BUDDHA AND MARA
Stephen Batchelor is my favourite Buddhist writer. He is also a model of spiritually grounded atheism. The passage below is from his Confession of a Buddhist atheist (1). I’m not Buddhist, yet I resonate with what he is saying and feel encouraged on my own path.
“For traditional Buddhists, the Buddha has come to be seen as the perfect person. He is an example of what a human being can ultimately become through treading the eightfold path. The Buddha is said to have eliminated from his mind every trace of greed, hatred and confusion, so that they are ‘cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, so that they will never arise again’. At the same time, the Buddha is believed to have acquired faultless wisdom and boundless compassion. He is omniscient and unerringly loving. He has become God.
“Yet the many passages in the Pali canon that depict the Buddha’s relations with Mara paint a very different picture. On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddatha Gotama* did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama even after the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly after the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Buddha’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is the equivalent of being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.
“In Pali, Mara means ‘the killer’. The devil is a mythic way of talking about whatever imposes limits on realizing one’s potential as a human being. As well as physical death, Mara refers to anything that wears you down or causes your life to be reduced, blighted or frustrated. Craving is a kind of inner death because it clings to what is safe and familiar, blocking one’s capacity to enter the stream of the path. Yet other kinds of ‘death’ can be imposed by social pressures, political persecution, religious intolerance, war, famine, earthquakes, and so on. Mara permeates the fabric of the world in which we struggle to realize our goals and reach fulfillment. Siddhattha Gotama was no more exempt from these constraints than anyone else.
“If Mara is a metaphor for death, then Buddha, as his twin, is a metaphor for life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Buddha without Mara any more than you can have life without death. This was the insight I gained from Living with the Devil (2). Instead of perfection and transcendence, the goal of Gotama’s Dhamma* was to embrace this suffering world without being overwhelmed by the attendant fear or attachment, craving or hatred, confusion or conceit, that come in its wake.
“A clue to how this might be done is found in the parable of the raft. Gotama compares the Dhamma to a raft that one assembles from pieces of driftwood, fallen branches and other bits of rubbish. Once it has taken you across the river that lies in your way, you leave it behind on the bank for someone else and proceed on your way. The Dhamma is a temporary expedient. To treat it as an object of reverence is as absurd as carrying the raft on your back even though you no longer need it. To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what ‘Buddhism’ is or should be.”
- Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist atheist. Spiegel & Grau: New York, USA, 2011
- Stephen Batchelor Living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil Riverhead Books: New York, USA, 2004
- Batchelor uses Pali forms rather than the more widely known Sanskrit ones – hence Siddhattha Gotama rather than Gautama Siddhartha and Dhamma rather than Dharma.
“To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters.”
That passage really resonated with me. In my later years I have increasingly come to think of (and experience) life as a collage more than anything else. It should be workable and useful, like that raft, not a ‘perfect’ timeless object you can make a show of. Perhaps one of the first things that made me feel that life worked a lot better for me, was letting go of that idea of ‘perfection’. It weighed down my raft a lot and more than once I found it sinking before I got anywhere 🙂
Thanks Christopher. This sounds pretty much like my experience as well.