The Dawn of the DhammaSucitto Bhikkhu

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Chapter 13

The Host of Mara

Yavakivañca me bhikkhave … abhisambuddho paccaññasim.
As long, bhikkhus, as these Four Noble Truths in their twelve aspects were
not seen clearly as they are, I did not declare to the world—with its devas,
maras, and brahmas, with its samanas and brahmins, its monarchs and ordinary folk—
that I had realized the complete and perfect Awakening.

In other words, here the Buddha is telling the Group of Five that he didn’t teach this until he had actually put it into practice himself. The Buddha has already penetrated the Four Truths in their twelve aspects. From that perspective, this picture looks back to what it was like before having had those realizations. It is also a portrayal of the problems that beset all contemplatives, bearing marked similarity to the spiritual ordeals of mystics of all religions. Two intertwined serpents representing desire and ignorance completely encircle the center where the Bodhisatta¹ is seated in meditation surrounded by a provocative horde of demons and fellow-humans. These two serpents form a screen that prevents the Bodhisatta from seeing the Four Noble Truths, represented by the four emblems in the corners of the square framing the inner circle.

The center of the painting is congested. This represents the way difficulties of the mind seem to a sincere but unenlightened contemplative. Activating the aspiration to be free from attachments makes the mind more keenly aware of their presence, and of the difficulties encountered in relinquishing them. It entails putting forth energy in ways that do not gratify the outflows of the mind. When the outflowing habits are no longer catered to, their unresolved energy starts to throw up a lot of fantasy, doubt, and longing. The instinctive flow of energy towards self-view creates ideas and feelings that are constantly seen in terms of self. Furthermore, the very process of outflow and attachment is identified with—one feels that one is an attached person: “Is this the right Path for me?”; “I shouldn’t have such doubts”; “I shouldn’t repress doubts”; “Why am I a repressive person?” and so on. These all contribute to the sense of self, which is an oppressive, congested feeling. Even a relatively insensitive person feels shut in when selfishness, self-consciousness or any of the more developed creations of self-view are operating.

The unenlightened practice is to smother one set of self-images with another: drive oneself hard to prove that one isn’t lazy; be austere to prove that one isn’t greedy; be indulgent in order to be a more fun kind of person … keep becoming somebody to suppress the doubts, guilts and anxieties that are an inevitable feature of self-centered life. The mental congestion gets pretty dense. That’s why the realization that “there is suffering” is such an important stage. The time for this realization ripens when the energy of the outflows has waned enough for the mind to recognize that there is a lot of stuff to be resolved. Some people haven’t enough space to see that yet.

The experience of the hindrances is not all bad news. It is a sign that the mind is bringing to light unawakened habits that need to be known insightfully. As it is taught in the Satipatthana Suttas, the first contemplation of Dhamma, of the way things are, is the contemplation of the five hindrances. These are sense-desire, ill-will, dullness, doubt and restlessness. Contemplation of these is a matter of noticing their presence, their arising and passing, and what causes their arising and passing. With mindfulness, the mind can focus on how it is being pulled by desire or aversion, and see that desire hinges upon the need to gratify, defend or annihilate the self. Hence the forces of greed, aversion and delusion are always founded on self-view.

Although one can alleviate and dispel them in obvious ways—such as cultivating detachment, kindness, concentration, alertness and investigative reflection—the hindrances always come back until self-view is abandoned. As long as one imagines that the personal realm of the five khandhas has to be something that one feels fulfilled by, there is always going to be the sense of need, uncertainty, disappointment or even bitterness within that realm. To gain the dispassionate perspective that frees the mind from this view is a life’s work; not necessarily because it takes a long time but because it is strengthened by the variety of experience that a human life presents. All things, even the pleasant and commendable things that we think we are or ought to be, must be released from ownership. Here the image of the Buddha’s life is again worthy of reflection.

The traditional image of the Bodhisatta attempting to realize Awakening portrays him seated in meditation beset by a whole horde of demonic forces and energies called the host of Mara. Mara, the demon, the figure of death, the deluder, appears frequently in the Pali Canon. Although he is generally presented as a separate entity, there is the strong suggestion that Mara is an aspect of one’s own mind. This is backed up by the way that his host have names akin to the Seven Deadly Sins of medieval Christianity. It’s the way that Mara speaks in the mind that gives him his deluding quality. Mara says things that appeal to the sense of self like: “Take it easy. There’s a nice palace in Kapilavatthu waiting for you, which is much more pleasant and useful than wasting your time here.” Sometimes Mara is critical: “When are you going to face up to your responsibilities and get a decent job instead of sitting under this Bodhi tree contemplating your navel? What kind of a Bodhisatta are you with all these crazy thoughts going on in your mind?” And sometimes congratulatory: “Well, you’re really enlightened now, you don’t need to deal with this world of unawakened idiots.” Mara is always persistent and cunning: “O.K., this is the voice of delusion; but it keeps on going and you’re never going to shake it off.” Mara is the force that identifies us with conditions. The first thing that Mara attacks is the faith that there is a Way and the confidence to keep practicing it. Without faith the energy of aspiration dies, there’s no mindfulness, no concentration and no insight.

The enlightened response to this voice of Mara is to say, “I know you, Mara—I know this is just a delusion.” This is the unshakeable confidence in the power of mindfulness that the Bodhisatta demonstrates by remaining cool and unmoving in the midst of the demon host. Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha was assailed by Mara. One example was when the Buddha had paced up and down in meditation for a great part of the night. The Buddha washed his feet, entered his hut, took up the lion’s posture (that is lying down on his right side, placing one foot on the other, mindful, clearly aware, and attentive to the thought of getting up again). Then Mara, the Evil One, approached and came into his presence, addressing him with these words: “What, do you sleep? For what reason do you sleep when the sun is risen?”

The Buddha’s response (in slightly different words) was: “I sleep but there is no entanglement of craving in me. What, Mara, is there here for you?”² In other words, “So what, I’m resting! What’s it to you?” Here, Mara assumes the form of the nagging inner tyrant of the mind that is always ready to take the darkest view of our behavior.

At other times, Mara’s approach differs. Mara is not fussy as to how he chooses to entangle you with self-view. Mara can justify sensual indulgence as “freedom to open to the sensory realm;” he can call self-hatred “being honest and firm.” It is impossible to name all the constituent members of Mara’s army, but the generals of the army have been identified as Sense Desire, Boredom, Hunger and Thirst, Craving, Sloth, Cowardice, Doubt, Obstinacy, Worldly Gain and Fame, and Conceit [See Sutta Nipata: 436-8 (Padhana Sutta)]. They have one thing in common—they all stampede the mind towards self-view through identification with sense-data (kamasava), becoming (bhavasava) or denial of dukkha (avijjasava).

On the outside of the central panel are the Four Noble Truths, which the Bodhisatta hasn’t seen because of this veil of ignorance and craving still surrounding his mind. The core of all of the obstructions to enlightenment is the triad of greed, hatred and delusion. If we work inwards, the symbols of these manifestations of Mara begin to appear. At the bottom of the inner picture is the hog of delusion. The hog is wearing spectacles which represents the love of abstract speculative thought such as, “What if everybody sat under a Bodhi tree, who would milk the cows? If the Dhamma is here and now, why do anything special to realize it? Isn’t spiritual practice a self-centered manipulation of the mind?” Despite the ingenuity of its questions, the hog itself remains caught up with ineffectual opinions.

Here, the hog is portrayed carrying a lot of books. These represent love of intellectual understanding. Intelligence can be deluding! People can become so enamored by ideas that they fail to notice whether these have any good effects. Ideas can be used to justify fanaticism and brutality towards other beings. Attachment to ideas can divorce people from direct experience where sensitivity, virtue and peace are found. The thinking mind, if followed blindly, will make one feel that one is getting close to Truth—here represented by the key that the skeletal figure on the left is proffering—but in fact the thinking mind is merely fascinated with the feeling of knowing and having interesting thoughts buzzing in the mind. So delusion can be both an extremely intelligent yet ignorant quality—ignorant of the laws of cause and effect or of what is for the well-being of others. Filling one’s mind with a lot of ideas can be one way of blocking out the awareness of how things are.

The skeleton on the left is riding on the cockerel of greed. This skeleton has several sets of arms to suggest some of the objects that greed can pick up. The most obvious one, represented by playing the lute, is the attachment to sweet and flowing sensations. Beautiful sounds are included, as well as all the things that stir the emotions. We like to feel aroused and think: “Maybe enlightenment is a permanently high state of sweetness and light.” Another hand is offering the key of knowledge to the hog of delusion: “Maybe if we had more ideas and knowledge, we could develop a syncretic wisdom of the ancients and the moderns—psychotherapy, Kabbala, Gnostic Christianity, Abhidhamma, neo-Platonism, Taoism—that would give us the sum total of enlightened knowledge. After all, we wouldn’t want to be narrow-minded!” With this approach, we tend to get confused and never bring up the kind of resolve needed to keep practicing any one of these Ways through the highs and lows of inspiration and boredom. It’s an eclectic kind of delusion.

Notice the religious insignia on Mara’s coat, and the set of hands clasped in prayer. Greed can also affect our inclination towards spiritual experiences, insights and practices. We can want to saturate our minds with meditation techniques, arcane knowledge, ritual empowerment and devotional exercises, and miss the point. Mara can make anything into a substitute for knowing how all phenomena really are. The telltale sign of Mara operating is that the mind has to keep active in order to sustain the fabricated quality of delusion. No matter how hard we try, we can never get enough, and the ignorant mind keeps wasting the opportunity to look at that very experience of “not enough” as the First Noble Truth. Yet that looking is what turns practices and techniques into tools for liberation. It is only the ability to reflect on even religious phenomena as relative, conventional truth, not literally the Absolute One and Only, that brings the mind out of the spin of desire and ignorance.

Coiling over the Bodhisatta from his left side is the serpent of hatred, with a wrathful ascetic seated on its head. There are many things that can irritate the mind and cause feelings of hatred to arise. Some of them are occupying the bottom right hand corner of the picture—figures involved in acts of violence. These are the grossest forms of mental defilements: lust and hatred—the things from which one recoils with the most horror. The ascetic figure up here is bashing them down, saying to the Bodhisatta: “Why don’t you do something about this? You’ve got to take steps to wipe all this out.” And the Bodhisatta is listening to that voice in the mind as hatred. Hatred of hatred, hatred of greed or hatred of lust is itself an unskillful root. It’s not that one should approve of or do nothing about evil, but one’s actions to remove the demons must come from a positive aspiration rather than from hatred. Unless positive energies of wisdom and compassion are brought into the mind, negative states are created, and there is no end to it. So meditators are encouraged to practice listening to their grudges and wrathful indignation with a welcoming, calm mind. Having no negative feedback, the demons fade away. This can provide a foundation for Right Action with regard to working with other people’s anger also.

Further within the circle are more personal images that might have haunted the Bodhisatta’s mind. At the bottom, on the hog’s back is his son Rahula (the name means “fetter”) crying out to his father. The figure astride the cockerel of greed is bringing up the memory of Siddhattha’s wife, Yasodhara—beautiful, gentle and devoted. How could he abandon them? Behind the Bodhisatta’s right shoulder are the figures of his father, Suddhodana, and his stepmother Mahapajapati. Suddhodana is offering the crown: “Come home, son, and rule Kapilavatthu. I’m getting old, we need you.” Meanwhile, on the Bodhisatta’s left are his five samana colleagues. Some look shocked that Siddhattha has abandoned the path of asceticism. Some declaim him saying: “You’re all washed up, Siddhattha. You couldn’t hack it as a prince, then you backed out of spiritual life too!”

Notice that they are all convincing, and all are personal. Their personal quality is what makes them convincing. The notion of boundless, timeless Awakening doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the image of being a comforting presence for your son in his formative years. Most of us take the personal world as reality and base our actions upon it. And yet, Siddhattha had fully understood the personal realm. His early considerations were that all beings were subject to old age, sickness and death. His leaving the family was an enactment of what was ultimately inevitable: separation from the loved. And it was undertaken for the sole reason of rigorous self-inquiry—the aspiration to find a Truth that would set people free from the fear and despair of mortality. No matter how good a son, husband or father Siddhattha would be, his family would experience suffering, aging, disappointment, separation and death. Siddhattha himself was not secure from death—how could he accept the position of being a refuge to his family, when he couldn’t even be a refuge to himself? How could he be the leader of a group of spiritual seekers when he had no Truth to follow?³

The insight into “there is suffering” begins to reveal the core of the existential problem of humanity which arises from taking the five khandhas as an identity. Desire systems issue forth from that false assumption. Wanting to have something, be something or get away from something; wanting someone else to be or not be something—all that arises out of self-view is dukkha. Mara is always right there saying that dukkha can only be shifted by changing the circumstances. Then if you change the circumstances (Mara says) everything will be all right. Siddhattha will be perfectly happy, Suddhodana will be perfectly happy, Yasodhara will be happy, and Rahula will be happy. Mara makes you forget that the personality realm is unsatisfying and changeable; that it can’t be a haven of bliss even with a good measure of cosmetics and distraction.

Even those of us who are not intent on complete Awakening, but just want a little more peace of mind, need to know about the host of Mara. Whenever one is meditating, a quite responsible and reasonable idea will come along and start to poke: “The lawn needs cutting, you know! I really ought to get out and cut that lawn. Am I just being irresponsible by sitting here meditating? After all, the lawn does need cutting.” Maybe the lawn does need cutting, but does it have to be right at this minute? But the voice of Mara goes on and says: “Well I can’t really practice now anyway with that on my mind. Mow the lawn now, then I’ll meditate later.” Once we begin, we find that there are endless numbers of things that we ought to do. If we believe it, we find ourselves caught in the spin. And Mara says: “Well, I’m too agitated to meditate now anyway, maybe I’ll just relax for a while … or maybe tomorrow … or maybe when I retire.” When we reinforce these habits of mind, we establish that the conditions required for meditation are of being calm and having nothing going on in the mind. So we miss the opportunity to insightfully investigate the thoughts and drives that really affect us, the very ones that need to be understood. Game, set and match to Mara.

But for insight, one doesn’t need to experience a great deal of calm or have lofty thoughts. Insight is based on looking into the way it is now. The more convincing and habitual the mood is, the less it should be heedlessly followed. The ordinary, unquestioned habits and assumptions are the very ones that we need to see as impermanent, coming from conditioning and not from a fundamental self. Otherwise, meditation becomes an irrelevant and fruitless hobby.

Of course, if the lawn does need cutting, there’s a time for this. But recognize that there are always responsibilities and things to do, and many of them are based on good reasons. Then consider whether it will ever stop, and can it ever be done? I mean, can the lawn ever be finally cut? As soon as it’s cut, it starts growing again; then you’re back mowing the lawn. Is one’s life going to be a round of cutting lawns? Is this what you’re born for? To work for the welfare of all lawns, or the garden, or washing the car, or fixing the house, walking the dog, and so on? Maybe one should consider more clearly the amount of responsibilities that are undertaken and their purpose. There has to be an ability to look steadily at the compulsive drives within oneself and question their validity.

Not that we should blindly reject social responsibilities. They help us check whether our intention is to get away from something (which we can never do anyway) or to get to some pleasant comfortable space. Any trace of self-interest will always bring up greed, rejection or delusion. However, complete enlightenment is a higher goal and more fruitful for all beings than that of being a good person in conventional terms.

These restless, distracting hindrances are what the host of Mara are about. They make us think that the real world is the world of sense-data, becoming and self-view—the world of the outflows. The aim of insight is to practice in the presence of the host without suffering. Instead of feeling alarmed, ashamed or infatuated by their presence, one develops the ability to dispel them temporarily. That gives rise to an understanding that they are visitors, and not-self. With this confidence, undistracted energy arises in the mind, and, with that, zest and joy. Such spiritual factors lead to the full Awakening of the mind, to true peace. Then the need for position and states of being or the rejection of the sense realm—all that which is the expression of the outflows—can be abolished.

Notice how the forces of Mara completely hem in the Bodhisatta. Yet the Bodhisatta is sitting quite coolly, serene and peaceful; not trying to push away, reject or run away from them. The Bodhisatta is listening, turning his eye inwards—alert and upright to the way things are, to the pain and sounds of the world, the belief, despair and hope of it. And he is remaining on one spot—the place of knowing. When he has fully Awakened, there will be no Siddhattha, no Kapilavatthu, no Bodhisatta and no self in the realm of birth and death; only the Awakened Purity. Hereafter, he will be called “Buddha,” the One who knows the Way it is.

  1. “Bodhisattva” (Sanskrit) is more commonly found, but I am using the Pali version of this word to connote the Theravada use of the term. In Theravada, “Bodhisatta” applies to someone inclining towards Buddhahood. There is only one Bodhisatta in the world system at any time. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many Bodhisattvas in each world system postponing final realization to help other beings who have not yet penetrated ignorance and craving. This is indeed an inspiring idea. [return to text]
  2. A rendition of the substance of Samyutta Nikaya: [ 1 ], Mara, 1, 7. In this chapter, there are many other incidents of Mara trying to weaken the confidence of the Buddha. [return to text]
  3. It is interesting to note that if Siddhattha had left home in order to fight for his country, our sense of moral indignation about him “deserting his family” would not be aroused. We have accepted that it is a noble and honorable thing to fight “the enemy”—causing death, bitterness and grief, but not to “fight” the spiritual enemy—giving rise to wisdom, compassion and an ethical path. We must also note that, after his enlightenment, the Buddha did return to Kapilavatthu to give the teaching that brought many of his family to complete enlightenment. [return to text]