Friday, October 10, 2014

Mara, the Lord of Death (evil)

I'll watch this child to make sure he does not lead others out of my realm (countryfried)
The "Demon" Who Challenged the Buddha 
B. O'Brien
Many supernatural creatures populate Buddhist literature, but among these maras (killers, corrupters, defilers, obstructors) one Māra is spoken of as a single terrible being.
Mara may be evil, but he's cute.
Various maras are named, the two very worst being Namuci and Dusi (the first who oppressed the Buddha and the second who, surprisingly, was Maha Moggallana in the distant past in a previous existence, MN 50). They are some of the earliest non-human beings, along with the ever present angelic "shining ones," the devas, to appear in Buddhist texts.

Hellmuth Hecker, in his biography Maha-Moggallana, writes:

"About his recollection of his own former existences, [Ven.] Moggallana spoke only once, [which was] in the 50th [sutra] of the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya).... In the ["Rebirth Tales," or] Jatakas,...which have been recorded, is a very small number compared with the infinity of lives through which every being in Samsara has passed." [But it was in that life that Maha Moggallana was Mara Dusi, "Mara the Corrupter."]
Is Mara watching, obstructing my meditation?
Early Buddhism acknowledged both a literal and figurative (psychological) interpretation of "Mara." Mara is described both as an entity having an existence in the Sensual Sphere and as a shapeshifting being on Earth around the Buddha; maras are also described in the chain of Dependent Origination primarily as the guardian of passions, a catalyst for lust, hesitation, and fear that obstructs meditation among Buddhists.

Mara Namuci, Mara the "Evil" One, is a tempter, a demon chief, sometimes personified as the Lord of Death. He is not Death but because he leads to death, and endless rebirth and redeath, he is spoken of as Death. And in the case of Mara Devaputra, literally Mara "Son of God," that is, a kind of Cupid or Lucifer character, an angelic Mara "born among the devas," who fancies himself Lord or Overseer of the Sensual Sphere (kama dhatu).

Charming Mara and nun (HK)
He plays a role in many stories of the Buddha and Buddhist nuns and monks, particularly by the two with the greatest psychic powers, the chief female disciple Ven. Uppalavanna Theri and chief male disciple Ven. Maha Moggallana Thero (along with the two other chief disciples, foremost in wisdom, the nun Ven. Khema and monk Ven. Sariputra).
Mara is best known for attempting to obstruct and derail Siddhartha's great enlightenment, which made him the historical Buddha. This story has grown to mythological proportions, literally as a great battle with Mara, whose name means "destruction," leading armies of yakkhas (demons, ogres) and his own daughters, who represent the various passions that snare and delude us.

The Buddha's Enlightenment
The ascetic Siddhartha is assailed by Mara's armies, yakkhas (demons), and doubts.
Siddhartha hit on by Mara's daughters
There are several versions of this story; some fairly straightforward, some elaborate, some phantasmagorical. Here is a plain version:
As the about-to-be Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat in meditation, Mara brought his most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. Siddhartha,however, remained in meditation. Then Mara sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. Yet Siddhartha sat still and untouched.
Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to the mortal Siddhartha. Mara's monstrous soldiers cried out together, "I am his witness!" Mara challenged Siddhartha, who will speak for you?
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: "I bear you witness!" Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.

The Origins of Mara
How to personify Death?
Mara may have had more than one precedent in pre-Buddhist mythology. For example, it's possible he was based in part on some now-forgotten character from popular folklore.
Zen teacher Lynn Jnana Sipe points out in "Reflections on Mara" that the notion of a mythological being responsible for evil and death is found in Vedic Brahmanic mythological traditions and also in non-Brahamanic traditions, such as that of the Jains. In other words, every religion in India seems to have had a character like Mara in its myths.
Mara also appears to have been based on a drought demon of Vedic mythology named Namuci. The Rev. Jnana Sipe writes,
"While Namuci initially appears in the Pali Canon as himself, he came to be transformed in early Buddhist texts to be the same as Mara, the god of death. In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, with its associations of death-dealing hostility, as a result of drought, was taken up and used in order to build up the symbol of Mara; this is what the Evil One is like -- he is Namuci, threatening the welfare of [hu]mankind. Mara threatens not by withholding the seasonal rains but by withholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth."

Demon possession is real. However, Mara is not really a demon and cannot actually "possess" someone but can, as seen in MN 50, enter one's mind/heart and influence one by provoking that person's own unwholesome roots, the defilements (asavas, kilesas), the many expressions of greed, hate, and delusion. While we may say, "The devil made me do it!" we are still as karmically responsible as Mara for our own actions provoked in this way (SOAD).
Mara in the Early Texts
Beautiful Mara Devaputra at the Bodhi tree
The recently passed Buddhist scholar, prolific writer, and translator, University of the West dean, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the U.S., UNESCO and France, and Wisdom Quarterly teacher, Dr. Ananda W.P. Guruge (1929-2014), writes in the best and most complete book about the maras, The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter, that trying to put together a coherent narrative of Mara is close to impossible.
"In his Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, Professor G.P. Malalasekera introduces Mara as 'the personification of Death, the Evil One, the Tempter (the Buddhist counterpart of the Devil or Principle of Destruction).' He continues: 'The legends concerning Mara are, in the books [sutras, texts], very involved and defy any attempts at unraveling them.'"
Dr. Guruge writes that Mara plays several different roles in the early texts, and sometimes seems to be several different characters. Sometimes he is the embodiment of death; sometimes he represents unskillful actions, emotions, or conditioned existence (dependent origination) or temptation. Sometimes he is a "son of god" (devaputra), a common term in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism that simply means "reborn among the celestial devas."

Is Mara the Buddhist Satan?
Mara as represented by the Shakti Dance Company (
Although there are some obvious parallels between Mara and the Judeo-Christian Devil or Satan of the Abrahamic/monotheistic religions, there are also many significant differences.
Although both characters are associated with evil, it's important to understand that Buddhists understand "evil" differently from how it is understood in most other religions.

Trick or Treat Dick (Tom Tomorrow/TMW)
For example, "evil" (papa), which echoes another Buddhist term "proliferation" (papañca), is generally a synonym of "unskillful" (akusala). Unskillful is very broad and can be used to speak of any manifestation of greed, hatred/fear, or delusion, the roots of all harmful karma, all unwholesome and unprofitable deeds.
Conversely, in English, we reserve "evil" to mean not just "bad," but very-very bad. See "Buddhism and Evil" for an explanation. More

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