issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Empathy for the devil

Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, fascinates Stephen Batchelor the Buddhist writer and philosopher. Thomas Jones asked him how he came to write his new book, Living with the Devil

Stephen Batchelor's publisher gave him free rein in his follow-up book, after Buddhism Without Beliefs became a US bestseller. In 2000, having just moved to France with his wife to live the life of a freelance Buddhist intellectual, he started work on Living with the Devil. When I met Batchelor at the end of a visit to the uk, I wondered how he had come to this surprising subject.

'I had lots of material and notes that I'd always wanted to mould into a book, but it didn't have a theme. Within a few weeks, the material led me to Mara, the Buddhist version of the devil. I'd never been interested in him before, but I became fascinated, and realised that I had the seed of a book. I started going into it in my usual obsessive kind of way, looking up every reference I could find, both within Buddhism and outside it in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that gave me my theme. I had no idea where it was going, and the writing emerged in the course of my struggle with the idea of Mara that I had had.'

I can relate to this. In the summer of 2003 I also found myself obsessed by the devil, having closely studied Paradise Lost, in which the poet John Milton famously gives Satan all the best lines. I asked myself, where is the devil in my own experience? It seemed to me that, despite my not holding a belief in God, I still related to morality, in terms of obedience to some kind of internalised authority figure. Satan, on the other hand, is the great rebel against thoughtless obedience. I wrote a series of poems in the voice of Satan, and ended up leading workshops on the theme of 'Befriending Satan'. The point was not to start acting out one's shadow-side, but to acknowledge that the devil, the voice of instinctive self-centredness, is always there, always influencing us. We don't get far in the spiritual life by simply denying him; there has to be some conversation and integration.

In Living with the Devil Batchelor has quite a different approach, but he is addressing the same human situation. 'Some of the first material I wrote for the new book was a development of material that appeared years ago in a booklet called Flight, which was an afterthought to Alone with Others. I wanted to develop the idea that existential flight, which is the human tendency to flee the difficult reality of experience towards distraction or entertainment, is a natural response to contingency. This word 'contingency' is how I translate pratityasamutpada, or Dependent Arising, the Buddha's fundamental teaching on the nature of Reality.'

Batchelor's previous book, Verses from the Centre, was a poetic rendering of a work by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, in which this contingency is identified with sunyata or emptiness, the lack of essential identity in phenomena. Samsara, the endless cycle of suffering, is, Batchelor might say, this flight from contingency. Instead of opening to the contingent, empty nature of things, we endlessly seek for identity, security and permanence. But this sets us in a vicious circle, since in our quest for happiness we are evading Reality. In German, Batchelor notes, a vicious circle is a Teufelskreis, a 'devil's circle': it is the devil who deceives us into circling, getting nowhere. In Buddhism this devil is called Mara.

'Mara,' he tells me, 'is a way of talking about the contingent and imperfect structure of the world. A lot of western Buddhists, and maybe Asian Buddhists, too, tend to read Mara as a psychological function: as negative states of mind, attachments, grasping and so on. This is only part of the picture. It fails to see that Mara is a metaphor for the very structure of the contingent world that is constantly breaking down, and exposing you to death and the unpredictability of life itself. All that is Mara.'

The figure of Mara is familiar to most Buddhists as the trickster character in the traditional story who tries to prevent Siddhartha Gautama from attaining Enlightenment while he sits beneath the bodhi tree. Mara sends fearsome armies to assail the Bodhisattva, and gorgeous daughters to tempt him back to worldly life. But Mara fails. The Buddha is victorious, and the defeated Mara slinks away, dejected.

I suggest that Mara represents something like the personality of samsara. Batchelor agrees. 'I'm interested in how this figure can only work as a personality. As soon as you reduce it to something less than a personality, for instance to a psychological function, you lose sight of what it is essentially about. Mara means 'killer', and Buddhist tradition speaks of the four maras. There's klesha-mara, the psychological compulsions that control you; skandha-mara, the body-mind itself as fragile, as dying, as killing you; yama-mara, death itself; and devaputra-mara, the Mara that appears as the son of a god. But the tradition loses sight of Mara as a personality when he is reduced to these four functions. In the west he is reduced just to klesha-mara, the psychological function, to our destructive, negative and limiting psychological states. Of course, Mara is the kleshas, but he's not only that.

'The Buddha describes Mara as antaka, which means 'the maker of limits'. We have no trouble understanding this psychologically: if I'm in a state of anger or attachment, I'm limited, trapped. I'm in one of Mara's snares. It's harder to understand this in the context of our lives as a whole, but the fact is that our existence here is finite, and so Mara is a metaphor of finitude. If I have a stroke, that will probably limit my capacity to realise those values I most deeply cherish. If I'm imprisoned by some tyrannical regime, that's Mara. Death is more obviously a limit to our freedom. So Mara is that which blocks my way in life, inhibits my capacity to realise my values and goals.'

In the traditional story of the Buddha's Enlightenment, once Mara has tried and failed to tempt the Buddha back to worldliness, his part is over: he is defeated. However, he crops up quite often in the early Pali suttas, appearing as a doubting voice, which the Buddha hears, acknowledges, then overcomes.

We talk about how orthodox this understanding of Mara is. In both Theravada and Mahayana traditions, the figure of Mara quickly became the four maras, and was turned into a theological doctrine. Most of the stories about Mara in the suttas weren't translated into Tibetan. Meanwhile, the figure of the Buddha was elevated to higher and higher degrees of perfection, as all-wise, all-loving and so on, until he was effectively dehumanised, becoming completely devoid of limiting features apart from his human body.

'But the early tradition did preserve the sense that the Buddha exists in a constant tension with this counter-image, or shadow, called Mara, which I understand as his own conflicted humanity. That leads to my point - which is not at all orthodox - that Mara never goes away. Although the Buddha achieved a certain freedom, Mara was still around, whispering in his ear. But I don't have any sense that the Buddha was troubled by this. He was subject to temptation, you might say, subject to thoughts and feelings arising in his mind that we might call "self-doubt". This self-doubt appears as a personality - there is something very consistent about Mara's voice. It reminds me of Satan's voice in Milton's Paradise Lost. It's insidious; alternately extremely self-confident then un-self-confident, swinging from arrogance to despair.'

We talk about the character of Satan in Milton's poem, the archetypal rebel. I suggest that the figure of Satan, who rebels against an omnipotent, omniscient, tyrannical God, is attractive because he represents something about our humanity, something imperfect yet magnificent in his courage and individuality. 'Mara is rebelling against Enlightenment,' adds Batchelor. 'Mara is that part of us which, when we sit in meditation, for example, does not want to watch the breath. I think Mara is our humanity. There's something touching about those passages in the suttas where Mara fails in his tempting of the Buddha.

'You lose sight of the Buddha when you delete Mara, because you lose sight of that part of the Buddha with which you can identify. You can see yourself in Mara much more easily than in the Buddha. And yet if you bring these two split-off parts back into a single image, the Buddha becomes humanised while Mara paradoxically becomes 'Buddha-ised'. In this sense, Mara is not just a problem, Mara is necessary for Enlightenment to happen. Mara is the problem without which there would be no solution.

'When I told others I was writing a book about the devil, most people came up with a story, an image, an anecdote that encapsulated their own particular sense of the devil. These were incredibly diverse, which suggests the complexity of the image. Devil is not a word in most Buddhists' spiritual vocabulary, and yet when you say it, it immediately evokes an intuitive response. It's an image that everyone connects to, in varied ways.

'To me the Buddha and the devil, or Mara, are two modes of a single organism. The Buddha is the capacity of that organism to open, Mara is its capacity to shut down. And that is non-dualistic because there's only the one organism, the human being. Traditional Buddhism has succumbed to a dualism, that the Buddha is good, Mara is bad. The Buddha is perfectly good; in his idealised perfection, he is no longer quite human. Mara is this figure the Buddha overcomes. Good and evil are split off from one another in orthodox Buddhism.'

What then is Mara, in terms of this single organism? When does the devil appear in experience? I suggest that Mara reveals himself as one's Buddha-nature is revealed; the personality of the devil forms and begins to speak - as rebellion, as compulsion and obstruction - as one becomes aware of the possibility of awakening.

Batchelor continues: 'As soon as you make this foolhardy commitment to Enlightenment, you wave a red flag at the bull of Mara. When you decide, 'I'm going to wake up', you're basically saying 'no' to Mara, who, until that point, has been running the show. You are saying 'no' to the deeply-seated, probably bio-neurologically rooted, tendency towards closure, attachment, desire, fear - the flight from staying open in a contingent world. As soon as you turn against that, you affirm your own possibility of becoming a Buddha but also expose the deep resistance you have to waking up. Mara is everything that resists awakening. So, yes, Mara only becomes apparent when you seek to break free of his control. Until that time you don't notice him; you just think, well, this is life.'

I'm interested in how this conception of Mara fits with modern theories of evolution. I suggest that the tendency of the human organism to close down and rest in its fixed sense of itself must have some usefully adaptive function, some advantage for survival.

'I think that's absolutely right, and makes perfect sense of skandha-mara, the devil of psycho-physical existence. Along with my unorthodox conception of Mara goes a relinquishing of beliefs in karma and rebirth. I find it far more convincing to think that greed, hatred and delusion, the classic Buddhist baddies, are legacies of early and advantageous biological survival strategies than to consider them as impressions on the stream of mind carried over beginning-less lifetimes. This biological account of the origin of greed, hatred and delusion seems far more convincing than the traditional metaphysical one, and it explains why Mara keeps appearing to the Buddha. The Buddha is still in his evolutionarily-driven organism; he still has his reptilian brain and Mara is built-in to the organism itself.'

This image of the devil as belonging inseparably to our biological nature leads us to a discussion about the nature of Enlightenment: does freedom mean being completely free of greed, hatred and delusion, or does it mean knowing them so well that they no longer dominate? The early scriptures offer images for both possibilities: the Buddha often ends his discourses by describing the three poisons as 'cut off like a palm stump, never to rise again'. But he also compares the Enlightened person to a rock on which a crow, representing Mara, can no longer gain any purchase. The crow just flaps dejectedly away.

'So freedom is achieved not by killing the crow but by making oneself such that Mara no longer has any hold on you. The Buddha says he has become invisible to Mara, and that makes sense to me, whereas the image of a cut-off palm stump suggests an act of violence against the psyche and the reptilian brain.'

'Mara is what inhibits the freedom to be in-between. Usually we want to own and control whatever space we're in, and this leads to the 'Mara-isation' of religion. The philosophy closes down. My thinking is self-consciously anti-orthodox by trying to open up another way of seeing the condition we're in. I consider myself a Buddhist - although some of my critics might question this - but I don't define myself exclusively in Buddhist terms, intellectually or spiritually. I'm concerned to address the post-modern situation that is our reality.

'We have the capacity to be plural, to enter into the world-views of Freud or Blake without difficulty, while practising Buddhism. The negotiation between world-views enriches us, or if it is confusing, that confusion can be good. This, too, is living with the devil. Up to the last moment, the book was going to be subtitled 'a Buddhist meditation on good and evil'. But just before it went to press I phoned my editor and said, we have to get the B-word out.'

'I think my approach puts me closer to the original Buddhist idea that life is dukkha, suffering. The contingent world is a place that breaks us down and kills us. Buddhists often don't want to look at this; there's this great fear about demonising nature; everything has to be brought back to 'my mind' and its compulsions. We find it hard to make the link to Mara being death. Quite a lot of well-informed Buddhist friends have told me, 'Mara's not death; Mara is our fear of death'. They psychologise Mara; they internalise him in terms of their relationship to death. But I think you miss something crucially important when you do that.'

I suggest that Batchelor has re-demonised nature. 'That's right, in a way. Nature is what will destroy us, but nature is also what allows us the possibility of waking up. We have Buddha-nature and Mara-nature, at any moment we have the capacity to open up or close down. It's the same with this world in which we're embedded; it's both good and bad, it's not reducible to either good or bad. The habit of making the split, cutting off from nature, is part of our suffering.'

Living with the Devil - A Meditation on Good and Evil
by Stephen Batchelor
published by Riverhead Books 2004, $22.95 /£16.95 h/b