MARA


I have tried to study the Eight-Fold Path as you recommended. In fact I spent some time contemplating "Right Speech" and when I examined the content of my conversation it was appalling. Iíd say 90% of the time is spent telling stories about someone who isnít present, analyzing their problems or maybe even discussing their plight for sheer entertainment value! If Iím not talking about someone else in social situations, then Iím most likely worrying, planning, comparing or complaining. I suppose I could talk about the 
weather . . . .

In your letter one attitude stands out that needs to be addressed and responded to: the level and identification with self-criticism, self-judgment, and self-condemnation. In psychological terms, the super-ego. This one area, if left unilluminated, will render much spiritual work and practice impotent and ineffectual. So I want to speak to this in some detail. Personally, I see the condemnation and self-attack to be the single most pervasive hindrance to spiritual (or psychological) understanding. It functions, as far as I can tell, to keep the (familiar) sense of self in place. It doesnít allow for objectivity or maturation. Thus it is vital to become aware of, and to learn to dis-identify with, the inner critic. It is imperative that we study this aspect of self. 

In the Buddhist scriptures this phenomenon is at the center of the story of Gautama Siddharthaís enlightenment. As he sits under the bodhi tree, rooted in his commitment and resolve to awaken, he is attacked by Mara, the evil one in Buddhist mythology. Mara attacks the Buddha with what are called the armies of Mara to dislodge him from his goal. After all the armies of greed, hatred and delusion fail, Mara himself shows up and challenges the Buddha: "What right do you have to enlightenment?" Mara comes at this penultimate moment in the quest for freedom as judgment. A Buddhist version of "who do you think you are, buddy?" And the Buddha responds by touching the earth to acknowledge his right to be here, his right to awaken. And he awakens in the next moment.

How can we relate to and use this archetypal story in our own struggle for liberation, for freedom? In my practice I find it is essential to be aware of what is occurring, whether I like what is happening or not. This is true even if what is happening goes beyond the reality with which I am familiar and the constructed sense of self, which is based on familial, cultural, societal, or spiritual injunctions. In order to let go of something (greed, aversion, fear, lust, apprehension, etc.) I have to know it directly, without denial, repression, or pejorative judgment.

We need to study the judging mind and learn to dis-identify, to de-cathect from it. We need to disempower this habit of mind because it disembowels us. We begin by paying attention to judgment. We want to see it. How does it come? As words, images, beliefs, a sense of feeling bad about ourselves, a sense of unworthiness? What are the specifics of it? It can be helpful to add some reflection and investigation to mindfulness of judgment. Why do we believe it? What happens if we donít believe it? What other practices will help diminish the power of judgment? How is it addressed in Buddhism? How is it viewed and worked with in other traditions? Does modern psychological understanding offer any help for working with the form of Mara? What practices of compassion and loving-kindness might be called for here? What books might be helpful? (See Soul Without Shame by Byron Brown (Shambhala); Loving-Kindness and Heart as Big as the World by Sharon Salzburg (Shambhala); and Tara Brach has a set of tapes called "Radical Self Acceptance".)

We begin to learn how to work with judgment as part of our practice. When Mara comes we touch the earth, figuratively or literally sometimes, to acknowledge our right to stay present, wakeful and compassionate with experience. With those qualities as a foundation, awakening can occur, release happens!

Now developing those capacities requires practice, patience, resolve and kindness. So my question to you is what are you doing to cultivate these qualities? For me sitting practice, just doing it regularly at home and on retreat, teaches me to be patient with myself and my experience because I canít control it; develops my sense of resolve and the power of commitment; and helps nourish kindness through the recognition of the suffering (mine). If you pay attention you may notice that parenting can also develop these qualities and more. To parent well we need to be aware, responsive, patient, kind, etc. I have no doubt that you bring these qualities to your parenting practice. My question is: Do you recognize this as practice? Do you recognize the qualities being developed? The cultivation of "Right View" ("Right" meaning "that which brings us in accord with the truth") is to begin to recognize that each moment is practice. If you can begin to do this you can begin to recognize the positive qualities that are being cultivated in your relationship, parenting, work and community.

How do we respond when we discover qualities that are not so positive? You describe your reaction as you become mindful of your speech and seeing how much speech is disconnected to the qualities you would wish. You sound disturbed by this realization. Dharma practice is disturbing! If it werenít it wouldnít be worth the time, effort and struggle that it calls for. Dharma practice is difficult, disturbing and challenging. But there is a big difference between being disturbed and being attacked, between waking up and beating (ourselves) up. It is the difference between objectively perceiving that my speech is inappropriate and condemning myself. The self-condemnation is Mara. It arises out of delusion, the delusion of not seeing clearly how deeply we have been conditioned. One of the natural responses to seeing clearly our conditioning is compassion. Other objective responses are resolve and commitment to study this part of ourselves.

So Mara comes to us . . . Big surprise! Even after the Buddha was fully and completely enlightened Mara kept coming. Mara would appear in many disguises and the Buddha, through the power of his presence and mindfulness, would say "I see you, Mara." In the texts Mara would say "the blessed one has seen me" as he crept away. This is our work: seeing Mara. Bringing a kind and caring attention to what is true and not true as we "study the self."

One last word about Mara. A sense of humor, developing the capacity to hold it all lightly, really helps. We can get so tight that practice becomes a burden, something else to feel bad about, and that doesnít help anyone. Life is short. Letís enjoy the absurdity as well as the profundity.

-- Buddhist teacher Eugene Cash, from "Letter to a Householder," Spirit Rock News