The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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MĀRA. Although Māra appears in the Atharvaveda as a personification of death associated with the god Yama, it is in Buddhism that he comes to the fore. There he takes on the role of a mythological antagonist or metaphorical opponent of the Buddha, his teachings, and his community. Māra, one of whose epithets is "the Evil One" (Skt., Pāpīyāṃs; Pali, Pāpimant), has sometimes been compared to Satan; in fact, he is a god, the chief deity of the Realm of Desire (Kāmadhātu), a position he earned by virtue of a meritorious deed in a past life.
As such, he rules over most sentient beings who are caught up in saṃsāra (including humans and the lower deities). He resides in the Sixth Heaven of Buddhist cosmology, the dwelling place of the Paranirmita-vaśavartin gods, and so is sometimes called Vaśavartin (Pali, Vasavattī; "controlling"), or, in East Asia, King of the Sixth Heaven. As Lord of the Kāmadhātu, Māra is best understood as a divine king who wants to keep sentient beings under his command, that is, in his realm of life and death, of desire and ignorance. Hence he actively opposes anyone who seeks to escape from his dominion by attaining enlightenment.
This opposition takes on many forms in Buddhist myth and legend. Most prominently, it is featured in a number of encounters Māra is said to have with the Buddha. He tries, for instance, to block the Buddha from going forth on his Great Departure from his father's palace, an episode often featured in Southeast Asian art and sometimes reenacted in ordination rituals. Later, under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gayā, Māra plagues the Buddha in a variety of ways. Desperate to keep the Blessed One from becoming enlightened, he musters a huge army of monsters, all armed with dreadful weapons, in an attempt to scare him away. Their attack, however, comes to naught. The weapons they fling at the Buddha turn to flowers and perfumes, and the Buddha remains unperturbed in meditation. Māra then challenges the Buddha's right to sit on the seat of enlightenment.
He calls on his hordes to bear witness to his own merits, and they all shout that the bodhi seat—the highest point in this world—belongs to Māra. In response, the Buddha reaches down and touches the surface of the earth with the tip of his right hand, calling on it to bear witness to his merits. This earth-touching (bhūmisparśa) gesture, which became famous iconographically in countless Buddha images, elicits a response from the earth goddess, who affirms in no uncertain terms the Buddha's supremacy. In one version of the story, she appears physically and wrings out the water from her hair, causing a flood (symbolic of the Buddha's merits) that sweeps away the forces of Māra. In some biographical traditions, at this point or a bit later, Māra makes yet another attempt to counter the Buddha's enlightenment by sending his three daughters to seduce him. Needless to say, he is unmoved by their wiles. Having been unsuccessful in preventing the Buddha's enlightenment, Māra then tries to encourage him to pass promptly into parinirvāṇa (complete extinction) so as no longer to be a threat to his (Māra's) dominion.
Māra, however, did not limit his attentions to the Buddha alone. The Samyutta Nikāya, for instance, contains two collections of stories in which Māra variously tries to tempt, frighten, or trick not only the Buddha but ordinary monks and nuns. Sometimes he seeks to disrupt their practice or meditation; other times he tries to convince them of the truth of heretical doctrines. In doing so, he may take on various forms, even the guise of the Buddha himself. Thus, for example, he appears to the monk Śūra in the form of the Blessed One and deceitfully announces that he had lied when previously he had told him that all five skandhas (personality aggregates) are impermanent, marked by suffering, and without self, when in fact some of them are actually permanent, stable, and eternal. Śūra, luckily, is not duped by this. In other contexts, Hīnayānists are sometimes said to view the new Mahāyāna teachings not as the "Word of the Buddha" but as the "Word of Māra."
More broadly, any form of contradiction or opposition—from crude to subtle—to the practice and doctrine of Buddhism, however it is defined, may be thought to be an act of Māra. In Southeast Asia, if bad weather, drunkenness, or petty thievery mar the celebration of a Buddhist festival, it is said to be because of Māra. In East Asia, monks who are remiss in their observance of the precepts are sometimes said to be followers of "the way of Māra" (Jpn., Madō). In Tibet, Māra came to be associated with indigenous demonic divinities (bdud) whose subservience to Buddhism needed periodically to be reasserted. In China, due in part to linguistic confusion, Māra was identified with the god Īśvara, that is, Maheśvara (Śiva), or with the ambivalently-esteemed protector of the northeastern quarter, Īśāna. In Japan, in medieval times, a persistent creation myth told of the attempt by King Māra (Ma-ō)'s to block the creation of the Japanese islands themselves because he knew that Buddhism would thrive there.
He only gave his imprimatur to the cosmogonic project when Amaterasu, the sun goddess, agreed to keep Buddhism at bay in her land, an agreement that she did not honor but which is why a taboo was established on Buddhist images, monks, and sūtras at the grand shrine of Ise. Māra's written contract with Amaterasu, moreover, came to be identified as the divine seal (shinshi), one of the three regalia of the Japanese imperial line.
Less mythically perhaps, throughout the Buddhist world, Māra came to be seen as a metaphor for various passions and impediments on the path. Thus practitioners are enjoined to recognize multiple Māras associated with the personality aggregates (skandha-māra) or the defilements (kleśa-māraś). Māra's daughters are said to symbolize pleasure, restlessness, and desire; and various troops in Māra's army are identified with lust, sloth, doubt, hypocrisy, ignorance, and so on.
Yet Māra is not always ultimately maligned and condemned. In contexts in which the doctrine of the potential enlightenment of all beings is asserted, the story is told of Māra's conversion to Buddhism by the arhat Upagupta, who first tames the "Evil One" by binding corpses around his neck, but then releases him when he agrees to stop harassing Buddhist monks, or when, in one version of the tale, he actually makes a vow for future buddhahood.
For a general overview of Māra, including references to his appearance in Vedic literature and his association with death, see Louis de La Vallée Poussin, "Māra," in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1915), vol. 8, pp. 406–407. See also Alex Wayman, "Studies in Yama and Māra," Indo-Iranian Journal 3 (1959): 112–125. For a classic presentation of the textual history of the Māra legend, see Ernst Windisch, Māra und Buddha (Leipzig, 1895). For a study based on Pali sources, see Trevor O. Ling, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (London, 1962). For a comparative perspective, see James W. Boyd, Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil (Leiden, 1975).
For accounts of Māra's interactions with various nuns and monks (including the Buddha), see C. A. F. Rhys Davids, The Book of Kindred Sayings (Samyutta-Nikāya) (London, 1917), vol. 1, pp. 128–170. On the story of Māra and Śūra, see Edmund Hardy, "Mara in the Guise of Buddha," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1901): 951–955. On the role of Māra in China and in the Japanese creation myth, see Nobumi Iyanaga, "Le Roi Māra du sixième ciel et le mythe médiéval de la création du Japon," Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie" 9 (1996–1997): 323–396. On the conversion of Māra by Upagupta, see John S. Strong, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta (Princeton, 1992), pp. 93–117. Finally, for a perspective on Māra that highlights the art historical record, see Patricia Karetzky, "Māra, Buddhist Deity of Death and Desire," East and West 32 (1982): 75–92.