Mara is the anti-Buddha. He’s the tempter in Buddhist mythology, the demon luring us to love of material success and worldly pleasures, the trickster who diverts us from mindfulness, who encourages us to cling. He’s not the Abrahamic Devil, but he sure has what Westerners call devilish ways. He wants to drive us away from enlightenment.
The Buddha presumably had had many encounters with Mara, but two stand out, one when the Buddha was a young man and one toward the end of his life.
The first encounter came during the process of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree. As the story goes, Mara threw everything he had at the Buddha — beautiful women, armies of monsters, challenges to his right to enlightenment. But the Buddha touched the earth with his right hand, and the earth bore witness to him. The Buddha defeated Mara and attained enlightenment.
It’s the encounter toward the end of the Buddha’s life that intrigues me. As this story goes, the Buddha is resting in a cave, attended to — as usual — by his faithful cousin and attendant, Ananda. Throughout the Buddhist canon, Ananda is his master’s foil, asking the innocent and sometime naive question and then memorizing the Buddha’s answer to pass on to new students.
In this story, Ananda is outside the cave allowing the master to get some much-needed rest when he sees Mara approach. As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story, Ananda informs Mara that the Buddha has no time for him, but Mara is persistent in wanting to pay a call on the enlightened one. Finally, Ananda loses his cool and calls Mara the Buddha’s enemy.
With that, Mara laughs heartily and says: “Are you telling me that the Buddha has enemies?”
Ananda sees no choice but to tell the Buddha that Mara has come to visit. He expects the master to dismiss Mara quickly and return to his rest, but the Buddha shocks his cousin by welcoming the visit from his old “friend.” The Buddha shows Mara to the best spot to sit in the cave and orders Ananda to make tea for them.
When the Buddha asks Mara about his well-being, Mara says he’s unhappy — tired of being Mara. Everywhere he goes, he has to practice trickery, and when he breathes he has to make smoke come out of his nose. We surrounds himself with evil little Maras, and to add insult to injury, he hears them talking about liberation and Buddha-hood. Mara asks the Buddha to trade roles with him.
The Buddha replies that life isn’t easy for him either. He teaches the dharma, and people fail to understand it. They invent quotations he never said. (Sound familiar?) They do things in the Buddha’s name that go counter to his teachings. Sometimes they carry him around in outlandish processions. “I don’t think that you would enjoy being the Buddha,” he tells Mara. He suggests that they keep their respective roles, learn to do them better, and enjoy them for what they are.
That may have been good life counseling for Mara, but it is also a story with a point about non-duality. Flowers and vegetables make garbage, and garbage makes flowers and vegetables. Nhat Hanh said:
Flowers and garbage are of an organic nature because both flowers and garbage are living realities. Buddha and Mara are also organic, and they need each other. It is thanks to the difficulties, thanks to the temptations, that the Buddha has overcome his suffering and his ignorance and become a fully enlightened being.
Ananda was wrong to call Mara an enemy of the Buddha, but if he had a 21st Century English slang dictionary, he might have done better with “frenemy.”
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine