Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 105

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
We are protected by the great kind of maras,
Residing in the sixth heaven;
This he vowed to do in the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Maras

Mara is the king of devils (Jp. daimao). The maras are devas who live in one of the heavens in the realm of desire (kama dhatu); the same sphere of existence to which we human beings belong. According to the Abhidharmakosa, paranirmitavashavartin heaven is the sixth heaven of kama dhatu. The devas of that particular heaven 'enjoy the things that others desire'. In other heavens, by contrast, devas may enjoy the things they have created themselves. So maras tend to be parasitic. They are spoilers of other peoples goals and even their fun. It is this that unerlies the popular feeling that maras are evil, malignant entities.

The evil of maras is compounded by the role that the king of devils, Mara himself, played around the time of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. The story of the temptation by Mara is well-known. The Buddhacarita of Ashvagosa is the most prominent source for this story. The original of this document concludes at the point of Shakyamuni's Enlightenment and later the story was expanded to incorporate an account of further temptations initiated by Mara against Shakyamuni.

Although Shakyamuni was enlightened 'by himself', it is a mistake to think that he enlightened himself. 'By himself' means 'without a teacher or guide'. In fact, Mara stepped into the Enlightenment process while Shakyamuni was seated under the Bodhi tree waiting for Enlightenment to dawn; having given up efforts to force it. At that point Mara's approach was to attempt to create within the bodhisattva a completely corrosive self-doubt. He did this by first telling Shakyamuni that a usurper had taken over his father's kingdom. When that did not move Shakyamuni, Mara created a shocking storm, which frightened away all the devas who had come to honour the future Buddha.

Having failed at this, Mara then proceeded to try to demoralise Shakyamuni by finding 'weaknesses' which he could exploit. He suggested that Shakyamuni was not 'worthy' of Buddhahood. To this Shakyamuni called upon the earth to witness his entire bodhisattva career of total purity and compassionate generosity. This gesture of Shakyamuni's is often represented in Buddhist art and is one of my favourite icons.

Finally, Mara tried an appeal to Shakyamuni's sensuality, offering his 'daughters' trishna (thirst), rati (desire) and raga (delight). When Mara had tried everything, he abandoned the effort to thwart Shakyamuni's enlightenment. He did return later, though. Shortly after Shakyamuni had realised the dharma, Mara then sought to belittle the value of Enlightenment, using logic to demonstrate that no one would be able to understand and accept the teaching.

These events in Shakyamuni's experience testify to a kind of malignant quality which many of us share with Mara. Mara clearly wanted to control the events surrounding Shakyamuni's Enlightenment and took delight in the prospect that, first, Shakyamuni might fail to attain it at all and, secondly, that others might hear about the way to be free from suffering.

There is no greater malignancy or tyranny than mean-spiritedness like Mara's. There are those who take delight in the failure of others, who belittle their efforts and who traffic in self-doubt and guilt. They will try to use perceived weaknesses in a person to demoralise and demean them for no purpose other than their own advantage. That is what Mara did. From the Buddhist perspective this is clearly evil because it is symptomatic of a monstrously excessive egomania. Mara's evil is not based on error, or even a miscreant spirit; he just wants to spoil things for others - even if it means destroyng beauty and truth - and gets pleasure from it. When human beings behave like that, and some do, we describe it as sociopathic. Such people are very unpleasant to deal with but often attain power in human affairs.

In ordinary circumstances a mara is one who seeks to spoil things for bodhisattvas and other disciples of the dharma; and to turn them from the way. They may appear in human form, as spirits or as hallucinations associated with dhyana. It was the Sutra of Golden Splendour that reported the Great Mara's compact with Shakyamuni to stop thwarting Buddhists and instead to protect them. But can a being of his kind be trusted with such promises?

Even though Mara might be ambivalent about his promise, his success in thwarting a person of nembutsu would be as unsuccessful as were his efforts against Shakyamuni. A person who has awakened to Amida's shinjin is unshakeable and eventually, no matter how powerful their assault, it is the maras who will fail and depart.

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