I got a report of their encounter with the tulku a couple of days later. Interestingly enough, Tai Situ Rinpoche had begun his interview by recounting how Mara — lord of death and sensual pleasure — had tempted Gautama Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment.
Being ultra quick on the mark, Mara was aware that this time Gautama was going to escape his oily clutches and permanently transcend samsara. What really messed with his wicked head was knowing that in so doing, Gautama would be throwing open the portals of enlightenment to countless others. In a terrible funk at the potential loss of his power over gazillions of lost and befuddled souls, Mara unleashed his army of demons on the brilliant meditator, seated calmly beneath the spreading bodhi tree.
Like Satan, Mara is a seasoned antagonist who has plumbed the essence of the human heart and devised an arsenal of lethal tactics to crumble the defenses of even the most committed spiritual warrior. Mara began his assault by promising Gautama prominence and pleasure if he gave up his quest for enlightenment. Mixed in with these enticements were dire warnings about the consequences of Gautama shying away from his duties as a prince.
Aware that all worldly pleasures and responsibilities have a flip side, which is pain, the Holy One ignored the devil; as for his princely duties, they were as dust in the wind — for one determined to break free of the vicious cycle of birth and death is clearly enjoined to drop all relative attachments so as to focus on the big job.
Belching fumes of outrage, Mara took the form of a rapacious demon at the head of an army of hideous creatures. But the volley of poison-tipped arrows they launched at Gautama transformed into flowers and fell harmlessly to the ground; whereupon Gautama invoked the earth goddess, who summoned up a great flood to sweep the gremlins away.
Furious beyond belief, Mara whistled long and low to summon his seductive daughters. Unshakeable Gautama instantly recognized them for what they were — Taṇhā (Craving), Arati (Boredom), and Raga (Passion) (some folks add Pride and Fear to the list) — but not one of these smoldering sirens managed to titillate Gautama.
Then Mara began to mock Gautama, predicting that all his efforts — not just to free himself, but all of humanity — were for absolutely nothing, nada. Idiot, Mara tittered brightly, you and I are alone here in the boonies. Is anyone even going to know you’re enlightened? Whereupon Gautama coolly replied that the Earth herself would bear witness to his enlightenment; lightly he touched Mother Earth and she trembled in agreement. With a howl of rage, Mara accepted temporary defeat — but he grew even more determined to harass those who dared to follow the path laid out by the Holy One.
Who is Mara? As Satan’s dark compadre, he personifies the spectrum of destructive impulses that cause the indwelling spirit to flicker and die. Mara’s chore is to lure humans away from seeking ultimate freedom. A genius for making the mundane appear alluring, Mara is expert at putting a positive spin on the negative. Interestingly enough, early Buddhists regarded him as more of a pain in the butt, rather than an omnipotent lord of evil, and many of Mara’s later interactions with Gautama are quite hilarious. (For more on Mara’s starring role as Gautama’s opponent, check out the Buddhacarita, written about 100 CE by Ashvagosha.)
Is Mara a real demon existing in the relative world? Or he is a symbol of the internal vices we all face on the road to enlightenment? For me, the answer hinges on the Vedantic definition of real — as that which is permanent and lasting. Using this definition, Mara cannot be real, since we have the power to dissolve all darkness.
In truth, Mara is no more than a manifestation of our mind — but since mind is the engine that runs samsara (relative reality), our destructive urges must be given importance, or we run the risk of ruining our precious lives. Mara’s attacks on Gautama represent our own internal impulses towards aggression and destruction — urges that can be overcome only by moving beyond the ego and into the heart, as we cultivate empathy and love for all beings.
Why did Mara’s fierce attacks on Gautama have no effect? Simply because Gautama had vanquished his own ego — there was no “I” left within Gautama, and therefore nothing within Gautama for Mara to grapple with and destroy.
In the ultimate analysis, Mara is only as powerful as each of us allow him to be — if we react to his blandishments with our egoic need to be special, we are temporarily doomed; but if we recognize ourselves as the Self, blissful and immortal, neither Mara nor his evil hordes can halt us an inch from merging with our true nature.