Gateway to Tibetan Buddhism
Understanding Mara - The Lord Of Illusion
Mara is a paranirmitavaśavartin deva from the highest celestial heaven of desire, the Heaven of Controlling Others’ Emanations (zhen trül wang jé), but owing to his attachment to objects of desire, he dwells in the celestial heaven of Tushita (ganden) - the Joyous Realm.
Being the lord of illusion, mara enjoys conjuring up alluring deception that cause the unsuspecting to embrace the unwholesome as wholesome, or to get hoodwinked into the preoccupation with the eight worldly obsessions (jikten chö gyé) of:
- longing for gain and dread of loss;
- longing for happiness and dread of suffering;
- longing for fame and dread of disrepute;
- longing for praise and dread of blame.
Mara personifies the negative qualities in the human ego, which cause the arising of delusion and the ripening of karmic retribution.
He is also the tempter who attempted on numerous occasions to persuade Shakyamuni Buddha to abandon his noble aspiration to liberate all sentient beings.
From another perspective, the existence of the maras are an important reminder that the corrupting influences and myriad obstructions they created for those who aspire to attain emancipation, can be eliminated through the application of buddhadharma when one’s clinging to the dualistic notions of hope and fear are severed, since mara is merely the reflection of our own delusion.
The only way mara can overwhelm us is when we choose to surrender ourselves to the delusion of our own making, which has its origin in our mind and is susceptible to changes in accordance to what thought we may choose to entertain.
Whoever can transcend the fabricated view of the self will for certain gain triumph over the influences of mara.
four types of Mara
From the perspective of sutrayana (dö tekpa), there are four types of maras (dü zhi):
- Skandamara - Mara of the contaminated aggregates (phungpo'i dü):
The mara which exemplify our obscuration in clinging to conditioned existence such as our body, sensory experience and mental phenomena and perceived them as real.
- Klesamara - Mara of disruptive emotion (nyön mong kyi dü):
The mara which exemplify our attitude of habitual inclination to act impulsively at the prompting of negative emotions which are the true causes of our sufferings.
- Mrtyumara - Mara of the Lord of Death (chidak gi dü):
The mara which exemplify impermanence, changes and death that are beyond our control and a threat to our precious human rebirth.
- Devaputramara - Mara of the deva’s son (lha pui dü):
The mara which exemplify our spontaneous craving for sensual pleasure and favourable condition in mundane pursuit.
The four Mara are further categorised by tantrayana (tekpa gyü) into:
- Mara of tangible obstruction (tok ché kyi dü);
- Mara of intangible obstruction (tok mé kyi dü);
- Mara of cheerful rapture (ga drö kyi dü);
- Mara of Haughtiness (nyem jé kyi dü).
Obstacles created by deeds of Mara
Obstacles created by the deeds of mara are revealed in a discourse from The King of the Array of All Dharma Qualities Sutra (chö tam ché kyi yön ten kö pé gyel po), given by bodhisattva-mahsattva Avalokitesvara to bodhisattva-mahsattva Vajrapani:
“This Dharma teaching will not spread among beings of inferior merit. There are four deeds of mara that create obstacles to the endeavours of practitioners. They will not be able to write it down, commission it to be written, hold it, or read it aloud; mara will create obstacles for them.”
“These four deeds are:
Lack of faith;
Lack of reverence for the master;
And a wandering mind when teaching the Dharma.”
There are four other deeds of mara that create obstacles for practitioners:
Having no interest in the company of spiritual friend;
Not reflecting properly;
Arrogance in speech;
And being besieged by worldly thinking such as,
I have no fear for this life or future lives;
There is no karmic retribution for unwholesome actions;
No words are uncertain for me;
I am very smart;
I am attractive; and
I am invincible.”
“Such beings are attached to domestic household and their kindred, and will experience suffering for many eons. These four deeds of mara should be deemed as non-virtuous friends.”
“There are four other deeds of mara that create obstacles for practitioners:
Craving for wealth, which causes suffering for many aeons;
Engaging in jest and gossip with non-virtuous friends;
Clinging to the contentment of matrimonial life;
Undermining the interest of those who study the Dharma by proclaiming:
Generosity produces no karmic reward;
This Dharma teacher is immoral and wicked.”
“Whoever prevents this sutra from being written down and venerated, will encounter many obstacles in this very life and burn in hells in their future rebirths. These are deeds of mara, and you must not fall under their influence.”
influences of Mara in our lives
Mara is our principal nemesis who is bent on waylaying our opportunity to fulfil the potential of precious human rebirth, and a purveyor of obstacles to disrupt our spiritual quest for nirvana by antagonising our five aggregates (pungpo nga) with afflictions of insecurity, anxiety, and angsts of dissatisfaction caused by the defects of samsara (khorwa).
The influence of the four maras in our lives are as follows:
1. Mara of the contaminated aggregates is the advocate of the all-pervasively suffering of conditioned existence as identified by the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The five aggregates which form the basic of our ego around the conceptual grasping of the self, are the direct causes for the continuation of samsara and the suffering of recurring conditioned phenomena we will experience in the future.
Any presumptions originated from intellectual knowledge that are based around conceptual labelling would inevitably regard conditioned phenomena as real. Mistaken views, as such, will cause the arising of more delusions and negative karma, which together contribute to the aeons of rebirths in the lower realms.
As Santideva said in the Bodhicharyavatara (changchub sempé chöpa la jukpa):
“The absolute lies beyond
the comprehension of the intellect
which is relative to what the mind is taught.”
2. Mara of disruptive emotion is the propagandist who routinely persuades us to project our negative emotion upon others to avoid recognising these as our own defects - a common act of self-deception driven by deluded self-righteousness at the expense of ignoring the truth.
Negativity could not have emerged from our psyche to bewitch us were they not already existing within our consciousness as a result of our past negative actions.
It is by the process of correct Dharma practice that negativity are flushed out and pacified.
Disruptive emotion as such are commonly expressed through the transgression of speech sowing disharmony through fraudulent speech, vindictive talk, indiscreet speculation and mundane gossip - the principal causes for the aeons of rebirths in the hell realms.
3. Mara of the Lord of Death is not simply death itself. It’s inner aspect is the disturbing mental activities which activate the karmic forces to propel us into subsequent rebirth that correspond to the grasping of a false sense of existence that is devoid of the true state of the absolute.
By ignoring regular contemplation of death, we will not have the pure vision to put Dharma teaching into proper practice for the sake of all beings, and thus in the midst of being intoxicated by the illusion of worldly pursuit, sabotage our own opportunity to get liberated from samsara and end up with regret at the moment of death.
Without the direct experience of emptiness (tongpa nyi), we cannot overcome the Mara of death, and will continue to subject ourselves to the samsaric cycle of rebirths and deaths.
4. Mara of the deva’s son uses temptation and desire to hinder our progress by sabotaging our root of virtue, essential for the pursuit of enlightenment.
Mara is the embodiment of deluded views which represent our craving for sensual pleasure, yearning for control and longing for mental comfort.
For six years, Mara shadowed the buddha-to-be Siddhartha (Dondrup) looking for any sign of weakness to exploit but failed to deter him from attaining enlightenment as Shakyamuni Buddha. Mara also attempted to persuade Shakyamuni Buddha to enter nirvana without proclaiming the Dharma to the world but again posed no effect on the Tathagata.
Mara as a paranirmitavaśavartin deva is one of six classes of gods who take birth in the kamadhatu, the heavenly realms of desire (dö kham) due to their previous human activities of giving alms; of cultivating moral conduct; of passion in learning; of leaning towards a spiritual life but unable to endure the required hardship, and so in lieu of engaging in proper practice, seek their relish from wielding power over the creation of others through the promoting of desire and pleasure, and will fall into the hell realms at the end of their life span as mara.
the Questions of Sagaramati
In the sutra known as The Questions of Sagaramati, a discourse on how to defeat maras was given by Shakyamuni Buddha.
“Bodhisattvas defeat maras and other malevolent beings
When they abandon all fixation to do with
Clingings, signs, and interpretations.”
A concise summary of this discourse on how to defeat maras is as follows:
How to Defeat the maras of the contaminated aggregates
The maras of the contaminated aggregates are defeated by the application of:
- reflecting on the illusory nature of phenomena;
- comprehending of suffering;
- recognising mental formation to be suffering;
- abandoning the stains of mental afflictions in the practice of generosity that is motivated by bodhicitta, with all merits dedicated to the attaining of realisation;
- perfecting discipline with no wish to be reborn in samsara;
- perfecting patience with no attachment to the self;
- perfecting diligence with no concern for the body;
- perfecting concentration without relying on the aggregates;
- employing wisdom through the activities of the aggregates;
- realising the emptiness of all phenomena;
- perfecting mindfulness of the body to the body without any conceptual attachment to the body.
How to Defeat the maras of the afflictions
The maras of the afflictions are defeated by the application of:
- reflecting on the nature of emptiness;
- abandoning the origin of suffering;
- recognising mental formation to be impermanent;
- practising generosity with no concern for the body and dedicating all merits to the attaining of realisation;
- perfecting discipline with the pure view of selflessness;
- perfecting patience without opinion about any beings;
- perfecting diligence with no entanglement to the mind;
- perfecting concentration without relying on the elements;
- employing insight without relying on the elements;
- entrusting the signless of all phenomena;
- perfecting mindfulness of the feelings to the feelings without conceptual attachment to the feelings.
How to Defeat the maras of the Lord of Death
The maras of the Lord of Death are defeated by the application of:
- reflecting on the unborn and non-arising;
- actualising the cessation of suffering;
- recognising phenomena to be selfless;
- practising generosity with the awareness of what we are offering is transient and unremarkable, and dedicate all merits to the attaining of realisation;
- perfecting discipline with the pure view to impede the concern for aging and death;
- perfecting patience with no grasping for samsara;
- perfecting diligence in the midst of the unborn and non-arising;
- perfecting concentration without relying on the sense bases;
- employing insight without relying on the sense bases;
- realising all phenomena are the wishless state;
- perfecting mindfulness of the mind to the mind without conceptual attachment to the mind.
How to Defeat the maras of the deva’s son
The maras of the deva’s son are defeated by the bodhisattva’s application of:
- terminating all imputations made out of pride;
- actualising the path of liberation;
- recognising nirvana as peace;
- practising generosity out of compassion for all beings and to attract them for the purpose to liberate them, and dedicate all merits to the attaining of realisation;
- perfecting discipline with intention to establish all beings with poor discipline in the discipline of the noble beings;
- perfecting patience with no grasping for nirvana;
- perfecting diligence in order to ripen other beings and uphold the lineage of Dharma;
- perfecting concentration by dedicating these aspects of concentration to awakening;
- employing insight to become well versed in dependent origination that corresponds to reality;
- realising all phenomena are unconditioned and not to become conceited in having roots of virtue;
- perfecting mindfulness of the mental phenomena to the mental phenomena without conceptual attachment to the mental phenomena.
The four diligence of bodhisattva
Maras cannot create any obstacles for a bodhisattva who is protected by the armour that has been forged by the four diligences of bodhisattva endeavour, bodhisattva commitment, bodhisattva reflection, and bodhisattva accomplishment.
The four diligences of bodhisattva are as follows:
1. The diligence of bodhisattva endeavours is to cultivate awakening; to study; to abandon miserliness; to practice charity anonymously; to seek out the treasure of Dharma; to rectify unsound discipline; to purify the body; to eliminate any connection with malice; to maintain faith in the face of accusation and attack; to detach from stain of laziness; to accomplish one’s objectives.
Moreover, bodhisattva endeavours is the amalgamation of mindfulness; of knowledge; of mastering language; of relying on a spiritual guru; of renunciation; of remaining in seclusion; of having few desires; of training in higher discipline; of perfecting generosity and discipline; of perfecting giving and immeasurable loving-kindness; of purifying the stains of all realms.
The objective of the bodhisattva endeavours is to understand and eliminate the mara of the contaminated aggregates.
2. The diligence of bodhisattva commitment is to cultivate all roots of virtue; to implement the application of study; to abandon the desire for possession; to perceive all mendicants as spiritual friends; to pursue a pure livelihood; to maintain firm discipline and sobriety; to purify speech; to master the application of patience; to abandon all activities associated with criticism and aggression; to detach from stain of diligence; to accomplish one’s duty.
Moreover, bodhisattva commitment is the amalgamation of comprehension; of the path to liberation; of applying language; of disassociating from evil company; of departure from the dualistic view of like and dislike; of distancing from distraction; of being content; of being steadfast in discipline; of perfecting patience and diligence; of perfecting pleasant speech; of immeasurable compassion; of perfecting the major and minor marks of pure activities.
The objective of the bodhisattva commitment is to transcend and destroy the mara of afflictions.
3. The diligence of bodhisattva reflection is the skilful means to benefit all beings; the appropriate mental activities; the dedicating of merits to the awakening of all beings; the non-attachment of impermanent possession; the clear sense of living a meaningful life; the ripening of beings who have unsound discipline; the purifying of the mind; the protecting of the self and other; the eliminating of mental afflictions; the ripening of indolent beings; to remain unwavering in following the bodhisattva vehicle.
Moreover, bodhisattva reflection is the amalgamation of intelligence; of gateway to liberation; of eliminating language; of equanimity toward all beings without exception; of the ascertaining of virtue; of blissfulness in solitude; of being easily satisfied; of training in higher motivation; of perfecting concentration and insight; of immeasurable altruistic joy; of the upholding of the supreme Dharma.
The objective of the bodhisattva reflection is to abandon and defeat the mara of the Lord of Death.
4. The diligence of bodhisattva accomplishment is the acceptance of all occurrences as they are; the pure view of noble beings; the non-attachment of realisation; the absence of regret in giving; the absence of pride in generosity; the absence of pride in being disciplined; the purifying of phenomena; the absence of pride in being patient; the non-apprehending of the self and others; the engaging of activity to eliminate afflictions and to ripen other beings; the immovable faith in karmic ripening.
Moreover, bodhisattva accomplishment is the amalgamation of aspiration; of spiritual discovery; of realising Dharma is beyond description; of acting in accordance to what one has adopted; of attaining wisdom by relying on renunciation, non-dualistic view, cultivation of virtue and nothing else; of living a life free of affliction; of knowing the appropriate measure for different occasions; of training in higher insight; of perfecting wisdom and skilful means; of being in harmony with ultimate reality; of immeasurable equanimity; of the ripening of numberless beings.
The objective of the bodhisattva's Bodhisattva accomplishment is to gain an unmitigated triumph over the maras of the deva’s son.
The eightfold power of bodhisattva
How can maras create obstacles for a bodhisattva who has transcended the limitation of the conceptual mind, and has firmly established in the domain of buddhadhood?
Brahma once asked the Shakyamuni Buddha, “what power do the bodhisattva possess that they are not overwhelmed by the unsurpassed qualities of buddhahood?”
Shakyamuni Buddha replied, “Brahma, the bodhisattvas possess the eightfold powers which prevent them from being overwhelmed by the unsurpassed qualities of buddhahood.”
These eightfold powers as described by Shakyamuni Buddha are:
- Aspiring to attain the qualities of buddhahood, they have the power of immovable faith.
- Striving to replicate the same qualities of the teacher, they have the power of the spiritual guru that comes from devotion.
- Having perfected the practice of transcendental meditation, they have the power of insight that comes from studious learning.
- Having accumulated immeasurable merit, they have the power of providing service to all beings that comes from a great store of merit
- Having attained triumph over all maras, they have the power of wisdom that comes from their direct experience of reality.
- Having no concern that all phenomena are selfless, they have the power of immeasurable compassion that comes from immeasurable loving-kindness.
- Being inseparable from the awakening mind of bodhicitta, they have the power of mindfulness that comes from the insight of certainty.
- Having attained the acceptance that phenomena are unborn, they have the power of acceptance that comes from not being led around by others.
Moreover, these bodhisattvas are cared for and sustained by the buddhas, and for which:
- they will always see the tathagatas;
- no mara will ever affect them;
- they will achieve the recollection of their former accomplishments and become boundless in their activities;
- they will attain the irreversible bhumi and ultimate awakening.
This concluded the concise summary of the Sutra of the Questions of Sagaramati on how to defeat maras.
Protective measure against mara
In a sutra known as The Nectar of Speech, Shakyamuni Buddha, at the request of the bodhisattva-mahasattva Maitreya, teaches five qualities that bodhisattvas-mahsattvas should have to ensure they will live long, free of obstacles and speedily attain awakening:
“There are five qualities that bodhisattvas-mahsattvas should have to ensure none of mara’s throng will cause them obstacles, and none of mara’s entourage will assault them; to ensure out of loving-kindness for sentient beings, they will live for a long time; and they will speedily attain the unsurpassed perfect awakening.”
“What are these five qualities?”
“These are the perseverance in the giving of the Dharma; in the offering of freedom from fear; in the practice of immeasurable loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity; in the repair of untended stupas; and in the inspiring of all beings to set their minds on awakening.”
“Maitreya, if the bodhisattvas-mahsattvas have these five qualities, none of mara’s throng will cause them obstacles, and none of mara’s entourage will assault them; they will, out of loving-kindness for sentient beings, live for a long time; and they will speedily attain the unsurpassed perfect awakening.”
Upon hearing this brief discourse from the Blessed One, a large number of the ordained, bodhisattvas, and celestial beings in attendance instantly attain different stages of realization.
Summary on understanding Mara - the lord of Illusion
The bodhisattva path is the perfect remedy to pacify the influence of the Mara of disruptive emotion. A brief summary of these remedies are as follows:
1. Meditation on Bodhicitta:
When we utilise the awakening clarity of bodhicitta (chang chub kyi sem) to examine the nature of emotion, we will come to the recognition that all emotions are totally self-induced and devoid of any self-arising property to sustain itself other than the support of our own conceptual delusion.
When we embrace bodhicitta at its core, there is no judgement, no labelling, no expectation of acceptance or rejection, other than the presence of loving-kindness (jampa), compassion (nyingjé), altruistic joys (gawa), and equanimity (tangnyom) readily available as the four immeasurables (tsémé shyi) to promote the greatest benefit of all sentient beings.
2. Meditation on the three entrances to liberation (nam tar go sum):
This is the perfect remedy to pacify the influence of the mara of the contaminated aggregates. When we utilise the awakening clarity of bodhicitta to examine the nature of phenomena, we will come to the recognition that the nature of the ground leading to the absolute is one of emptiness (tong pa nyi) in the absence of fixed constituents; the path leading to the absolute is not by sign of attributes (tsen nyi mépa), for its nature is that of an evolving phenomena; and the nature of its ultimate fruition embodies the essence of wishlessness (mönpa mépa) that is free from any wish for attaining anything; one then realises the body of the absolute, the dharmakaya (chö ku) that is free from the influence of the mara of the contaminated aggregates.
3. Meditation using single-pointed samadhi (tingé dzin)
By steadfastly relying on the practice of single-pointed samadhi and not attaching one’s mind to the allure of celestial sphere, one enters the immovable ground of the eighth bhumi (miyowa) and passes beyond the influence of mara of the deva’s son.
4. Meditation on the path of cessation (gokpa):
Through attaining the ultimate goal on the path of cessation, one is free from the bondage of samsaric existence and goes beyond the basic nirvana (nya ngen lé dé pa) of the hinayana vehicle (tek men), and enters the non-abiding nirvana (mi nepé nyangdé) of total extinction of all suffering and its causes, and thus has gone beyond the reach of Mara of the Lord of Death.
This teaching entitled ‘Understanding Mara - The Lord of Illusion’ is presented here by Tenzin Gyalpo Drakpa Gyaltsen Dondrup Dorje as his homage to all the Buddhas of the three times in ten directions.