A Buddhist take on good and evil.
The Devil in Our DNA
Tricycle interviews Stephen Batchelor.
Your new book, Living with the Devil, seems to argue that the Buddha still experienced troubling thoughts and emotions after he attained nirvana. Yes. What a lot of traditional Buddhists probably won’t like about this book is that it suggests that the Buddha—even the Buddha—continued to experience negative mind states. This is the only way I can explain passages in the early canon in which Mara keeps appearing before and challenging the Buddha after his enlightenment. That does not mean, however, that the Buddha was affected by these thoughts and emotions in the same way we are. His enlightenment enabled him to have a radically different relationship to these things, such that he was freed from their domination. The orthodox Buddhist view in virtually every school is that the Buddha is perfect: he simply doesn’t have a negative thought or self-centered emotion. The three poisons—hatred, greed, and delusion—have literally been cut off at the root, “never to arise again.” That, to me, is psychologically questionable and neurobiologically difficult to understand.
But isn’t it a core Buddhist tenet that the three poisons can be entirely extinguished? Even the early traditions make a distinction between what they call “nirvana with residue” and “nirvana without residue.” In other words, as long as the Buddha was still in his body, he was still subject to the “residue” of his previous karmic conditioning. Only when he died, and entered parinirvana [the complete cessation of personality and sensory experience] was his freedom no longer restrained by residual karma. This suggests that as long as one is living in a body, in the sensory world, one is still tied in some way to the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion—even if one is a Buddha. Otherwise, how do you make sense of the numerous passages in which Mara confronts the Buddha after the enlightenment? Buddha is said to have conquered Mara, but Mara keeps on reappearing. What can that mean?
That Mara exists independently of the Buddha . . . Yes, which is precisely what I have difficulty with. Traditional Buddhists would argue that Mara is a god, a deva, who comes down to earth, has a little chat with the Buddha, then goes off again. But I don’t inhabit a world populated by gods and spirits that magically appear and disappear. For me, the question is: “How do these texts speak to us in a way that does not require supernaturalistic beliefs?” I find supernaturalism to be an enormous obstacle in communicating Buddhist ideas. Not only does it take us away from our direct experience of the world, but it also dehumanizes the Buddha. In being represented as perfect, the Buddha loses something of his humanity. But if you think of Mara as a way of talking about an aspect of the Buddha’s own experience, then the Buddha is made human again.
What would be a “naturalistic” explanation for Mara’s appearing to Buddha after the enlightenment? I would understand greed, hatred, delusion, the big “baddies” in Buddhism, to originate from within our physical organism, our nervous system, our brain, which has developed over millions of years. The origins of hatred, craving, and so on would seem to be found in our own evolution. I can’t see where else they could come from. Unless, of course, one adopts the supernaturalistic notion of a formless, ethereal mind that somehow inhabits and affects the body while being essentially different from it—a dualistic idea I find hard to comprehend. And if our delusions are physiological in origin, then we have to ask how and to what extent a spiritual practice such as meditation can transform or remove them. Meditation would seem, as research suggests, to be capable of changing certain neural patterns in the brain. But can it completely eradicate such primal instincts as fear and desire? Maybe—but as long as we remain embodied animals, I doubt it.
So, Mara is with us until the end, built into our DNA, a part of everything? Yes. Even the evolutionary process itself, and the fact that we have to die, is Mara. The fact that the world is an unpredictable, uncontrollable place is Mara. Mara is identified with all five skandhas, or aggregates: the totality of our psychophysical existence is Mara. That doesn’t just mean our bodies and our minds; it also includes the sensory world itself. This is an idea that a lot of people will balk at. But actually it’s the classical Buddhist doctrine of Mara.
Then how is it we work against Mara? It seems that when consciousness evolves to a certain degree of conceptual self-awareness, we discover a curious freedom in which we are no longer driven by the blind forces of biology. We start asking questions like: “What is this existence?” “How can I lead a good life?” “Who am I?” As soon as we start exploring such questions, and try to put into practice the Buddha’s core insights into no-self, impermanence, and suffering, we find ourselves “going against the stream” of biological drives, as well as the constant shifting and unraveling of the phenomenal world itself. The Buddha called all this “Mara’s stream.”
Could you have Buddha, then, without Mara? Liberation only makes sense as a liberation from something. So Mara is necessarily part of that equation. You cannot have Buddha without Mara. Rather than thinking of the conquest of Mara as a one-off heroic episode in the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, we can understand it as a process that continues in each moment. Buddha is Buddha because in each moment he is conquering Mara. Mara is always there. Mara is the condition without which there could be no freedom and no path. In this sense, Mara and Buddha cannot be separated.
What happens when we do separate them? We fall into the trap of duality. Duality, both philosophically and psychologically, is this tempting idea that if only we could totally eliminate what we find unacceptable and evil, then we would be left exclusively with what we value and regard as good. This is not only naive, but dangerous. It is the kind of simplistic thinking that drives the conflicts currently bedeviling our world. It rests on the premise that you can have light with no darkness, good with no evil, Buddha with no Mara. But all these things are meaningless independent of their opposites. Our understanding of Buddha is dependent upon our understanding of Mara, just as our experience of freedom is dependent on our experience of bondage.