Conquering Devils on a Daily Basis

Mara challenges Lord Buddha

For the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of difficulty keeping meditation at the top of my priorities. Even when I manage to sit every day, my mind has been more agitated than usual. Then the other day, I had a moment that brought me back to the stories of Lord Buddha that I learned when much younger — and this reminded me of an article I read in Buddhadharma.

(I also hope this shows that I really mean it when I say that I appreciate Buddhist magazines, no matter how much I criticize them!)

The Fall 2008 issue of Buddhadharma contained a forum with Glenn Wallis, Judy Lief and Ari Goldfield. The topic was: “Do You Believe in Miracles?” (with the subtitle, “Debating the Supernatural in Buddhism”). I picked up this article during a break at the office some weeks ago, and I remember feeling numb while reading. While deities and ghosts were all a part of my upbringing, I didn’t have any opinion about what these stories meant, or whether I should believe in the “supernatural.” For me the notions existed at one time and then went away, much in the way people let go of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy come a certain age. So it was strangely both deeply interesting and a little boring to follow this epistemic debate about devas, spirits and monks walking through mountains.

At one time or another, I’ve taken the point of view of each of the forum participants. The stories exist to cater to a certain medieval mindset. Or these stories are just as real as our Big Bang Theory, but only in a particular cultural context. Or maybe it’s even the case that the stories are user-friendly allegories for a deeper truth. One example that Buddhadharma raises is the story of “Lord Buddha defeating the Maras“:

In Buddhism, you have Buddha defeating the Maras. Does it make any difference whether we regard the Maras as existing beings or as a potent metaphor for mental events? Couldn’t different types of people derive equally beneficial effects coming from different worldviews?

Glenn Wallis goes on to say that the distinction is important, and I’ll leave it at that. But for me, and probably for other people in my family, the distinction is not quite so black and white.

It’s a heavy thing to admit, but I’ll say it: I hallucinate. I always thought of it as daydreaming. But I remember my father asking me once if I hallucinate when I’m extremely tired, and I admitted that I do in fact imagine people’s faces and people talking to me (and sometimes I might respond). It’s not just us two. I recently visited an aunt in the hospital, and along with another aunt the three of us had quite a time talking about all the hallucinations we get on (medically prescribed) drugs. Even my grandmother once had the doctors turn off the morphine because she was sick of seeing people in the ceiling.

So there I was one morning when I was sitting and trying to watch my breath after not having had the greatest night of sleep. My mind was weak, and the dreams started coming to me. Usually I’ll notice random bits of conversation through my mind, but on this day I saw chariots and demons, and I could feel their wrath and annoyance… and that’s when I remembered back to the story of Lord Buddha’s awakening, when still as the renunciant Siddhartha he faced Mara’s hordes: “Your serried squadrons, which the world / with all its gods cannot defeat, / I shall now break with wisdom / as with a stone a clay pot.”

Then I realized these visions were just an illusion, and with that wisdom I saw through illusion. I came back to my breath.

Now I know that not everyone has the same issues with hallucinations/daydreaming that run in my family. The story here is that I was able to take the story of Lord Buddha’s awakening and make use of it for what it was. There I sat, challenged by the forces of Mara, and all I had to do was to use my wisdom to see through them, to see the illusions for what they were.

I don’t mean to cast doubt on any of the opinions expressed in the Buddhadharma forum. I think they are all quite valid. This experience simply reminded me that for us beginners, there is a blurry line between reality and what we think reality is. I don’t deny that there is an allegorical interpretation to the story of the vanquishing of Mara, but sometimes the literal interpretation is helpful too.

2 Replies to “Conquering Devils on a Daily Basis”

  1. I remember reading that article in Buddhadharma a couple of months ago and while I don’t recall the details, I remember that the discussion broadened my view of Buddhist teaching.

    And I also recalled that when I’ve sat in longer solo retreats, some “strange” stuff has happened. Some of it was clearly (although not clear at the time) a function of mind; but other “strange” stuff seemed to be happening “out there.”

    My present view is that the world is much more complex than we can comprehend with ordinary consciousness. It’s certainly true that consciousness itself is much more complex than we’re ordinarily willing to admit.

    That’s why practice is so important for me. It helps me look more deeply into what’s actually going on, to see beyond the filters and fantasies.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. Allegorical and literal interpretations are both helpful. I have seen some strange things in my time, so I don’t doubt the literal at all. Good post.

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