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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > The Four Maras (The Four Demonic Forces)

The Four Maras
(The Four Demonic Forces)

Alexander Berzin
March 2006

Mara in Hindu Mythology

In Hindu mythology, Mara (bdud) is equivalent to Kama (‘ dod-pa’i lha), the god of desire. This equivalence is accepted in Buddhism as well. The Kalachakra Buddha figure, for example, has Kama under his right foot, representing all four maras. Kama was one of the sons of Krishna and Rukmini, and Kama’s wife was Rati. The gods had sent Kama to rouse Shiva from his meditation so that Shiva would take interest in Parvati and have a child Karttikeya, who was prophesied to be able, when he would be seven days old, to kill the demon Taraka. To rouse Shiva, Kama shot five arrows from his bow. These arrows were

  • to make one ecstatic (dga’-byed),

  • to make one crave (sred-byed),

  • to make one stupefied (rmongs-byed), which perhaps suggests making one spaced out or senile ,

  • to make one thin, emaciated and dried out (skem-byed), which, in this context, could mean worn out, hungry, and thirsty, so that one gives up meditation. In other contexts, perhaps it is the work of Mara that we become dried out and have no moisture of compassion.

  • to make one dead (‘chi-byed), which, in this context, could perhaps make Shiva worry that he will die while meditating, so being afraid of that, he would get up. 

These five are called the five types of troubles that are the work of Mara. 

Shiva was annoyed, and burned Kama to a crisp with fire from his third eye. But, then, at the request of Rati, Shiva allowed Kama to be reborn as Pradyumna. When Pradyumna was six years old, he was stolen by the demon Shambara who threw him in the sea, since there was a prophecy that Pradyumna would kill Shambara. Pradyumna was swallowed by fish, but a fisherman caught the fish, and gave the boy inside its stomach to Shambhara’s mistress Mayavati, who raised him. Mayavati developed desire for Pradyumna’s beauty, but Pradyumna reproached her since he thought she was his mother. She revealed to him that he was the son of Krishna and Rukmini, and that Shambara had thrown him in the sea. Pradyumna got angry at Shambara, and killed him using his power of emanations. Then Mayavati took him to the house of Krishna, and Pradyumna and Mayavati became husband and wife. 

Thus, Mara can be personified in the form of a divine being. In Buddhist cosmology, he resides in the highest of the divine realms of the plane of sensory desires (Desire Realm), on top of Mount Meru. This is called the Heaven of Those Who Have the Power of Emanations over Others (gZhan-‘ phrul dbang-byed, Skt. Paranirmita-vashavartin). Buddhists usually explain this heaven as where gods have the power to enjoy the emanations of others, but the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms make more sense when they are understood in accord with the Hindu myth. 

Mara in Buddhist Mythology

In Buddhism, Mara then personifies incorrect non-Buddhist views, which were the final thing Buddha needed to overcome with the third-eye of wisdom. This is analogous to the account in Hindu mythology that when Kama tried to disturb Shiva, Shiva destroyed him with the fire of his third eye.

Several accounts in various sutras describe Buddha’s defeat of Mara. For example, in The Striving Sutta (Padhana Sutta) in the Pali canon, Mara comes to Shakyamuni when Shakyamuni is doing ascetic practices, and says, “You are so thin and pale. Don’t seek liberation and release – which would mean leaving the world – but stay in the world and do good.” In other words, he enjoins Shakyamuni to lead a worldly life, albeit one that is involved with helping others. Mara sends an army to defeat Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni enumerates the armies of Mara as: sensual desire, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, laziness, fear, indecisive wavering (doubt), restlessness, longing for the transitory things in life (gain, praise, honor, and fame), and praising oneself and belittling others. Buddha saw that to overcome all of these, he must stop identifying with thoughts of these things. 

Later, Mara appears as a poor farmer and as an old wheezing brahmin – symbolizing the world. Shakyamuni recognizes Mara is in all the aggregates that appear, but he tells Mara that he cannot hide. Shakyamuni sees him for the pathetic creature that he is, as is symbolized by the pathetic form of the farmer and the brahmin. Mara then appears as natural disasters and dangerous wild beasts. But Shakyamuni has no fear of death. Mara then sends his three daughters to try to seduce Shakyamuni, but to no avail. Mara then tries to trick Shakyamuni by agreeing that death is nothing to fear, and therefore one can ignore it. But based on that reasoning, he tries to convince Shakyamuni that life is long and so just enjoy life. Shakyamuni says no, the life span is short, so one needs to live as if one’s head is on fire – which means to ignore personal danger. Since life can end abruptly at any time, one needs to take advantage immediately of one’s precious human life. Mara then gives up and slinks away. 

The Four Maras

The term mara derives from the Sanskrit root mr, to murder. Thus, mara is what murders or causes interference to us limited beings and to our constructive actions leading to the three spiritual goals of one of the better rebirths, liberation, and enlightenment. Mara is also explained as “what puts an end” (mthar-byed, Skt. antaka) – that which puts an end to spiritual practice. 

There are four types of mara:

  • the mara of death (the Lord of Death),
  • the mara of disturbing emotions and attitudes,
  • the mara of the aggregate factors of experience (the five aggregates),
  • the Mara who is the son of the gods. 

The Mara of Death

Death, of course, causes the greatest interference to our spiritual practice. It is not certain that in our next lives we will have precious human rebirths with all the respites and enrichments allowing us the most unhindered practice. Even with such a rebirth, we need to start our spiritual path once more as a child. Moreover, death recurs uncontrollably at the end of each lifetime. 

Thus, Mara is also considered Yama (gShin-rje), the Lord of Death (‘ Chi-bdag); while in the anuttarayoga tantra system, Buddha is Yamantaka (gShin-rje gshed), the One Who Puts an End to Yama. In tantra, however, Yama is not simply death itself, but rather there are three levels of Yama, which detail three levels of what is involved with death:

  • outer Yama is death itself,

  • inner Yama is the disturbing emotions and attitudes, which activate karmic aftermath and thus propel us into a subsequent rebirth and perpetuate the birth and death cycle.

  • hidden or secret Yama is the three subtlest conceptual minds that make appearances of true existence: threshold (nyer-thob, near attainment, black appearance), light diffusion (mched, increase, red appearance), and appearance congealment (snang, appearance, white appearance). Each rebirth begins with these three subtlest conceptual minds making appearances of true existence. Based on unawareness, we believe that the appearances they make correspond to reality, and thus we have grasping for true existence and all the disturbing emotions and attitudes based on that unawareness and grasping. 

There are six shortcomings of not being mindful of death, which cause interference to our spiritual study and practice.

  • We will not be mindful of the Dharma measures.

  • Even if we are mindful of them, we will not put them into practice,

  • Even if we do put the Dharma into practice, we will not do so purely.

  • We will lose our determination to practice earnestly at all times.

  • By our destructive actions, we will disable ourselves from gaining liberation.

  • At the time of our death, we will have to die with regrets

We don’t practice the Dharma purely because, being unmindful of death, we get caught up in the eight transitory things of this life (‘ jig-rten-pa’i chos-brgyad, the eight worldly Dharmas). We are pleased and delighted with the first of each of the following pairs and displeased, depressed, or disappointed with the second:

  • praise or criticism,

  • hearing good or bad news – including hearing or not hearing from our loved ones, and hearing pleasant sounds or unpleasant noise,

  • gains or losses – such as of money or possessions,

  • things going well or poorly – such as being healthy and happy  or being sick and depressed. 

[See: Dispelling Discomfort at the Eight Transitory Things in Life.] 

We can gain equanimity toward the eight transitory things in life through adopting the ten gem-like innermost attitudes from the Kadam Tradition (bka’-gdams phugs-nor bcu). These are the four trusting acceptances (gtad-pa bzhi), the three diamond-strong convictions (rdo-rje gsum), and the mature attitudes toward being expelled, finding and attaining (bud-rnyed-thob gsum). 

The first four trusting acceptances are:

  • as our innermost outlook on life, being willing to accept with total trust the Dharma measures,

  • as our innermost attitude towards the Dharma measures, being willing to accept with total trust even becoming a beggar,

  • as our innermost attitude towards becoming a beggar, being willing to accept with total trust even having to die,

  • as our innermost attitude towards death, being willing to accept with total trust even having to die friendless and alone in an empty cave. 

The three diamond-strong convictions are

  • to go ahead with our Dharma practice without consideration for what others think about our doing so,

  • to keep the constant company of deep awareness and our commitments,

  • to carry on continuously without getting caught up in useless concerns. 

The mature attitudes toward being expelled, finding and attaining are

  • being willing to be expelled from the ranks of so-called “normal” people,

  • being willing to find ourselves regarded among the ranks of dogs,

  • being completely involved in attaining the divine rank of a Buddha. 

On a deeper level, of course, we can only overcome the mara of death with the understanding of voidness (emptiness), so that we gain liberation and are no longer subject to samsaric death and rebirth. 

The Mara of the Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

When we develop the disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon- mongs, Skt. klesha), they cause enormous interference to our spiritual study and practice. The major ones are longing desire or attachment, hostility or anger, naivety, pride, disturbing indecisive wavering, and disturbing attitudes with an outlook, such as a deluded view toward a transitory network. 

[See: Mind and Mental Factors: The Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness.] 

When we have any of these disturbing emotions or attitudes strongly, we can practice tonglen (gtong-len, giving and taking). We think of all others who have the same disturbing emotion or attitude, and how this is a problem not only for us, but for everyone. Thinking in this way is reasonable because, since this is a problem of all samsaric beings and we are one those beings, we need to tackle this general problem for everyone. It is like if we are a woman facing prejudice in the work place, prejudice against women is not just our problem; it is the problem of all women. Therefore, to get rid of our problem with prejudice against us as a woman, we need to take on the problem of prejudice against all women. 

[See: Accepting Suffering and Giving Happiness.] 

In the Seven-Point Attitude-Training (Blo-sbyong don-bdun-ma) by Geshe Chaykawa (dGe-bshes ‘Chad-kha-ba), one of the four actions (sbyor-ba bzhi), in the point concerning transforming adverse conditions into path to enlightenment, is to make offerings to harmful spirits (maras) and ask them to give us more difficult circumstances. So, this practice of “feeding the demon” is somewhat like tonglen. But here, we practice “giving” first and then we ask the demon to help us take on more suffering from others. 

[See: General Explanation of Seven-Point Attitude Training, Part 1: The First Four Points.] 

In Vajrayogini and some other tantric offering rituals, feeding the demon is part of making offerings to various guests: specifically, to guests who are our enemies. 

The Mara of the Aggregates

The mara of the aggregates refers to the tainted aggregates (zag-bcas-kyi phung-po, contaminated aggregates), as the example of the all-pervasively affecting suffering (khyab-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal) of samsara. Remember, in the Pali Sutta, Shakyamuni identified Mara as being in all the aggregates. 

In Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), Vasubandhu defines “tainted phenomena” as nonstatic phenomena that derive from a disturbing emotion or attitude. When such items are the objects cognized by either our own or someone else’s limited mind, the result is further disturbing emotions or attitudes on the mental continuum that cognizes them. Also tainted are the five aggregate factors that are in the company of disturbing emotions or attitudes. Thus, Vasubandhu speci­fies tainted phenomena to be all nonstatic (imperma­nent) phenomena other than those that constitute the fourth noble truth. 

In Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), Asanga elaborates, with Vasubandhu’s definition being just one category of tainted phenomena. He includes aggregate factors that are thrown by craving, and those that bring further samsaric situations. So, this is the situation that the aggregate factors of our experience derive from craving and unawareness (which activate throwing karma), they contain unawareness, and they perpetuate unawareness. 

[See: Tainted and Untainted Phenomena.] 

Thus, the hardware of our aggregates – our limited bodies and minds – is the mara of aggregates because they limit us with more and more suffering and kill our chances for liberation. 

The Mara That Is the Son of the Gods

In origin, the Mara that is the son of the gods seems to refer back to Mara as Kama, who was the son the god Krishna, and his trying to cause interference to Shiva. Buddhism takes this mara to be the deluded views of the non-Buddhists, or from the Prasangika viewpoint, even the views of the lower Buddhist tenet systems, which although helpful, need to be overcome. 

This mara can also refer to the sixty-two wrong views (lta-ba ngan-pa, bad views) propounded by the eighteen non-Buddhist extremists (mu-stegs, Skt. tirthika). 

[See: The Sixty-two Wrong Views.] 

Further, in A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara), Maitreya enumerates forty-six faults that cause interference to developing the wisdoms applicable to bodhisattvas (sbyor-ba’i skyon). These faults are also considered the work of the Mara who is the son of the gods. 

[See: The Forty-six Faults That Cause Interference for Spiritual Study and Practice.] 

The Four Maras According to Kalachakra

In Notes on the Supreme Mandala of Glorious Kalachakra, Source of All Good Qualities (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i dkyil-chog yon-tan kun-’byung-gi zin-bris), Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen grub) explains that the four maras in Kalachakra have the following significance: 

  • The mara of the aggregates refers to the obscurations of the body, which are imputable on the subtle creative energy-drop of the awake occasion.
  • The mara of the disturbing attitudes refers to the obscurations of speech, which are imputable on the subtle creative energy-drop of the dream occasion.
  • The mara of the Lord of Death refers to the obscurations of the mind, which are imputable on the subtle creative energy-drop of the dreamless deep sleep occasion.
  • The mara who is the son of the gods refers to entering externally into unawareness (phyi-rol-gyi ma-rig-pa la ‘ jug-pa), which perhaps refers to the obscurations associated with the subtle creative energy-drop of the fourth occasion, the peak occasion of bliss. Perhaps this refers to the obscurations of unawareness that cause us to emit our subtle energies with the bliss of orgasm. When we achieve unchanging blissful awareness of voidness, then we possess the celibate behavior of reality (de-kho-na nyid-gyi tshangs-spyod), with which we never have any shift from unchanging bliss (mi-‘gyur-ba’i bde-ba) and never have the bliss of orgasmic emission (dzag-bde). This is because our minds remain absorbed in the clear light realization of voidness and do not leave it with the generation of the three subtlest appearance-making conceptual minds, which are analogous with orgasmic emission. This attainment is referred to as having a vajra stick (rdo-rje dbyug-pa) for overcoming the maras. To possess such a vajra stick is one of the ten qualities of a vajra master, according to Kalachakra. 

[See: Internal Kalachakra , as well as Alternative Kalachakra .]