Mara, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas

Dr. Nancy Lethcoe


Having made the decision to remain in the physical sphere of Mara's control, the irreversible bodhisattva must then be able to recognize and hence resist the subtle activities of Mara. The Astasahasrika portrays Mara as assuming a variety of disguises in order to test the bodhisattva's faith, his attainments, and his future prospects.

0 Subhuti, if Mara approaches a bodhisattva and conjures up The eight great hells and having conjured them up one by one with a hundred or a thousand bodhisattvas in them, he then says;" all these bodhisattvas received the prediction to irreversibility from the Buddha, and yet now they have fallen into these great hells; if you have received the prediction to irreversibility, then you have received it for the hells; if you will now renounce this thought, then you will not fall into the hells, but will always be born in heaven." If a bodhisattva hears this speech and his mind is not upset or angry, but instead he thinks: "it is impossible for an irreversible-bodhisattva to fall into the evil paths," then by these marks and attributes know that he is an irreversible bodhisattva.

Furthermore, Subhuti, if Mara conjures up a Sramana who approaches a bodhisattva saying; "whatever you have formerly heard, recited, or studied should be repented and rejected by you. If you abandon it and do not again listen to or receive it, then I will continue to approach you saying;  "whatever you have heard, that is not what was said by the Buddha. All these words are poetry embellished by poets. Only the sutras spoken by me are the words of the Buddha." If he hears this and his mind is upset or angry, know that this bodhisattva has not yet received the prediction from the Buddha. This bodhisattva is certainly not fixed. He does not yet reside in the irreversible bhumi. O Subhuti, if a bodhisattva hears this and his mind is not upset or angry, but he relies upon the dharma-nature of all dharmas as unarisen, unmade, and unoriginated, and does not conform to the speech of others—just as an Arhat whose outflows are exhausted completely realizes the dharma-nature of all dharmas because dharmas do not arise and do not originate, and is thus not restrained by Mara—so Subhuti, a bodhisattva is also like this. One who does not seek the sravaka or pratyeka-buddha bhumis cannot be overcome. He does not turn back again and he will certainly proceed to all-knowledge. Standing in the irreversible element, he does not conform to the speeches of others.

Furthermore, Subhuti, if Mara approaches a bodhisattva saying: “your practice is a coursing in birth and death; it is not a coursing in all-knowledge. Now you can in this life put an end to suffering and take hold of nirvana. If you do just this, then you will not experience all the suffering of birth and death again. This body does not reproduce itself. How much less Should you desire to experience a future body.” If this bodhisattva hears this and his mind is not upset or angry, then Mara speaks to him again; “Now you desire to see all the bodhisattvas honoring and worshipping Buddhas as numerous as the sands of the Ganges with robes, bowls, and medicinal supplies. And in the presence of Buddhas as numerous as the sands of the Ganges they have walked the brahmacarya and approached the Buddha asking questions. Because of the bodhisattva vehicle, they ask many difficult questions. For example, how should a bodhisattva stand? How should he practice? These bodhisattvas, in the presence of Buddhas, conform to what they have heard and make endeavors. Just this is the teaching; just this is the training, just this is the practice. Still they cannot obtain utmost supreme Enlightenment! If a bodhisattva hears this and his mind is not upset or angry, then Mara again conjures up some bhiksus and says to him: “these bhiksus are all Arhats whose outflows are exhausted. Formerly, they put forth the thought to seek the Buddha-path, but now they stand in the Arhat’s bhumi.

How much 1ess will you be able to obtain utmost, supreme Enlightenment!" If a bodhisattva thinks," I have heard from others what has been omitted," if his mind does not revolt against these sayings; and if he does not think" this is a deed of Mara;" if a bodhisattva in this way practices the perfections and trains in the perfections, then it is impossible for him not to obtain all-knowledge. O Subhuti, if a bodhisattva trains conforming to the preaching he has heard from the Buddhas, by practicing conforming to what he has heard, he does not become separated from the path. Not being separated from all-know-ledge, he reflects: "it is impossible for me not to obtain all-knowledge,"

Furthermore, Subhuti, if Mara approaches an irreversible bodhisattva saying: "all-knowledge is the same as space; it is a dharma which does not exist; no one uses this dharma and wins the path. Why? If one wins the path, the dharma by which he obtained the path and the dharma which he used both are like space. The knower, the dharma known, and the dharma used do not exist and are the same as space. You will soon experience suffering." He says, [the teaching that] one obtains utmost, supreme Enlightenment is a deed of Mara's not something said by the Buddha." If a bodhisattva should reflect: in this manner: "If someone criticizes me, then I am separated from all-knowledge." then this is a deed of Mara. Concerning this deed, he should strengthen his mind by not becoming upset or turning back. 0 Subhuti, by these marks and attributes know that this is an irreversible bodhisattva.

Mara does nor tempt an irreversible bodhisattva with visions from the physical world, but rather he tests his ability to distinguish the true Dharma from the false. Knowledge of the Dharma constitutes the irreversible bodhisattva's own shield, his own spiritual power, whereby he himself successfully distinguishes the true from the false Dharma and thus recognizes and refuses the false Dharma of Mara, just as he has already refused to abandon all of Mara's subjects, i.e. all living creatures. Thus the irreversible bodhisattva realizes the true Dharma, but does not reside in the reality-limit (nirvana). Likewise, he rejects the false dharma, but refuses to abandon all beings who are still subjects of the false Dharma.

     In conclusion, it should be noted that the Astasahasrika seems to be somewhat ambivalent on the question of how much the irreversible bodhisattva owes his ability to practice the perfection of wisdom to his own knowledge of the Truth and how much is the result of his receiving the Buddha's spiritual power. When describing the irreversible bodhisattva in relation to the Buddha, the Astasahasrika still attributes the irreversible bodhisattva's ability both to his practicing the perfection of wisdom and to the Buddha’s spiritual power which supports this practice. However, when describing the confrontation between Mara and the irreversible bodhisattva, it is the bodhisattva’s ability to recognize the false Dharma and to enunciate the true Dharma that enables him to overcome Mara. In these passages, no mention is made of the Buddha’s spiritual power; the bodhisattva appears to be on his own.


9. KA T. 227, 564b15ff; A 328; BST 163.16