The arrows of Mara

I’d like to start with a short quote that I came across recently.

You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.’

I’ve found this quote to be a way into this talk. We can do something about our troubles – they don’t have to take us over. When the Buddha was sitting under the tree, Mara’s armies attacked him quite fiercely, throwing everything at him. A long time ago, I remember, I thought of him sitting there, with almost a force field around him so that everything was deflected, but I was quite wrong- that’s not the way to deal with these things. It’s to let them through, not to push them away, not to hold them off, to not see them as enemies but to let everything just pass through you, and this is what the arrows did – they passed through and turned into flowers. That which we perceive as attacking us is converted.

As the Buddha got up after awakening, the first teaching he gave was the Four Noble Truths, and the first of those as we know, is that suffering exists. So we can’t prevent the birds of suffering, we can’t prevent the birds of sadness from flying over our heads. We, too, are subject to the laws of karma but the wise man isn’t bound by them, and in doing so, we join the birds in the sense that we don’t omit them. So we accept sadness, we acknowledge sadness, so when we sit and things arise for us we just let them arise. There’s no problem in the arising of sadness , this is natural, this is what is natural for us. To do something about it at that stage, to twist it, to turn it around is a false move. The Buddha realised this as he was sitting under the tree. To push back at Mara was a false move. The fact that things arise doesn’t mean that they will always arise. This is also key – how often do we think, ‘Well, nothing’s changed. This is never going to change, this is who I am, I’ve always got this trait,’ It won’t always arise. It continues to arise because we perpetuate it – we don’t even know we’re doing it sometimes. We reinforce behaviours, we believe something’s been banished and yet it still arises. It’s arising because we’re doing something with it, so it gathers strength and comes around again.

So when we sit, when the Buddha sat, he observed the settling of the mind. When we sit, the mind settles, and it’s not separate from the body, so we talk about mind-body. A lot of the trouble comes, a lot of the unsettledness of sitting is when we’re stuck in the mind and we’ve divorced it from the body. So, notice the settling of the body and mind when we sit, and see where the mind places itself, usually further down in the body. Sinking to the floor our thoughts find quiet. This activity then re-aligns itself from the head into the body. This is harmony – body and mind working together as one. When it’s all sinking, we are able to sit still. The Buddha was assailed on all sides; he had to sit very still. He sat, as Dogen said, in the mountain-still state, and when we do this we can see through the perceived reality of life. Those things we perceive to be true, we perceive them as ‘other’. We grasp onto these illusions , we form a character and a personality. We show a face to the world, and it plays out through us. Some of this we need to do, we do need to be active in the world. We do need to be a human being with everything that encompasses. And yet again, a wise man is not enslaved by it; these too, are not fixed things .

So, Mara was the Buddha’s restless mind; Well, Mara attacks us because there’s still something there to be attacked. So, when we sit and we’re troubled, it’s the unresolved karmic residue that comes to the surface. We deal with it by not doing anything with it. This is one of the big apparent paradoxes of practice. We are so attuned to having to do something about something we try to take over and do it. We don’t need to do it. This tempts us to believe that there is a reality in impermanance. We see it as real, tangible and give it permanance and yet like any other thing it just passes. So when we sit and see things or have thoughts about our life as in a mirror we see clearly, it seems. Yet these are images of the drifting wandering world.

So these thoughts appear to be just as things are, but they are just thoughts. Nevertheless we believe them because it is what we know and because we already know it we recognise it. So our view of the world is shown back to us and it’s possible to believe it. It’s the way we think so that is what is being shown to us. We therefore have trouble seeing through the images, thoughts and emotions which latch on to us and we act from that place. The trouble is everything is always moving. When the Buddha got up from under the Bodhi tree he picked up his bowl and started to wander forth the first people he came across were the five Rishis who he had practised ascetism with previously. The Rishis practised by pushing their bodies and minds to extreme limits as a way of transcending the limits of this earthly body. The Buddha parted from them as he had realised that this wasn’t the way to seek the end of suffering. Their bodies emaciated, twisted, burnt and skewered they asked him if he had found a better way to encounter the true spirit as they saw in him a change from the person they had last met and wondered what it is that he has seen and experienced. The Buddha having found the middle way just passed on. He knew that to stay in the extremes was only to allow suffering to arise again and again. When we stay in the opposites, in duality we are reinforcing old behaviours.

In 1879 Edwin Arnold published a long poem called the Light of Asia which describes the Buddha’s life. In it there is a section which I would like to quote which speaks on this.

Onward he passed

Exceeding sorrowful, seeing how men

Fear so to die they are afraid to fear,

Lust so to live they dare not love their life,

But plague it with fierce penances, belike

To please the Gods who grudge pleasure to man;”

So if we fear to die we live our lives in fear. If we fear to live we live in fear. If we lust to live we do not love our life. Our mind comes up with fierce penances and we beleaguer ourselves with them. We are constantly in the opposites. Harmony isn’t a case of balance. Finding ourselves falling on one side we don’t have to err on the other side to balance our lives out.

We need to fully live this life the best way we can. Feel the sensations and know the fears and rejoice in the breathing. If we give vent to anger, frustration and other emotions that cause hurt it is released only for it to return. The world is rarely to our liking and the behaviour of others can test our peace of mind and outside influences are readily blamed for our unhappiness and discontent. Karma if left unattended is unlikely to be converted. So when we allow ourselves to be feel threatened see that we are just introducing and continuing behaviours that are unhelpful for ourselves and others.

A recent topic of debate here at the Priory has been that of the use of the will. The question has arisen of me that I say that essentially in zazen we do nothing and that also there is the use of the will. I am asked ‘so how can we use the will if I don’t do anything?’Well if we don’t turn towards that which causes suffering it will continue to ferment and stew creating more suffering. So it bubbles away and stews and just creates more. Suffering arises in the mind, ferments in the mind and develops in the mind. This is all part of the use of the will here. We therefore learn that to turn towards that which appears is to have the chance to see through it and not give it a chance to grow. The mountain still state allows us to let the arrows of Mara’s bowmen to penetrate and go straight through. This is showing us yet again that we are not bound by karma although subject to its laws. As with fear we can allow ourselves to know it and let it pass through. We see it as an arrow and we know it is an arrow but as it has no substance and we are empty what is there to stop it passing through. This is the use of the will which is the turning towards what we need to see. We are willing to look so the will is the willing to look. It goes from being on our shoulder shadowing us and comes to the front. We might not be able to name it and we might not even recognise it yet we need to see it and then it can go. So we acknowledge and embrace the fear by enfolding it. If it stays on our shoulder faceless and threatening we can never turn enough to see it. Bring it to the front. When talking about the Paramitas Dogen commented that while practicing the six virtues and attempting to lose delusion there is the practice of nothing. He says that this is the practicing of the dharma. From this we can see that the turning towards is the practicing of nothing at all. The Buddha saw the Morning Star and the Morning Star was the just doing and in the just doing Mara receded.

Transcribed from a talk given after the Festival of the Buddha’s Enlightenment

Poem extract from The Light Asia Windhorse publications