At the outset here one needs to be aware that the context in which Māra(s) is spoken is mythic in scope. Far more than any cognitively-based amalgams of collective-experiences shared in the human psyche—this mythos is more-than-human. It involves cosmic-forces that have been around longer than the early dawn of mankind’s limited evolutionary experiences. As Robert Warren Clark states in his excellent Dissertation, Māra: Psychopathology and Evil in the Buddhism of India and Tibet:
I can find no evidence in Sanskrit, Pali or Tibetan sources of any Buddhist authority who would deny the literal reality of deities and demons in general, and of Mara (i.e., Devaputramara) in particular.
Another advocate of the reality of these cosmic-forces is Patanjali, who “warned yogins against being seduced away from their pursuit of transcendence of samsara by celestial beings and their divine pleasures.”
“The temptations of celestial beings lead to attachment and pride, and must not be accepted as they lead to loss of attainment.” Yoga-Sturas, III, 51)
Let us now turn and utilize Clark’s excellent text that sheds infinite light on the karmic, and thus psychological, components of the Māra phenomenon.
The theme of Māra represents a complex matrix of meaning in Buddhist psychology and doctrine. His mythological role is that of the powerful deity who stands in opposition to the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas who would lead living beings beyond his saṃsāric kingdom to the peace and blessedness of nirvāṇa. This mythological role is associated with psychological and philosophical principles in presentations of Buddhist doctrine. Mara becomes identified with whatever psychological tendency or philosophical view which is seen as obstructing progress toward transcendence of the samsara. These tendencies and views are described in accordance with the priorities, strategies and outlooks of each body of doctrine and school of Buddhist thought.
We will therefore see that the significance of Mara, the archetypal demon of Buddhism, derives from the evils of samsara, the cycle of endless rebirth, and to the mental states, the psychopathologies, which imprison beings within it. (Clark)
Buddhist psychology is not so much concerned with individual psychosis, but rather is concerned with the nature of mind that can be liberated from the effects of samsara.
Adjustment to and enjoyment of this life characterizes the goal of Western psychology, but is viewed as the bait in the trap of samsara by the Buddhist. Both seek liberation from misery, but view the context of misery in very different ways. The Western psychologist attempts to wean the neurotic client from infantile or childish occupations and enjoyments, and replace them with those of the adult. Buddhist psychology attempts to wean the individual from normal adult occupations and enjoyments and replace them with the transcendental activities of the Arahant or Bodhisattva. Whatever opposes these processes is associated with psychopathology, that is, in the Buddhist context, with the figure or motif of Mara. (Clark)
This is not saying, however, that the element of psychopathologies are absent; what’s more, any force that attempts “to prevent or obstruct the Bodhisattva or Buddhist practitioner becomes a demon, that is, a Māra or Māra-like figure.”
Inanimate phenomena, such as objects of enjoyment, as well as psychological and physical constituents of the practitioner of Buddhism also become indentified with Māra when they obstruct progress on the Buddhist Path…
Māra, Māra-like beings and their corresponding internal processes and tendencies may be viewed as a Buddhist analogues of the id, or more generally, of psychopathology. These Māras may be concrete living entities (amānuṣamāra,), as well as pathological mental states (vikalpanāmā). Both types of Māras have a significant place in the psychology of Buddhism. It will be seen that all Māras are either internal psychological factors, that is, included in the category of vikalpa, or are autonomous entities dependent upon the vikalpa of their victim in order to work their mischief. Vikalpa are mental processes arising out of the fundamental cognitive error known as holding to a false sense of self (ātmagrāha) which create an illusory dichotomy between subject and object. This dichotomy leads to the pathological mental states (kleśa) such as greed, hatred, delusion, etc…
Most of what is associated with the term Māra appears to be subsumed within what the Theragāthā Commentary maintains as the five ways in which the Buddha uses the term Mara, viz., Khandha-Māra, the Māras associated with the five psycho-physical aggregates of samsaric existence; Kileśa-Māra, the Maras associated with the emotional and cognitive mental processes which bind an individual to saṃsāric existence; Abhisankhāra-Māra, the Māras associated with the accumulated karma which creates the conditions of saṃsāra-, Maccu-Māra, the Māras associated with the process of death (i.e., the interminable and inexorable process of birth, death, and rebirth); and Devaputta-Māra, lord of the highest heaven, chief deity whose kingdom is the saṃsāra itself and who obstructs anyone who strives to escape it.
The most common classification of the demonic, that is, of psychopathology and/or evil, in Buddhist,, and especially in Mahayana literature is The Four Māras (catvārimāra), viz., (1) Māras of the Aggregates (skandhamāra) Māras of the Afflictive States (kleṣamāra); Māras of Death (mṛtyupatimāra or maranamāra,); and Heavenly Māras devaputramāra). [Clark]
Overcoming the false, no-self beast
Any false mental processes, (vikalpa), revolve-around that false notion of Selfhood, ātmagrāha:
Ātmagrāha is the holding to holding to a false sense of self in that it is the belief in a truly existent self (of persons or phenomena). It is the fundamental psychological factor which gives rise to all vikalpas and kleśas, and related mental functions of conceptual proliferation (e.g., papañca) and is therefore identified as the ultimate cause of bondage to the saṃsāra. Ātmagrāha is the philosophical and psychological Māra in its most essential form. The Māra of Buddhist mythology represents, both as an embodiment and a proponent, the entire complex of philosophical and psychological factors which cause bondage to the saṃsāra. Various textual and oral traditions develop the character or Māra and the descriptions of these factors in different ways. However, the most essential character of Māra and the ultimate principle of psychopathology and evil is always ātmagrāha. (Clark)
The Prajñāpāramita as defense
Of course, one sure-way to counteract the demons of this false, no-self beast, is to have a firm foundation in the six paramitas:
“Generosity is a practice leading to liberation whereby one gives freely of one’s body, possessions and merits. This fulfills the hopes of living beings, dispels avarice, and makes one confident, fearless and honored by all.”
“Ethics is a practice leading to liberation whereby the effects of evil actions and the influence of the kleśas are purified. It causes one to become revered among all people, and to gather them together without threats or force. Proper ethics are therefore guarded with the utmost care by the wise.”
“Patience is a practice leading to liberation which is the most excellent attribute of powerful persons. It is the most effective ascetic or spiritual practice for those beset by kleśas. It is the best weapon against the great enemy, anger. It is the best defense against harmful words, etc. Because of this, patience must be cultivated and practiced by every possible means available.”
“Firm and unremitting effort is a practice leading to liberation which causes the good qualities of learning and understanding to continually increase. Through effort, all activities become meaningful, and whatever work is begun, is then finished in accordance with the goal. Understanding this, Bodhisattvas generate a great force of effort which dispels all indolence.”
“Meditation is a practice leading to liberation whereby one gains complete control over one’s mind. When settled in meditation, one gains the power of peace and stability. After arising from meditation, all virtuous actions may be readily engaged, and the body and mind take on a blissful sense of fitness and well-being. Understanding this, great yogins continually adhere to the practice of concentration which destroys the great enemy of distraction.”
“Wisdom is the faculty which perceives profound Suchness. It is the technique which finally and completely uproots samsara. It is the treasure-trove of virtue and accomplishment universally praised in all of the sacred texts. It is the supreme method for clearing away the darkness of ignorance and delusion. Understanding this, those who truly desire liberation make unceasing efforts to generate wisdom.” (Tsongkhapa)
Indeed, training in the Prajñāpāramita is the surest course of action that will ultimately defeat the Māradhatu (all the realms of the Evil One). We recently concluded a series that dealt with the “High-Buddhagnosis” of the Prajñāpāramita; if faithfully cultivated, it is a most effective strategy in the defeat of the Māras:
Training in Suchness by a Bodhisattva would entail efforts focused upon the apprehension of ultimate realities as distinct from conventional realities, as understood in the śūnyatā doctrine of the Prajñāpāramita. The text suggests that the very attempt to apprehend Suchness, that is, to distinguish the real from the merely apparent, the unconditioned from the samsaric, tends to reduce or destroy vulnerability to Māras…
The power of the Prajñāpāramita to overcome Maras is further specified by the Buddha as arising from the perfect insight into (ultimate) reality which is free from the apprehension of Maras and others who would interrupt or obstruct the Bodhisattva’s practice. These “others”, who are grouped together with Mara as opponents of the Bodhisattva, include divinities of Mara’s hosts, persons belonging to the Pratyekabuddha or Śrāvaka Vehicles, heretics, bad spiritual friends, etc. The Buddha testifies that none of these, nor anything else, can obstruct a Bodhisattva whose mind is stabilized in the perfection of wisdom because these would-be opponents lack any true reality. They are conventional, conditioned samsaric phenomena. This Bodhisattva who practices the Prajñāpāramita, however, becomes grounded in ultimate reality (i.e., unconditioned phenomena) and cannot be disturbed by the phenomena of samsara. (Clark)