Behold, I am become Mara, destroyer of worlds*

A few days ago Barry from Oxherding commented on a verse of the Dhammapada (at Without Bounds) about the influence of Mara, otherwise known as the King of demons:

The one who lives for sensation,
Indulgent in eating,
Lazy, and lacking in energy,
The tempter Mara, breaks,
Just as the wind breaks a frail tree.**

I read this as a warning, that if I live without any self-restraint, I’ll eventually succumb to some temptation or situation that will break me (physically or spiritually).

 However, to Barry, it felt like something was missing: 
“…none of these translations really gets to the key point for me. That point is: To indulge in the pleasurable *is* to be overcome by Mara. Even that doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps it’s not so much that Mara overcomes, as that we *become* Mara, our inherent Mara-nature co-arises with indulgence.”

Becoming the destroyer of worlds

This is a great point, because it feels like once I succumb to temptation, I am Mara.  I’m the one occupying that unwise thought or action, though there may be some disquiet telling me something’s wrong. You’ve probably heard the joke, “it seemed like a good idea at the time”? Sometimes it’s not so funny.

To be overcome by delusion — to succumb to Mara — is to be doing or thinking something that seems good, right, and pleasureable, and yet is unhealthy for myself, society, and the planet. At that moment, I am Mara, destroyer of worlds. While thinking I’m doing something good, I’m destroying the enviornment, other’s lives, and my own life.

 To be lost in ignorance,
mistaking delusion for truth,
the unhealthy for the healthy,
how to take even one step forward?

So, for me, the key question is how do we step back from this Mara-nature when we’re in the middle of it?  What do we do when we can’t be sure about which way is up and which is down, about what is good and what isn’t?

The only reliable method for me, is to let go of everything:
To let go of the things I don’t know, as well as what I know (which is probably incomplete, or incorrect), and to entrust it all to this bright, inherent Buddha-nature that we all have.

Daehaeng Kun Sunim often compares this true nature to a smelting furnace: it burns away all impurities, and what comes out the other side is pure gold. All I can do is entrust it with what I know, and what I don’t know, and go forward with empty hands, trusting in this empty place that is the source of everything.

This is what works for me, (although I’m not always successful at implimentation.)
What works for you? How do you recover from an incarnation as Mara?

with palms together,
Chong Go


–A bit beside the point, but still important, is the question “what is this Mara-nature?”

Obviously, any good Buddhist is going to know there’s no such fixed entity out there. (right? ;-)) In Korean Buddhism, there is the concept of “karmic consciousnesses,” that is, karmic states of consciousness, or echos of states of mind. When these return to us, they come out through our brains, our awareness, and so we identify with that feeling. “I’m the one who feels that.” Instead, it helps a bit if we realize this is just a karmic echo occupying the same time and place as us, much like a fart in the room. “That’s not me, that’s just here at the same time, and if I wait a bit, it will pass.”

*The actual quote, paraphrased by Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the first  atomic bomb, is “Behold, I am become Shiva, Destroyer of worlds.”

**This is from my favorite translation of the Dhammapada, by Balangoda Ananda Maitreya

10 thoughts on “Behold, I am become Mara, destroyer of worlds*”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Sunim, and the important question: How do I work with my Mara-nature?

    There’s no simple answer to this question, at least none that I can see.

    Steady meditation practice has helped me develop some ability to stay with my mind, while it does what it does. It has also helped me develop some familiarity with the well-worn grooves of reaction (when she does this, I do that). This kind of training seems like bedrock for working with Mara.

    Study of teachings and the guidance of teachers has helped me develop some sense of “direction” – the *why* of practice. For me, at least, there is cognitive benefit in knowing that Mara exists as an aspect of myself and that I can take responsibility for Mara’s manifestations. This helps strip away a deep layer of self-deceit.

    However, even these two important trainings seem incomplete to me. I also depend greatly on my human relationships, particularly upon those that involve what the Buddha called “noble friends.” The back and forth of these “noble” relationships continually calls me out of Mara-nature.

    So that’s the short version of how I “recover from an incarnation as Mara”, as best as I can see it right now.

    1. Hi Barry,
      That’s an excellent point about how “noble relationships” can really save our bacon. It reminds me of what’s called “virtue and merit,” (in a sense, the results of selfless actions.) More than just good karma, it’s that help that shows up when we really need it.

      The value of consistant meditation for giving me a moment to step back and look at things, when I would have otherwise plunged in, just can’t be overstated.

      1. For me, “noble friends” come in the form of
        – My wife, when she holds up a mirror to the way in which I’m irritating
        – My friend Bob, who continually punctures my concepts and probes my withholding
        – My therapist, who pushes me to knock off my afflictive behaviors
        – And, of course, my Zen teacher who, being a pain in the butt, continually tries to show me the door.

        These interactions are critical for my practice – without them I might happily slip into a hermit’s life, which wouldn’t help the world very much.

        Of course, I’m not helping the world very much most of the time anyway, lost in my usual grooves.

  2. I’m not going to pretend to really understand this discussion very deeply, but I felt drawn to share this, on a more “beginner’s” level. It’s something I’ve thought about on and off…

    I worked in a restaurant through most of university. It was convenient as a student, I got a good, free meal everyday and was able to snack throughout my shift. When I got moved to the day shift, I started sneaking a piece of cheese cake when I arrived in the morning to do prep before the chef showed up. It wasn’t the best quality, I knew it wasn’t good for me (or the chef’s food cost) but I could never help myself from doing it!

    As soon as I’d get into the kitchen, I’d start craving it, until I couldn’t stand anymore, and open the dessert fridge, take out a slice and stuff it in my face before anyone saw.

    One day, I took out a piece, was about to put it into my mouth, when finally, with it right beneath my nose, I stopped myself, put it down, and didn’t take another one again.

    I think the difference was, that I finally confronted my inner Mara while it was looking me right in the eye, not tempting me from behind the fridge door. Every other time I’d given up before Mara was even in sight.

    Is that an important part of the processes? Do we need to have our weaknesses right before us?

    I suppose what was “actually” going on when Sidhartha and Mara had their confrontations, were the habits of fantasy and desire were finally being uprooted. It’s much subtler that something physically before him, but his awareness was obviously much MUCH subtler than mine. But, in the stories, his desires are personified, physically before him, though. Or, does it just make it more intriguing than saying, “He almost had an arousing fantasy, but didn’t…”

    1. “…but didn’t…” lol! Does lack a bit of punch, doesn’t it? 🙂

      Your experience with the cheese cake illustrates the situation: How do we get squared away, when it feels like our habits and desires are the ones in charge?

      I think this is perhaps the biggest challage facing people who would like to grow and evolve emotionally and spiritually.

  3. I don’t care about stupid temptations, I don’t even want anything, I am just tired of suffering, there are always some problems, one after another, like waves at the beach. I think Mara is the general wish for existance, and all the pleasant temptations, especially those that have to do with procreation is like a trap, if you only see that everything is drenched in suffering, then the only desire will be left is to get free. That is my grumpy opinion. I am tired and scared of allergic reactions, asthmas and all other problems of mine.
    Yesterday took my daughter to see a movie, Karate Kid, new movie just came out. Great stuff. You never know when you get inspired.
    here some words from a song:
    “…I never thought that I could walk through fire.
    I never thought that I could take the burn.
    I never had the strength to take it higher,
    Until I reached the point of no return.
    I never thought I could feel this power.
    I never thought that I could feel this free…”

  4. Hi Chong Go,

    This is a good discussion:). How to deal with our “Mara-nature” when it arises… (For me, it is similar to what others call by many different names, but the meaning is still the same.)

    Eckhart Tolle describes it as bringing an awareness to when you are lost in this state of being, and it seems to me that I am lost in this state of being whenever I can not find any stillness around my thoughts, actions, or emotions. So, I also liken this to what Daehaeng Kun Sunim says about releasing to emptiness, everything I know and don’t know (as I realize I don’t know much of anything, ’cause it constantly changes!) So, it seems that the more I release the more I am able to see myself more clearly.

    In the times when I am not aware (becoming my Mara-nature), then the sense of ease and contentment have left me and I know I am lost. So I meditate and work on clearing everything. I just give, as you have helped teach me and Daehaeng Kun Sunim has helped teach me, with blind faith and let everything melt away… (sometimes I visualize a large squeegee that is made of bright white light that melts everything, just cleans and squeegees away the grim of emotions, thoughts, etc., or sometimes it is a large vacuum that sucks in everything from all directions). I have many things that I try, and as you have said to me, “just rest deeply” and this helps when nothing else does, especially for the times when so much stuff comes up that it seems I will never find the stillness again. 🙂

    I think it comes down to, “watching, watching, diligently watching…” And even then, one can only do the best they can do and relax with that (some wise person told me that once:))

    With wishes for all to find this constant ease/contentment and deep love that is within each of us, as this is what will melt our “Mara-natures” for then it will not be able to get ahold of us as our true nature becomes more revealed. Like your fart analogy that comes but then just goes…

  5. Today I found myself staring at this years` Hanmaum calendar which is designed in a beautyful clear and bright grey colour. This reminded me of Daehaeng Kunsunim saying how she felt full of thanks seeing the sunim-dul wearing their grey clothes which were neither black nor white.

    I often cause myself difficulties because I tend to long for bright white clothes instead of embracing certain states of mind “with a compassionate smile” and, without making a difference between black or white , letting them go to where they came from: my own foundation which is the source of everything that arises.

    I am just beginning, trying to strengthen my faith and entrust
    as much as I can, yet I often forget about it – but I won´t give up.

    With palms together

    1. when you mix all the (left after painting) colours on the pallette, it always becomes grey, so grey has all the colours in it.
      “…yet I often forget…”-
      -Just listen to your heartbeat, do you make it? This way you will not forget

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