According to the legend, when Siddhartha resolved to awaken and sat down beneath the bodhi tree, his success was all but assured. He had come a long way in his journey; the conditions were right. In some versions of the story, the whole world kind of holds its breath—the birds, the wind, even the tree itself were cheering him on, excited for him to stand in the morning as the Buddha.
One being, however, was not so excited. The demon Mara—often depicted as a red monster with bulging eyes, though I picture him as very ordinary—felt the stirring of the world and felt compelled to stop Siddhartha from accomplishing his task. In the story, that’s just what Mara does: he consciously and aggressively creates obstacles to awakening. It’s what drives him.
He tried reason. He tried threats. At one point he unleashed armies that shot thousands of arrows at Siddhartha, only for those arrows to transform into flowers midair and land at Siddhartha’s feet. In Mara’s most desperate move, he brought out his daughters to seduce the future Buddha. I’ve seen paintings that portray the daughters as very beautiful, the moment as very erotic, but the seduction here wasn’t sexual. Each of the daughters represents an obstacles: Tanha is thirst or craving; Raga is greed or attachment; and Arati is aversion (some versions include two more daughters, Pride and Fear). In bringing forth his daughters, Mara tried to pull Siddhartha’s mind away from his deepest intention, to distract him with his own mind.
You know what happened next: it didn’t work. Siddhartha kept to his intention, and when he stood up, he was the Buddha. Mara, defeated, went home.
When I first heard this story, Mara seemed absurd to me—what’s his goal in all this? What does he get out of it? It felt like Mara was invented solely to serve as a foil to the Buddha. Why would anyone make it their singular purpose to obstruct awakening?
These days, my perspective has completely changed. The internet tells me that the average person sees between 6,000 and 10,000 advertisements per day. And not just any ads—ads that have been curated for you based on what you already like, what you’re curious about, what your friends buy, where you live, your politics, and so on. If you participate in any way in social media, then you are fed information as well; it may not be selling you a product, but it’s selling you something. It’s selling you confirmation of opinions you already have, so that nothing will challenge them. Or it’s a certain brand of distrust. Or hope. Or despair.
The forces that are vying for your attention, in most cases at least, really just want your money. It isn’t very complicated. But behind those efforts is an understanding—though we may not usually phrase it this way—that it is in their best interests for you not to be fully awake. Without greed or attachment, how appealing would the latest gadget be? Without aversion, where would fake news land? The gadget captures your attention not because you want it but because, on a fundamental human level, you want. The fake news story feels real because it validates the aversion you already feel; it feeds the deep-down belief that there’s an “us” and a “them,” that things can and should be separate.
We have opportunities before us that Siddhartha, sitting beneath that tree, couldn’t have imagined. We can read the teachings from traditions around the world and attend retreats from our own homes; with every new day, we see advances in understanding of the brain; we see, more clearly than anyone before us in history, how our actions actually affect the rest of the world. But we are also more distracted than anyone has ever been. Every day, even if we never leave step out our front door, we are bombarded by voices and images vying for our attention, begging us to believe, just for a moment, that what they are saying is true—that what they are selling is what we want, that someone out there doesn’t share our humanity, that we are incomplete and something they have can make us whole. On the way to our bodhi tree, before we even sit down, we are under fire by thousands of arrows. It doesn’t stop.
And it won’t stop. Ever. That’s the world we live in.
But we can stop. We can be still. We can be quiet. And sometimes, from that place, from that posture, we can look up and see the arrows coming at us and we can let them fall to ground—maybe they turn into flowers, maybe they just dissolve into smoke—and we can see clearly, in a way that ordinary life obscures, that the arrows from the world are simply reflections of the arrows we create for ourselves. Craving, attachment, fear, pride, aversion—the arrows find us because they come from our own quiver. Whether you’re fully awake or not, you can be awake to this. See them for what they are. Let them fall at your feet.
Here come some more. Let them fall, too. Repeat.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast
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