Inviting Mara to Tea
By Carol Cook
A Dharma Talk delivered February 15, 2020
At Layne and Neera's
So, Mara! Who is this Mara? And why would we invite him/her to tea? I realize, you may already know the stories about Mara from Buddhist, Hindu and other traditions, and Mara may not sound like someone you would want to invite to tea.
I decided to google a bit to see how Mara shows up on the world-wide net, and Mara does appear in many traditions — both spiritual and otherwise.
-Mara is the highest-ranking goddess in Latvian mythology,
-A Hindu goddess of destruction, death, winter, and the moon.
-Of Hebrew origin, the word Mara means is "bitter" or “sorrow.”
-In the Bible, Naomi, mother-in-law of Ruth, claimed the name Mara as
an expression of grief after losing her husband and sons.
-In Gaelic - the sea, seen both as a destructive force and a source of life.
My most surprising discovery was Mara’s appearance in Dr. Who. I couldn’t even remember who Dr. Who was — maybe the name of a band? (And I realize that any sci-fi buff might think I’m illiterate.) But I also learned that the Mara in the Dr. Who episodes seemed to be lifted from Buddhist literature along with two phantoms named “Dukkha” and “Anatta.”
At least two of the writers of these episodes are reported to have had interests in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.
Mara has also been featured as a demon in a video game series, Megami Tensei.
I decided to stop here — I was supposed to be writing a talk.
So, as for the Mara in Buddhism, among the many supernatural beings found in Buddhist literature, Mara is unique. He/she is one of the earliest non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures.
In traditional Buddhism, Mara is seen in four metaphorical forms:
Mara as the embodiment of all unskillful mind states, such as greed, hate and delusion.
Mara as death.
Mara as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.
Mara as the deva of the sensuous realm, who tried to prevent Siddhartha Gautama (later known as The Buddha) from awaking on the night of the his enlightenment.
The title I gave to this retreat certainly isn’t my own. It’s been used by a number of teachers. And Mara, himself, appears in many Buddhist myths — Mara, the demon tempter who worked relentlessly to derail Sidhartha Gotama’s path to awakening.
I’ll talk about one of the stories later, but for now, I want to talk a bit more about interruptions/hindrances that can derail us in our efforts to live in the present moment whether sitting in meditation or just going about our daily routines.
In the teachings, these struggles are grouped into five categories called the hindrances. So how many of you are familiar with these hindrances?
There are five of them: sensual desire, aversion, lethargy (sloth & torpor), restlessness and doubt. These are the habits of mind that interfere not only with our formal meditation practice but also our efforts to remain present when we are doing the rest of our life.
One of the mind states that have hindered me along the way has been doubt. Doubting that I’ll ‘get’ anywhere with this practice.
Another has been restlessness—related to doubt maybe?
“I just don’t think I can sit here another second; I need to get up and do something useful!”
Does anyone have any they would like to share? You don’t have to use the same words as in the list I gave.
And of course, this list of hindrances is only one of many lists that that you find in the Buddhist texts:
- the four noble truths and the eight-fold path
- the four foundations of mindfulness
- the four divine abodes
- the three jewels, etc., etc.
As you may know, the Buddha’s teachings come from an oral tradition, and organizing them into lists served to hold them in memory over centuries before there was a way to write them down.
But, looking at the teachings in this way can get pretty dull — not a lot of juice in those lists. And it’s good to remember that the Buddhadharma is not simply a bunch of lists. The teachings are rich with parables, symbolism, and imagery.
So there is another way to look at the hindrances. Instead of seeing them as just a list of five mental states, we can also view them through the lens of myth. Which seems to be how the Buddha taught much of the time.
Now, I am using myth in the positive sense. Not “Oh, that’s just a myth. Someone made it up. It’s not based in fact, just another story.”
I’m speaking of myth as a sacred tale, a teaching story, that may or may not include facts, but, more importantly, myths help us understand our world and cope with our experience in that world.
A myth can take some facts, and build a story around them giving us access to a deeper wisdom, something really more profound than just looking at the facts alone.
Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying, “An important function of myths is that they teach us how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” This lines up quite nicely with the intent of the Buddha’s teachings.
So the hindrances are often viewed through the stories of Mara, the intrusive trickster who was always showing up and giving the Buddha lots of trouble – badgering him, luring him, tempting him to give up his spiritual resolve and go back to his old unaware ways promising power, fortune and security — freedom from worries, stress.
And of course by doing that he would be giving up his birthright to awakening — to a heart that is liberated.
Mara is described in a number of ways: the lord of death, the king of delusion, the evil one, the personification of the dark side of human nature. Joseph Goldstein describes Mara as the symbolic personification of ignorance and delusion.
Tara Brach says:
Psychologically, Mara represents the false promise of happiness and security that is offered by our habitual responses.
Habitual responses can include grasping for and clinging, clinging to what doesn’t bring real happiness, pushing away what we need to feel and learn from in order to find peace, or perhaps, checking out when the truth we need to feel seems too painful.
Mara appears throughout the story of the Buddha’s life, from the time he decided to leave his father’s home, until just before his death. Perhaps the most well-known story is what happened on the night before the Buddha’s awakening, when he sat under the Bodhi Tree with the intention of not getting up until he had awakened.
And as with most myths, the story is told in different ways.
I’ll read a version I like, taken from the Buddhist Geek website:
Taking his seat at the base of the bodhi tree,
he vowed to sit until final awakening
even if his blood dried up and his bones fell apart.
During his night of practice, Mara,
the embodiment of temptation and the hindrances, sent his three beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha,
But he was unmoved.
Having failed with his daughters,
Mara brought the might of his armies
and rained an enormous shower of arrows.
But as they came towards the Buddha,
they were transformed to flowers
and fell all around him like offerings.
Mara, feeling he is now on his last legs,
tries his final strategy. His mighty armies still at his back, Mara faces down Siddhartha and issues his final challenge: “Who are you? Who are you to claim the right to Buddhahood, to perfect awakening?
But the Buddha holds his ground and reaches
his hand over his knee to touch the earth.
Calling upon the Earth he states,
loud enough for all assembled to hear:
You have watched me over countless lifetimes
develop the qualities which have brought me
to this point.
Am I not worthy of my intention?”
And at the invocation, the Earth shook her assent
and the ground rent apart,
dispersing the massive armies and Mara,
their chief, in a tsunami of vindication.
And once the scene had settled down,
Siddhartha himself settled back
and that evening finally completed his goal
of perfect awakening.
Although Mara departed defeated, he continued to be part of the Buddha’s life after his enlightenment and all the way to his death.
But it’s said that the Buddha never gave in. Whenever Mara appeared, perhaps as a beautiful woman, a friendly farmer or some other fictitious character, the Buddha would say something like, “I know you, Mara. I know you’re a trickster.
I know what you’re trying to do.” And Mara would disappear, sad and dejected.
And some teachers (Thich Nhat Hahnh, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach) have said that sometimes the Buddha would invite Mara for tea, offer him a cushion to sit on, and serve him as an honored guest. (probably not in the Pali texts)
So, the myths seem to make it clear that The Buddha didn’t have to struggle with Mara. He only needed to see Mara for who he was. (not in the scriptures?)
I was listening to a talk by Stephen Bachelor on this subject, and he asks the question: When the Buddha said, “I know you, Mara”, what kind of knowing is that? HOW did he know Mara? Stephen points out that the English verb “to know” has two forms in French and German. And I know enough Spanish to realize that the same is true there.
In Spanish, the two words are conocer and saber.
Saber means to know a fact or to know how to do something.
Sabemos que dos y dos son cuatro.
We know that two and two makes four.
Conocer means to know someone or to be familiar with a person, a thing, or even a place.
Conocemos a John (Juan) como una persona.
We know John as a person.
When Buddha says, “I know you Mara,” it is in the sense of conocer, a more intimate way of knowing. Different than saber, simply knowing something as a fact.
So, when we view the hindrances through the story of Mara, we can know them and the cascade of suffering — the painful emotions —they engender. Know them in a more intimate way. Not just as a list of facts. Then we can see how the hindrances come from our own minds. We can accept them and work with them in an effective way. Without getting carried away, stuffing them down or rationalizing them in some way, then allowing Mara to take over.
There are certainly many opportunities to practice this, and it seems increasingly so in our times. For instance, when we read or hear about current political, social and planetary tragedies, [and the pandemic], this can immediately trigger strong fears and anger. And these are normal emotional responses to the destruction these events bring.
And when these emotions arise, we can honor them by connecting with them physically and how they resonate in our bodies, feeling them fully, then allowing them to resolve on their own.
Remember the law of impermanence here. The discomfort our emotions cause cannot last indefinitely, unless their process is continually interrupted by the exaggerations of the thinking mind — the voice of Mara.
Once the voice of Mara has quieted down, we can engage our thinking mind to respond in a wise, well-reasoned way. We might say, “I am aware of the very real pain that I am experiencing. Is there something I can do now about this issue? If so, how do I go about it?” Maybe a new idea will arise.
A way I can aid victims in some way --
or the victims of other tragedies.
Maybe I can contribute time and services to educate others.
Maybe I just continue what I am doing and simply send
prayers of metta and compassion,
to both the victims and the perpetrators of suffering.
There are many other examples.
We are actually caught up in a grieving process. Grief needs to be felt in a clean way and then responded to with wisdom. And what I have discovered is that when I regularly honor my raw emotions in this way, I find them easier to tolerate and quicker to resolve. I realize that I don’t need to fear them anymore.
My daughter called me yesterday. She is currently grieving the the loss of her daughter who died unexpectedly over the holidays.
She asked what I would be talking about today. After I told her, she shared the following quote from an article she had read.
She said it fit her experience perfectly.
Surprisingly, as I was forced to navigate the waves
of grief again and again, I sometimes found myself
experiencing something I never expected --
What further surprised my daughter is that it took no effort!
The joy just began to flow — not necessarily immediately, but more often with the many sweet memories of her daughter. And of course, the waves continue to rise again and again, but she feels more at peace with them.
At this point I want to emphasize that I don’t see the normal emotional responses that I have been talking about as the work of Mara. (I’m guessing the Buddha had some real fears before Mara came on the scene.) However, I do think of Mara as capitalizing on these emotions, trying to engage our thinking mind to create more fear, more thoughts of giving in, giving up, maybe even striking back in an ineffective way.
(Unfortunately, this reminds me of what I experience with many of today’s world leaders.)
When we are in the throes of the initial painful reactions, we are more vulnerable to Mara’s tricks. And so often (due to early conditioning) he is off and running before we have any awareness of the initial physical feelings. To diffuse Mara’s power, we need to recognize and connect with our raw emotions as they arise, and be able to differentiate between those healthy emotions and those exacerbated by Mara.
And, fortunately, this skill can be developed in our mindfulness practice with consistent effort and lots of self-compassion. We learn to see, feel, somehow know the difference between our basic feelings and those that got hyped up by Mara’s intrusions — what to embrace, what to ignore.
It gives us the opportunity to say “I know you Mara,” and then realize he is not really a part of direct, present-moment experience. He and his antics are a figment of our imagination.
And yes, Mara is a myth, but he is also an archetype of the parts of ourselves that may be trying to serve us, but actually making things worse. And as with all our other aspects, we need to accept him in order to deal with him.
Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge this Mara — maybe even, as the saying goes, “invite him for tea.” And then, like the Buddha, let him know that you recognize him and aren’t willing to get caught in his net.
I will close with a quote from Pema Chodron:
”Through spiritual practice we are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible. We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.”
3/23/2020 02:47:54 pm
Thank you Carol. I really enjoyed this and continue to learn from the Dharma talks.
3/23/2020 03:00:16 pm
Thanks to Carol for this stimulating talk on Mara. You have greatly expanded my understanding of and usefulness of that concept.
11/8/2020 11:01:06 am
Thank you there is a recent talk from Sharon Salzberg on the On Being podcast that is a mirror too much of this talk. If you have not heard it you might enjoy it. Thank you for the time you spent on this. It was an enriching read.
3/2/2021 07:14:40 am
11/9/2022 06:14:27 pm
On a solo meditation retreat, looking for a way to invite my Mara to tea, I stumble on Carol Cook’s dharma talk, one of my old meditation friends. I was asking the question, how do I invite Mara to tea? I see that it comes down to my habitual responses. What feelings am I avoiding? Where do my genuine feelings end and Mara’s delusory whispers begin? That’s the juicy spot there, that’s where I have power.
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Detail of the Great Hall Mural
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