Living With The Devil

A Buddhist take on good and evil.

Stephen Batchelor

In popular mythology, devils are quixotic and cruel tyrants who relish tormenting their victims. Their vitality obscures how the demonic is subjectively experienced as a state of existential and psychological paralysis. When seized by a demon, one feels suffocated, oppressed, and fatigued as one struggles to be free from what entraps one. The devil is a way of talking about that which blocks one’s path in life, frustrates one’s aspirations, makes one feel stuck, hemmed in, obstructed. While the Hebrew “Satan” means “adversary,” the Greek diabolos means “one who throws something across the path.” In India, Buddha called the devil “Mara,” which in Pali and Sanskrit means “killer.”

In an early discourse entitled “The Striving,” Gotama recalls:

I was living on the bank of the Neranjara River, engaged in deep struggle, practicing meditation with all my strength in the effort to find freedom. Then Mara came up to me and started talking in words, appearing to be full of sympathy: “You are so thin and pale,” he said. “You must be nearly dead. It would be far better to live. You could do much good by leading a holy life.”

The Devil appears to have Buddha’s best interests at heart. At first glance what he says seems reasonable. Mara discourages Buddha’s asceticism and extols a life dedicated to doing good in the world. He does not encourage Gotama to do anything evil. His aim is to weaken his resolve to be free from the compulsive drives that trap him in cycles of anguish.

While speaking to Gotama, Mara “stood right next to Buddha.” The devil insinuates himself in such a way that he seems to be part of Buddha’s own thinking. But Buddha recognizes him. “I see your troops all around me, Mara,” he says, “But I will proceed with the struggle. Even if the whole world cannot defeat your army, I will destroy it with the power of wisdom, just as an unfired pot is smashed by a stone.”

To show his potency, Mara is depicted as a warlord mounted on an elephant, commanding a legion of troops. Buddha did not consider “any power so hard to conquer as the power of Mara.” He enumerates the armies under Mara’s command as sensual desire, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, lethargy, fear, doubt, restlessness, longing for gain, praise, honor and fame, and extolling oneself while disparaging others. Gotama tells of how he struggled to be free from these forces, which seemed to besiege and attack him, blur his vision, darken his understanding, and thus divert him from his goal of freedom.

Identifying with a desire or a fear tightens the knot that binds one to it and thereby increases the sway it can have over one. Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him. Instead of perceiving them as forces of an avenging army intent on his destruction, he recognized that they were no more solid than brittle, unfired pots that crumble on being struck by a well-aimed stone. As soon as Buddha stopped compulsively identifying the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arose within him as “me” or “mine,” Mara could no longer influence him.

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