Māras in the Sutrayana
The Lotus Sutra’s interpretation of Māra is similar to his portrayal in the Pali Canon. He is an evil deva who occupies a prominent place in the Cosmos and who seeks to wreck-havoc on those who adhere to the Buddhadharma.
In Chapter XXVI of the Lotus Sutra, the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra vows to protect practitioners of the Dharma so that they will not be harmed by, “Māra the Evil One, nor the sons of Mara (Māraputrā), the angels called Mārakāyikas (Māra-kāyika devaputra), the daughters of Māra (Māra kanyā), the followers of Māra (Māra parṣad), and all other servitors to Māra (Māra pariyuṭṭhito) that no gods, goblins, ghosts, imps, wizards, spectres laying snares for those preachers may surprise them.” (Clark)
It is also stated that the Lotus-Sutra “as text” issues a form of protective Dhāraṇī against all celestial beings known as Mārakāyikas, rendering their mental, physical, and spiritual assaults null and void. It’s interesting how the Lotus Sutra also leaves open the possibility of the Māras earning redemption:
The eventual conversion and redemption of Māra follows from the conception of universal salvation and the general doctrine of impermanence and rebirth, as well as from the theme of the greatness and power of the Doctrine which cannot admit any ultimate obstacles. In the Majjhima Nikāya, Moggallāna, a chief disciple of the Buddha, identifies himself as a Māra of the past, known as Dūsi Māra. Just as Dūsi Māra was defeated by a former Buddha, and then eventually found his way to religious conversion and accomplishment of the Path, so may the present Māra. It is stated in Chapter VI of the Lotus that Māra and his followers will successfully apply themselves to the practice of the Dharma under the guidance of a future Buddha. This future Buddha is Raśmiprabhasa, who is Buddha Śākyamumi’s disciple, Kasyapa. (Clark)
Robert Warren Clark states that “the opening passage of the Saṃdkinirmocana Sutra distinguishes Māras from all other beings by associating them with the evil of defilements and pathological mental states (kleśas):
The kleśas (desire, hatred, ignorance, pride, jealousy, doubt, etc.) are termed pathological mental states from the viewpoint of Buddhist psychology as they are the states of mind responsible for the samsaric condition. Their complete elimination results in liberation from the samsara.”
Māra is also the instigator of the five great fears that afflict all those on the Bodhisattvic-path: 1) the fear of lacking a means of livelihood; 2) the fear of disapproval; 3) the fear of death; 4) the fear of miserable rebirths; and 5) the fear which arises when speaking before an assembly. The Saṃdkinirmocana Sutra also teaches that ‘deluded people think that the Mahayana is the evil work of Māra.’ Thus:
They are traveling, “a path of degeneration,” which condemns them to great misfortune because of the bad karma accrued from rejecting the Buddha’s true Dharma. This message is clearly directed at those who reject the Mahayana doctrines as false. (Clark)
The Vimalakirti Sutra
The Vimalakirti Sutra, unlike any other, has a most unique stance on the Māras…
There are two radically different types of Māras in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sutra: 1) ordinary Māras, as conceived in the Pali Canon, for instance, who are vexatious beings seeking to obstruct practitioners of the Buddhist Path and 2) Bodhisattva Māras who skillfully provide the necessary challenge and incentive to spur practitioners on to higher levels of the Path. The concept of ‘inconceivable liberation’ (acintyavimokṣa) is a central theme of this sutra, and is the principle which distinguishes the two types of Māras. Acintyavimokṣa suggests that the state of Enlightenment approached by the great Bodhisattva and attained by Buddhas is so exalted that it can admit no meaningful rival or competitor. The Māras presented in most other Buddhist sources tend to be evil beings who are sufficiently powerful to impose creditable, if ultimately futile, challenges to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This is not so for the Māras of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sutra. (Clark)
Quite a fascinating development here in our series. This is much akin to Tozen’s Dharmakaya Sutra, in which demons take a positive role in compassionately empowering the mind adept towards higher levels of development by actually throwing obstacles in their path in order to spur them on in development. Hence, these are “necessary evil” deeds that can shake a promising adept out of their complacencies. In this vein, the Māras become the catalyst for overcoming samsara.
Vimalakirti goes a step further by stating that no “ordinary Māra” has the power to overthrow a Bodhisattva who has entered into the inconceivable-liberation. Ordinary Māras are no match; hence, it must be, in fact, Māras who have “become Bodhisattvas” themselves. This is revealed in the sutra as follows:
“Then the Licchavi Vimalakirti said to the Elder Mahākāśyapa:
Honorable Kāśyapa, the Māras who behave like Māra in the innumerable universes of the ten regions are all Bodhisattvas established in inconceivable liberation (acintyavimoksa ) and who, through skillful means [upyākakauśalyena), behave like Māra in order to ripen beings (sattvaparipācanārtham)…only Bodhisattvas can display such cruel demands [i.e., demanding from another Bodhisattva the gift of an eye, a hand, a limb, a son or daughter, etc.] The power of creating difficulties for Bodhisattvas does not exist in ordinary people [i.e., non-Bodhisattvas]. No, this is not to be found. They are not capable of tormenting and demanding in this way…Honorable Mahakāśyapa, someone who is not a Bodhisattva cannot cause difficulties to a Bodhisattva, it is only a Bodhisattva who can cause difficulties to a Bodhisattva, and only a Bodhisattva can resist the attacks of another Bodhisattva.”
Clark states that Māra is used in this way as a polemic against the Hinayana, stating that “ordinary Māras” can afflict injury on ordinary adepts, but surely not on an advanced Bodhisattvas. Yet….
Beyond the obvious polemic against the Hinayana there are some significant psychological implications to the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sutra’s presentation of Māras. A person who reads this text and is favorably disposed towards its Mahayana premises is likely to engage to some degree in a process of identification with the hero of the Sutra, the Bodhisattva. According to the Sutra, a Bodhisattva cannot truly be harmed or obstructed by an ordinary person (i.e., a non-Bodhisattva) or even a powerful Mara-deity. Therefore, anyone who does succeed in mounting a creditable challenge must be, his or herself, a Bodhisattva who is doing this in order to facilitate the progress of another Bodhisattva on the path to liberation.
When an individual has assimilated this message and has psychologically identified with the Bodhisattva, his or her attitude towards evil is modified. Ordinary evil, such as the harmful activities of other persons, fire, weapons, poison, disease, demons, death, etc., are no longer to be feared, because the Bodhisattva cannot be truly harmed or obstructed by such things. When evil occurs in such a manner that the individual is pushed to the limits of psychological coping processes, it must be viewed as an extraordinary evil. That is, as the activity of a Bodhisattva Mara who is offering this challenge in order to provide indispensable motivation and opportunity for the practice of a transcendent virtue (pāramitā) necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood. (Clark)
In a wider sense here also, Māra does become a catalyst for transcending samsara…
When Mara is understood in the comprehensive sense of the Four Maras (catvārimāra), there is no evil which is not included. The overcoming of these Maras is the raison d’etre of Buddhism. If there were no death (i.e., no maraṇamāra) and no degeneration of the body and mind (i.e., no skandhamāra and no kleśamāra) there would be no sense in the pursuit of liberation from samsara and attainment of Buddhahood. (Clark)
Hence, the Vimalakirti Sutra “provides an image of enlightened beings who pose as Māras and, with compassionate intent, inflict difficulties on Bodhisattvas”.
Concluding psychological bullets:
- Māra is known as the samsaric-guru, the greatest obstacle on the path to Nirvanic Self-Realization in the Dharmakaya.
- Māra’s Karma operates in conjunction with the pathological mental states known as the kleśas. These two great “Anti-principles” generate incessant re-becoming (perpetual Re-Genesis) and endless dukkha.
- In the psychological sense, Māra and his minions produce obsession with, and addiction to, all sensate phenomena.
- Any sentient being who facilitates attachment to any form of image (form, sensation, thought, volition, and mortal consciousness) is, in that context, a Māra.
- Any Western-Psychologies that emphasize cognitive-emotive-and rational therapies towards the eradication of sundry pathological dysfunctions, are in-themselves “pathological” to Buddhist Psychology; they interfere with the subtle and complex expedient means towards samsaric-transcendence.
- The transcendence from Māra’s mind-realms towards undivided awareness in the Unborn Buddha Mind is the raison d’etre of Buddhism.