by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

The Army of Mara

Passion is overcome only by him who has won through stillness of spirit the perfect vision. Knowing this, I must first seek for stillness; it comes through the contentment that transcends worldly attachment. . . . To overcome the power of darkness I center my thought, drawing the spirit away from vain paths and fixing it straightly upon its true Refuge.

Bodhicharyavatara (The Bodhisattva's Path of Training)
Translated by L. D. Barnett (slightly paraphrased)


In early Buddhism, the lowest (sensual) realms of existence were thought to be ruled by Lord Mara. On the night of the Buddha's enlightenment, Mara attempted to prevent the Buddha from realizing enlightenment.

Mara represents all that arises within us that would hold us back from awakening fully to our wonderful True Nature. And, indeed, everyone who approaches this awakening experiences the arising of doubt, desire and fear. And when one is very close to the awakening, the shadows seem most real, most enticing, most intimidating.

Rev. Master often emphasized that Mara is the servant--perhaps the least appreciated servant at that--of the Eternal. Mara has a job to do, and does it very well. It takes real faith to continue on in training when our deepest doubts, desires and fears are arising. Mara is therefore that within each of us that might hold us back (if we allow it do so), but that also thoroughly exercises us in faith.

Mara is the personification of the deepest spiritual adversity. In such adversity, we have the opportunity to learn to truly turn to the Eternal for help. To do this, we must be willing to stop running around in our heads about external things; we must, in fact, be willing to know nothing, to relinquish all insistence, to allow all doubts, theories and opinions to dissolve--we must be willing to simply be a human being who needs the Help of That which is greater than oneself.

While it would be very unfortunate to succumb to Mara's enticements and threats, it would be equally unfortunate to view Mara as the enemy. For that would be to view part of ourselves as being beyond redemption. When Rev. Master encounters the "army of Mara" (How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Plates XXIX and XX; first edition, Plate X), her reaction is first to sit still and remain firm in her resolve, and then to offer compassion to all the distressed "hordes of Mara."

The Gathering of Need

The "army of Mara" is the result of the coming due of a tremendous amount of karma. This "army" thus consists of a great mass of spiritual need that has been gathered together and is groping its way toward the Help of the Eternal. It comes to the threshold of that Help as spiritual need, that is, as greed, hate and delusion. And because it is greed, hate and delusion, it contains a great deal of anguished confusion--confusion that may make it turn against and attack that which holds out the very Help that it so needs. It is like a frightened, angry child who confusedly strikes out at those who love him and offer refuge.

The army of Mara manifests shortly before the pivotal events described in Plates XXIII-XXXIII (first edition, Plates XXIII-XXIX) of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom. In other words, the great gathering of spiritual need happens just before the Help arrives. I believe that the gathering of need happens in anticipation of that arrival. The need may manifest in desperate and confused ways; it may even manifest in ways that undermine its own deepest wish--yet still it has come to meet That which can indeed help it.

And here we can see why the combination of stillness and compassion commences the deepest work of conversion: it is because the very gathering of the hordes of Mara, the very arising of the distilled essences of greed, hate and delusion, is itself the expression of Cosmic Compassion. The Buddha Nature of all that seems most remote, even opposed to, deepest spirituality can be seen through the veil of shadows: one only has to sit still and look up.

The Immaculate Heart of the Three Poisons

Conversion is possible because that which needs conversion already contains the seed of enlightenment within itself. The three poisons (or "three fires") of greed, hate and delusion contain this seed of enlightenment.

Greed is the simplest of the three poisons.--"Something is missing and I need to acquire it" lies at the heart of greed. At the deepest level, this sense of an absence of something that must be acquired grows out of the conviction of separation from the Eternal--separation from Love.

Hate is militant greed: "Something is preventing me from acquiring that which is missing, and I must destroy this obstacle." Or, "Something threatens to take (or has taken) that which is precious to me, and I must destroy it before it can do so (or take vengeance upon it for having done so)."

Delusion is a shell of unreality built around the pain of greed and hate: "The hell with it! It [the desired object] is no damn good anyway."

Delusion feeds back into greed, because the denial of the fire of longing does not put out the fire. Rather, it increases the strength of the conviction of separateness from that which one longs for, thereby intensifying desperation.

Thus greed leads to hate; hate hardens into delusion; and delusion feeds back into, and intensifies, greed. This is the "outward flowing" of karmic causation. The painful consequences of allowing oneself to be swept along in the outward flowing put a blowtorch to the seat of the pants, a powerful incentive to seek the true cessation of suffering. And when we are finally driven to turn for help to the Eternal in our need, the way of the "backward" (or "return") flowing manifests naturally.

For, all the while, sitting there at the heart of greed, is that simple--and very innocent--longing. The wild extremes of greed, hate and delusion have not killed that longing which is in essence the longing for the Eternal. They have made it more desperate, but they cannot kill it. And because it is always there, there is always the potential for conversion. And this simple longing only has to be turned away from external things and refocused on the Eternal in order to blossom into deeper spirituality.

This is why meditation--pure contemplative surrender to our True Nature--is the essential spiritual act and the key to enlightenment. Quieten mind and heart; allow longing to turn back toward the Eternal; be content to know the Lord of the House. This makes possible the wondrous transformation of the passions into aspects of enlightenment.

Every Buddha Has A Rightful Place

Just as one's own externalized longing creates discontentment with one's own spiritual sitting place--dis-ease of mind and body--so the externalized longing of other people and other beings can cause them to seek in someone who is undergoing the deep process of spiritual conversion that which they must find within themselves.

This attraction to a person who is doing deep training is not a bad thing: it can be a catalyst for the deepening of one's own spiritual life. Yet, again, when greed, hate and delusion are present in a high degree, that which might begin as attraction can easily turn into an attack. Remember that desperate greed turns into hate: "If you won't give it to me, I'll take it by force." And hate turns into delusion: "If I can't get it by force, I can deny that what you are doing is real." (This last step shows the root of doubt.)

This attempt to force something out of someone who is training deeply, or to vigorously deny the reality of what that person is doing, is the basis of the "attack" of the "army of Mara." Rev. Master's response is to give teaching that points those who are looking in the wrong direction toward their own rightful place of training.

Clearly, there was a non-human element in the horde of Mara that manifested at this point in Rev. Master's great kensho. To such beings she says, "You already have all the aspects of a Buddha in your own way in your own true place; return to that place. . . . Your true place is not here with men. You will return to your rightful place where indeed you are a beautiful Buddha. There the seas of your merit cannot be counted."

As I have explained in my description of the Guardian of North Cascades Buddhist Priory (see Section XX of the parallel narrative to these Reflections in Book Two), there are types of beings who have an immaterial existence. Sometimes such a being becomes entangled with humans in a relationship that is the result of, and sustained by, confusion. Such entanglement is full of pain. And in confusion and pain, it is very difficult for beings to recognize their own wonderful True Nature.

Rev. Master understood that beings so entangled were as much in need of the Dharma as any other beings. And so, while expressing clear recognition of the Buddha Nature of such beings, she provided the teaching that would cut through the confusion. In effect, she was saying, "In remaining here, you are trying to do the impossible. You no more belong here than a fish belongs out of water or a man belongs in the air." This is a teaching that points directly to acceptance. We all have limits, and we only make ourselves and others miserable when we wilfully deny that these limits exist.

But Rev. Master does more than point out that there are limits that have to be respected. She holds out her faith and certainty that these beings share in the Life of the Eternal. They are not demons to be exorcised: they are Buddhas-to-be who only need to find their own true sitting place in order to realize their wonderful True Nature.

"All beings possess the Buddha Nature."--Whenever we trust this teaching and act on the basis of this trust, we find confirmation of the teaching's truth.


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