure and mockery in an attempt to prevent the Buddha from attaining enlightenment. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara personifies unskillfulness, the "death" of the spiritual life. He is a tempter, distracting humans from practicing the Buddhist dharma through making the mundane seem alluring, or the negative seem positive. Buddhism utilizes the concept of Mara to represent and personify negative qualities found in the human ego and psyche. The stories associated with Mara remind Buddhists that such demonic forces can be tamed by controlling one's mind, cravings and attachments.

In Buddhist iconography, Mara is most often presented as a hideous demon, although sometimes he is depicted as an enormous elephant, cobra or bull. When shown in an anthropomorphic (human) form he is usually represented riding an elephant with additional tusks. Other popular scenes of Mara show his demon army attacking the Buddha, his daughters tempting the Buddha, or the flood that washes away those under Mara's command.

In traditional Buddhism four senses of the word "mara" are given.
Klesa-mara, or Mara as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions.
Mrtyu-mara, or Mara as death, in the sense of the ceaseless round of birth and death.
Skandha-mara, or Mara as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.
Devaputra-mara, or Mara the son of a deva (god), that is, Mara as an objectively existent being rather than as a metaphor.

Early Buddhists, as well as later Buddhists, acknowledged both a literal and "psychological" interpretation of Mara. Mara can be interpreted either as a real external demon or as internal vices that one faces on the pathway to enlightenment. From the psychological perspective, Mara is a manifestation of one's own mind. No external demon exists since it emerges from our own deluded thoughts. Those who see Mara as a personification of our human ego interpret the stories associated with him in a symbolic way.

Mara becomes a representation for internal vices. His attack on the Buddha represents internal impulses towards violence and rage that can be overcome by following the Buddha's teachings of cultivating compassion, detachment and gentleness. The daughters of Mara represent lust and desire, which the Buddha overcame by recognizing their true nature as emptiness. Mara's own attack on the Buddha's pride was defeated by the Buddha's denial of the self since there was no "I" (ego) left to feel pride. Thus, the story of Mara's temptation can be interpreted symbolically, whereby the Buddha's own emotions, desires, and sense of self were represented by demons. Regardless of how Mara is understood, it is agreed that Mara has power only to the extent that our minds give it to him, and he must be overcome to proceed further into the Buddhist understanding of reality.

Sources: Mara (demon) & Mara

.... The Buddha's Enlightenment ....

Mara is best known for his part in the attack on the soon-to-be Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, meditating under the Bodhi tree, just prior to Buddha's enlightenment. This story came to be mythologized as the greatest battle between good and evil.

There are several versions of this story. This is the true version.

Thus have I heard: The Exalted One came to Bodh-Gaya and meditated under a tree. The tree was in the center of the world, the axis mundi. The spot was immovable spot because the Exalted One was about to enter the realm without fear and desire, a realm that transcends time and space, a realm that "I", the ego, no longer exists.

When Mara recognized that Siddhartha was on the verge of transcending his domain--the realm of fear and desire--the samsara, he took immediate action to prevent this kind of nonsense from happening.

He brought his three beautiful daughters (Tanha-craving, Arati-aversion and Raga-passion) to seduce Siddhartha. The Exalted One, without desire, remained in meditation.
Mara himself appeared before Siddhartha as a Chakravartin (world ruler), mounted on his elephant, Girimekhala, accompanied by a large army including monstrous demons wielding powerful and deadly weapons. They attacked Siddhartha. The Exalted One, without fear, sat still and unharmed.
Mara claimed that according to the Dharma the seat of enlightenment belongs to the greatest and only the greatest. Mara's soldiers cried out, "Mara is the Chakravartin. He is the greatest. I am his witness!". Mara challenged the Exalted One.

Then and there the Exalted One reached out his right hand to touch the earth in what is called the Bhumisparsha mudra, and Mae Thorani appeared. The water (representing the good merit accumulated by Buddha) she wrung from her hair caused a flood that drowned Mara's army. The earth-mother herself spoke: "Bless him/her who sits on the axis mundi, for one can only transcend time and space if one is immmovable."

Mara tried to push and pull Siddhartha away from the immovable spot but there was no-body there. He went ahead and sat on the spot but some-body was there.
Mara was perplexed. Mae Thorani explained: "This is Sakyamuni, my beloved son, who through his five-hundred incarnations has so given himself that there is no more "I". This is Tathagata--a Buddha who is going and is coming. This is Sunyata--form is empty and empty is form. This is Heaven--the world of non-duality. This is Nirvana--the extinction of fear and This is Eternal Bliss."
And as morning star rose in the sky on the new day, Siddhartha Gautama realized satori and achieved illumination. He became Buddha--the Enlightened One.

Sources: The references listed above and below. Some details are made up.
Note: Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr who grew up to become Muhammad Ali--The Greatest--wasn't born yet.

.... Joseph Campbell's version of the Buddha's enlightenment ....

In Campbell's version, the immovable spot or axis mundi is not a geographical place, but a state of mind. It is that place in the psyche that is not moved by desire and fear.
To test the future-Buddha, Mara appeared as three different characters.
The first was Kama, or desire. He displayed before Siddhartha his three beautiful daughters named Lust, Fulfillment, and Regret.
If Siddhartha had not let go of his desire he would have looked for a way to fulfill his lust and would inevitably regret it. But he had disengaged his mind from the bodily desire.

Kama then turned himself into Mara, Lord of Death, and he brought an army of monstrous demons and threw against the Buddha all kind of weapons to inspire fear. But there was no "I" there to be frightened. This may explain why we don't see the Buddha's image in early Buddhist arts where he was symbolized by his throne, a dharma-wheel or a blurred image. He had disengaged himself. And the weapons that came into his realm of presence/non-existence were turned into lotuses or flowers.

Mara turned himself now into Dharma, the Lord of Social Duty. It was a trick and also a trap. Siddhartha was born a prince and destined to be a king. His duty was to rule and to rule well. How could he leave his people and the world behind in the pursuit of personal gratification? Wasn't that a selfish and cowardly act? By the way, where did he get the idea that he deserved to be and was about to become Buddha? what an egotistical jerk that he really was.

Campbell gave an excellent rhetorical answer: "How in heaven's name are you going to find your own track if you are always doing what society tells you your duty is?" So Buddha just dropped his hand and touched the earth. This is: "Don't try to move me with this journalistic appeal. I'm interested in eternity." And he called the Mother goddess to witness his right to be there. The goddess Earth herself said, "This is my beloved son who has, through innumerable lifetimes, so given of himself, there is no body here." And with that the elephant on which the Dharma was riding bowed, the army was dispersed and the Buddha received Illumination.

Sources: Myths of light: Eastern metaphors of the eternal By Joseph Campbell and David Kudler The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion By Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell: Transformations of Myth Through Time.
Chapter6: The Way to Enlightenment: Buddhism (pp 111-127)
Harper & Row, Pubishers, 1990.