Living With The Devil

A Buddhist take on good and evil.

Stephen Batchelor

This does not mean that Buddha was unaware of these thoughts and feelings or that they no longer occurred to him. Rather than deleting them, he discovered a way of being with them by which they could gain no purchase on him. Mara describes this with an analogy:

I remember once seeing a crow hovering above a lump of fat on the ground. “Food!” it thought. But the lump turned out to be a rock, hard and inedible; the crow flew away in disgust. I, too, have had enough; I’m like that crow pecking at a rock; I am finished with Gotama.

Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition within human natures. While “Buddha” stands for a capacity for awareness, openness, and freedom, “Mara” represents a capacity for confusion, closure, and restriction. To live with the devil is to live with the perpetual conflict between one’s Buddha-nature and one’s Mara-nature. When Buddha-nature prevails, fixations ease and the world brightens, revealing itself as empty, contingent, and fluid. When Mara-nature dominates, fixations tighten, and the world appears opaque, necessary, static. William Blake evokes a similar opposition in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Buddha-nature and Mara-nature are inseparable. Like a valve that can either be opened or closed, this organism has the capacity to unfold (Buddha) or shut down (Mara). The Sanskrit term translated as “nature” is garbha, which means “womb.” Buddha-nature is like the empty, warm, fertile space from which I was born. My womblike nature suggests that I am not the necessary, static self I feel myself to be, but a contingent creature with an extraordinary but often untapped capacity for growth and change. My Mara-nature, however, is that side of me that compulsively resists such transformation, refuses to be touched and impregnated with any ideas other than its own certainties, and stubbornly clings to the illusion of being a frozen and isolated self.

Or think of it like this: “Buddha-nature” stands for that open perspective whence one is free to respond to the call of others; “Mara-nature” stands for those fixed positions that prompt one to react. While a perspective allows the possibility of pursuing a path into the unknown, a position ensures that you never stray from the territory you have already staked out. Designating that territory as “Buddhist” or “postmodern” does not prevent it from becoming another stronghold of Mara. What was once a perspective can crystallize into a position. Convinced that you were moving ahead, you find that you have only traced another circle.

Stephen Batchelor is a former monk in the Tibetan and Zen traditions and the author of the bestseller Buddhism Without Beliefs. He lives in France. From Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, © 2004 by Stephen Batchelor. Reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books.

Image: The armies of Mara confront the Buddha. "The Assault of Mara," painting on silk, early tenth century C.E., Dunhuang, China. © Reunion des Musees Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

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