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Stephen Batchelor - Santo Desierto 2007



Stephen Batchelor talk in Tenancingo, Edo. de Mex. 

March 18th 2007




So let's just look at the out line of what we've covered yesterday, when the Buddha first taught, in his very first teachings, he begin by presenting a middle way, a middle path: a path. He then explains how one, then  lives in this world in such a way that we find an entrance to this path. It starts with facing up to, and looking clearly at the nature of dukka. and dukka is not just suffering or pain although that is certainly a crucial aspect of it, but it is to open one's eyes to the fundamental contingency or conditionality of all things, such things being unbearably impermanent, fleeting, transient, and as such there are things  that cannot be relied upon to grand us the kind of well being, satisfaction or happiness that we deeply yearn for. Also, if we open our eyes as we look deeply into life as it unfolds we see that it is in some senses impersonal, that it is an endless flow of conditions, of physical moments, of mind moments pouring for and then vanishing in this continuous stream; that as we look deeply within as in our internal processes, we don't find some fixed point, some unmoving center that we can call me. And like wise anything within the world, in other people, in things, objects, possessions, ideas, non of this can intrinsically be said to belong to me, to be mine. Temporally and conventionally we can talk of I, we can talk of mine, but when we look deeply into those notions they break down. 


And as our own fixed opinions and habits of mind begin to break down the world appears to us as increasingly strange, mysterious and perhaps we can even say sublime. Likewise as we open ourself to the world we open ourself increasingly to the suffering of others, the suffering also of ourselves that becomes increasingly present and unavoidable and in some ways unbearable. And all of this constitutes what the Buddha called dukkha pariña fully know Dukkha.


This is as if were a sensibility of mind, not a particularly kind of knowledge or insight but is a sensibility that includes all of our senses, our thoughts, our feelings, and as our lives become more and more infuse with this sensibility a relationship to ourself and the relationship to the world begins to change. We cease to believe that by grabbing on to things, by grasping at things; by holding firmly to things that we'll ever achieve the satisfaction and the well being that we seek. So this leads us quite organically to the falling away of grasping. A falling away of craving, of hatred, of attachment and this falling away, this letting go of grasping the culminates in moments of stopping: the stopping of greed, the stopping of hatred, the stopping of confusion. And in this moments, we glimpse in a very real way the possibility of living in this world unconditioned by: grasping; and this moments are like the gateway to living life from another perspective all together. So we move from a life that's dictated by fear, by habit, to one in which we enter into a path in which we can live more fully more authentically (somehow). We enter what the Buddha called "the stream" and this stream has the different aspects of life, the way we see things, we think, speak, act, work and the Buddha called each of this aspects as Samma, usually translated as "right", like right view, right thought. But the world samma actually means complete, it means full. It means "living life fully", rather than in a limited reduced way. So the Buddha's vision really is a vision that starts with  this insight into the nature of life itself, this dependant arising of things. But in the process of his teachings he moves from just experiencing life in all of its complexity, contingency, relativeness and translates that into a way of life, a path. 


Now, this sounds all very well but it practice we find ourselves continually obstructed or blocked, hinder from living fully in this way. Just because one has have a moment of insight in which the path has open for you, does not mean that the path cannot be blocked and famously early Buddhism speaks of five hindrances, five blockages which are: attachment, aversion, restlessness, lethargy or laziness and doubt or uncertainty or  hesitation. And so although we may have had this experiences in meditation or in our lives that has shown us this possibility non the less we constantly find ourselves being blocked being hindered so in many respects what we call one's practice is a practice of learning to live with, to understand and to transcend this limiting conditions. The richest way, I feel, in which Buddhism explores this situations of restriction, of blockage is in the image of Mara, in other words the Devil.


The word Mara literally means the killer it has it's root in the Sanskrit Mrtyu, which means death is an active form of the word death. and Mara is in fact understood as Yama in other words as death itself, is physical death and also and perhaps for us is more usefully Mara describes an inner state of death, so the obstructions like greed, hatred, laziness and so on leads on a kind of death; so when we are caught, let's say in a state of anxiety, or in a state of worry or in a compulsive circular daydream we are not as we were living fully, we are trapped, we are impeded, we are closed down. 


And from this asserting we can, if we use this symbolically, if Mara then is death -not living fully- then Buddha and Dharma are life the way we are to live: optimally and fully.


I'd like to explore the idea of Mara by offering some reflections on the text called the Padhana Sutta which means the striving which is found in the Sutta Nipata. The Sutta Nipata is recognized by scholars and by traditional Buddhist alive as one of the earliest layers within the early cannon in the Pali cannon.


The text starts by the Buddha saying "I was living on the bank of the Nerañjara river engaged in this struggle practicing meditation with all my strength in order to find freedom from bondage" -and again, the word bondage suggests already the idea of Mara as being tied down, being trapped- Then the text continues: "Namuci came up to me and started talking to me in words appearing to be full of sympathy >you are so thin a pale, why you are in the point of death..."

Now who is Namuci? Namuci is one of the words that the Buddhist traditions gives to Mara. Namuci though, is a deity, a god, a demon perhaps from the early Vedic tradition. Namuci was believe to be the demon who held back the monsoon rain from falling -now again we have to remember that in India, as still occurs today the monsoon is crucial for life to continue, for people and animals to survive. But Namuci is that imagined demon who holds this water back. And the very word namuci means the "one who withholds the water" So again we have this image of confinement, of grasping, of limitation; and again we have an image of death in contrast to the possibility of life. And in Hindu mythology it takes Indra who is the king of the gods to strike Namuci with his vajdra, his scepter and then Namuci lets the waters pour out.


Now here again we have very powerful universal really symbols at work, for water is the predominant metaphor  for life itself, so the Buddha talks of entering the stream and Namuci is that which blocks it. And again we may find in a session  of meditation that at times it feels as the practice flows, (we say to ourselves) the energies of the body seem to be liberated the energies of the mind are creative. And then we have a session of meditation in which the very opposite seems to be the case, everything seems to be blocked, there's no flow, there's no energy, no movement there is a total static. In fact I feel sometimes that when we say to ourselves after a period of meditation "that was a good one" I think often what we mean is that when we enter into a sense of flow, a sense of fluidity, mobility of dynamism. And I think also in our lives, in our work, in our relationship with others we know the difference between a relationship that's full of life, and it flows and is creative and a relationship that's began to die, that's become stuck, inhabit in fixed opinions, in opposition. 


And we also find an extraordinary universality in this symbols and metaphors. the Greek word in the new testament for the devil is Diavolus and and Diavolus means that which is thrown across the path. In other words something that blocks the flow of a stream. or the Hebrew word Schaitan Satan means the adversary, the opposition that which stand in our way, that blocks us. And we find for example Jesus speaking of himself as "the way", "I the path, the truth and the love" and we find I think in one of the letters to the Hebrews that Jesus is describes as the one who has gain victory over death, and exactly the same word is used of  the Buddha he is the Jina

 the victor over Mara


But one of the most powerful images of Satan or the Devil in western literature is found in Dante's Inferno, and in the Inferno section of the Divina Comedia Dante descends into the circles of Hell until he reaches the ninth circle which is a plain of ice, and in the very center of the plain of ice, Dante encounters Satan who is sank in the ice up to his chest, and he is waving his bat-like arms and creating this cold wind blowing all around.


And here we have two completely different cultures with no apparent borrow: The image of Namuci, the one that holds the waters back, and Satan who is in this frozen water, that is a water that doesn't flow. And even in a lot of contemporary secular literature we find a continuing meditation on the state of the demonic, on the state of frozenness, stuckness, lifelessness. And possibly the most powerful descriptions of this are found in the writings of Kafka and Becket. In Kafka's novel the The trial, it opens with this rather chilling statement where he said "without having done anything wrong, Josef K. was arrested one fine morning..." and arrested means stopped, it means captivity; he was unable to move, unable to live. But he's not aware of having done anything wrong. 


And I think that is very much in someways our own experiences. We feel... we don't know why it is that we can not somehow live fully, creatively; we feel stuck


And so Mara becomes a way of talking about all of this aspects of our failure to live, and this things as they were  seem to happen to us without us having any control over the situation whatsoever.


Josef K. was doing around his business one day and then he was arrested, and in the same way the Buddha is sitting by the  Nerañjara river meditating and then as he said Namuci came up to me and said...


So Namuci or Mara is something that seems to suddenly break in, and in some respects Mara appears to have some kind of autonomous existence. And again, in our meditation for example, we are not sitting by the  Nerañjara river, we are sitting in El Santo Desierto and then suddenly the mind is calm watching the breath, and then suddenly a voice starts in our minds. 


Shantideva -whom I've referred to before- He describes this things as like a bandits that are waiting around us for an opportunity to break into the house of our minds, and when they break into our minds, they steal the treasures that we have in our minds.


When we look into the psychology of Jung who describes neurosis as autonomous conflicts within the psyche. When we get taken over, let's say by a worry  or a fantasy is as though this thing has somehow gain control over our minds.


Shantideva's approach for working with this, is to maintain what he calls the watchman of mindfulness at the gateway of each sense, and the function of mindfulness is to notice as soon as a disturbing thought or a beginning of say... a problematic emotion, begins to arrive at. And as we become more still, more present, we become more alert to the first staring of this forces. Is not a question of trying to vanish this things, but rather to be aware of them, to be conscious of them, to see them for what they are.


But what often happens is that we are sitting in meditation watching our breath and feeling very calm and wide, and the next thing we know is that the bell rang and we suddenly realized that  maybe ten or fifteen minutes of our lives have actually been lost, and sometimes we can't even remember what it was that was so interesting and that took us away.

But in some senses, Mara, is also a way of talking about a loss of consciousness. And we often find when we start practicing meditation how much of our time is spent either without consciousness  or with a very minimal consciousness. We have the illusion, when we look back to the past of being a continuous conscious person, but if someone say "what did you do yesterday?" one says "Oh, well I got up and then I did this and then I did that, and then I went here and then I went there..." and all seems to be an unbroken stream of events; but when we look a little bit more closely -and meditation is very good at helping to see this- we actually realize that our memory or yesterday is just a few islands of consciousness separated by an ocean of unawareness which we link together oftenly.


So again, consciousness is a way in which we can be more fully alive. Life and consciousness in many ways go together, whereas loss of consciousness, loss of awareness is a kind of death.


Let's take on, another look on this text, and this is the Buddha speaking he is now responding to Namuci: He said "I can see your armies all about me with Mara as the commander sitting on an elephant, and I go forward into the struggle, even though the whole world can not defeat that army  of yours, I'm going to destroy it with the power of wisdom, like an unfired clay pot that is smashed by a stone..."


And the Buddha here -here we are using symbolic language- sees that the great power that in a way threatens to destroy my life in every moment is that of Mara. In fact we find the same in Christianity where Paul describes the devil as the Deus of this eon, the god of this age. Or in the gospel of John he talks of Satan as being the ruler of this world. And the same idea we find in Buddhism, where Mara is also identified as Kamadeva, in other world the god who rules over the world of the senses sphere.


But the Buddha said "I can see what is going on, I can see this forces around me, but I'm going to destroy it like a man destroys an unfired clay pot with a stone"... Now, what does that mean? Imagine you have, back on this room over that wall there you have a fired clay pot and you have an unfired clay pot. From the distance they look the same, but if you throw a stone to the fired clay pot, it would hit the pot and make "bing" and bounce off; but if you throw the same stone to the unfired clay pot it will hit the clay pot and it will crumble down. 


When we are surrounded by the armies of Mara, the problem is we think that they really are armies. Sometimes when we are assault by let's say an anxiety or a worry, it seems to be so powerful that we have absolutely no way of resisting it. Sometimes a very trivial thought can completely control our lives. I am sometimes a neurotic worrying kind of person, and I can sometimes  be overwhelm by the thought "am I going to get to the airport on time?" and this can sometimes become so powerful that is all I can think of, my whole body starts to contract, my heat rate increases,  just because of the thought "am I going to get to the airport on time?" -where it really doesn't matter!- but is so powerful.


So Mara has one of the most powerful tools or strategies of Mara is to appear to us to be more powerful that what he really is.


So when we start to see... let's say a fantasy or a desire or a fear simply as the conditional result of certain thoughts occurring in the mind, and we see them for what they are, they begin to loose their power over us, and also to notice this things are not permanent. And sometimes when we're feeling depressed for example, we have this conviction that I'm always going to be depressed, this is never going to go away. But this fully knowing dukkha is to see how everything is contingent, ephemeral, transient in a very powerless way. So Mara is overly conquered not by destroying him but by seeing this things for what they are, and this is what the Buddha calls the power of wisdom.


And in nearly all of the dialogs between Buddha and Mara there is almost always the same conclusion, the Buddha saying "I know you Mara", or Mara sometime saying "The Buddha knows me" and then Mara vanishes.


So the way to freedom is therefore the way of intelligence, understanding and wisdom.


One of the things, I think is most striking about the passages with Mara, is that most of them occur after the Buddha's enlightenment. 


This passage is actually fairly atypical, we often are told that the Buddha is the one who has overcome Mara, and we have this beautiful image in Buddhist iconography of the Buddha sitting there looking fairly serene, and surrounding him is this halo of demons sort of trowing things at him, and the Buddha it totally unaffected. 


Is worth pointing out that in the Pali canon that episode doesn't appear. In the Pali's account of Buddha and Mara, most of them are taken place -nearly all of them really-  after the Buddha has overcome Mara. In fact Mara has his last encounter with the Buddha tree months before the Buddha's death. So Mara is not just something that we can... do a lot of meditation and then somehow get rid of  it. Even the Buddha is constantly working with Mara.


Unfortunately as Buddhism became more and more like a religion, then the Buddha became increasingly perfect. 

But the Buddha according to most traditions is just wisdom, compassion, all of the positive qualities and nothing within his mind which is remotely associated with the world like greed, aversion or fear, this things just don't happen to the Buddha. but such view or notion of the Buddha makes all of the encounters with Mara after the awakening more like intelligible. As I would understand it, greed and hatred and delusion are not just formless features of the mind, but are embeded in our neurobiology. And greed and hatred served considerably  giving survival advantages in our evolution existence; and I don't think that any amount of meditation is going somehow to delete from our reptilian brain this tendencies; the only way, perhaps to get rid of them would be some kind or neurosurgery. But I find that this is, -to me- the most convincing way to understand why, after the awakening, the Buddha is still assaulted  by Mara.


So it ask us to reconsider  what do we mean by this freedom or liberation that Buddhism speaks of. Is this liberation achieved by destroying something? or as the texts say, cutting them off like a palm stump? or is this freedom achieved by entering into a radically different relationship with this things? 


And this is the point that is made at the end of this Padhana Sutta. The Sutta actually breaks into two parts, the first twenty verses are describing a period previous the enlightenment and the last five verses take place at a later point (the first part is previous and the second part of the set, the last five verses recount what happen after the enlightenment).


So I'm just going to read out the text:  

This is Mara speaking: "I've followed the Buddha for seven years, and I watched every step he's made, and not once have I had access to him, who's is completely awaken and mindful. I remember once seeing a crow hovering above a lump of fat on the ground below "Oh food!" he thought, but the lump of fat turn out to be a rock, hard and uneatable, and the crow flew away disgusted. I've had enough! is like that crow eating rock, I'm going away! I'm finished with Gautama " Mara was so upset by this failure that he dropped the guitar that he carry, and the moment the guitar fell to the ground Mara desappeared.


W. Blake referring to Milton (who wrote "Paradise lost"

) once  said: the Devil always gets the best lines. -And one of the most powerful pieces of literature and imaginary and metaphor and story are around the character of Mara.-

So, what's going on here? what seems to be suggested is that the Buddha has not destroyed Mara, has not destroyed within himself certain feeling, certain emotions, certain thoughts. But he's become inaccessible, he's become impervious, they have nowhere to land, there's nowhere to get a foothold -and again, we can understand that perhaps as a mind that's completely open and ungrasping, there is no knotty fix that can be taken-


I sometimes feel as though my mind is like a landing spread for Mara.


But there are moments- rare moments- when we find ourselves sitting in meditation and we can BE with all of the crazy stuff that's going on without being taken away by it.


So in some ways all of this language is metaphorical, is symbolic. The Buddha stands for one possibility of mind and Mara stands for another. And that possibility is present for us in each moment. We can be Buddha in this moment or we can be Mara, is our choice.


Buddha is in a way of talking about an open, non grasping awareness, that is incapable of being taken over by limited or negative thoughts. The mind is in a way of a pure, non judgmental limitless awareness that the state of Mara can't get hold on. 


Another word that the Buddha uses for Mara is Antaka. where Anta means limit or border or end and Ka means the one who imposes, limits, borders. So Mara is as it were a limiting condition within our experience. So if our mind becomes locked onto something we crave or obsess about getting rid of something we hate, or is frighten or fearful, or jealous. In each case it is limited to that state of feeling or perception. And again we come back to the same metaphor we started with: a limited condition is one in which we are limited in our life, we live less fully when we for example are taken over by jealously.


And so this practice is a way of as a practice we are learning to recognize how we limit and confine  and in a way kill ourselves. And mindfulness and awareness are as it were the possibility of living without being confine by any particular limit or closedge.


And to conclude I'd like to just recite a verse by William Blake that captures this very beautifully:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things trough the narrow chinks of his cavern” 


and we have the same opposition, the opposition of a cleansed perception which is a beautiful way of describing meditation in which the world becomes infinite and limitless ... but man has closed himself up... as opposed,  that limited narrow perception in which only see trough a tiny cleft of what is possible 


Tomorrow I'm going to look at the counter image of Mara which is that of Buddha-nature