Mara Looks Just Like Buddha

08/24/2012 08:31 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2012

Mara is the master illusionist of Buddhism. He/she appears before Siddhartha the Buddha-to-be, who is sitting under the Bo tree on the verge of his final enlightenment, to co-opt and destroy Siddhartha's spiritual quest. Mara says, "How presumptuous of Siddhartha ... to assume the cross-legged posture on the seat of Wisdom! He is desirous of passing beyond my control but I will never allow it." (These and subsequent quotes are from "The Buddha: His life Retold by Robert Allen Mitchell.")

Mara is the classic narcissist. He wants to own and control everything -- including Siddhartha's spiritual accomplishment. Mara tries various strategems on Siddhartha; he sends hailstorms, beautiful women, the promises of gain, fame, honor and glory -- all to distract Siddhartha from his goal. These strategies are not idle; Mara could not be a true threat to Siddhartha's efforts unless Mara is some version or shadow of Siddhartha himself. Mara is Siddhartha's unconscious double; Mara has experienced everything Siddhartha has experienced -- though he has no real understanding of it all. Mara knows all about the spiritual journey, and speaks Siddhartha's spiritual language. In fact -- or so I imagine -- Mara looks and feels just like Siddhartha, both to Siddhartha himself and to other people. Mara seems to have all the talents and attributes of a truly realized spiritual leader. That is why he is so dangerous.

As his last challenge to Siddhartha, Mara says, "Get up from this seat, Siddhartha. That seat does not belong to you, it belongs to me." Siddhartha responds, "You are not striving for the welfare of the world, or for enlightenment. This seat belongs to me."

And then -- in a famous gesture replicated in Buddha statues the world over -- Siddhartha touches the earth, asking her to witness his spiritual sincerity. In response she roars (for the earth is feminine), "I, EARTH, BEAR YOU WITNESS!" This defeats Mara for good, and he flees at last. Thus Siddhartha grounds himself in the wholesome motivation of his dedication to the welfare of all beings. That is the one approach Mara cannot understand. Mara is self-absorbed; he just wants the benefits of realization for himself.

I think we in the West are at a stage where we find it difficult to distinguish clearly between Mara and Buddha. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, according to the Dalai Lama, a person should closely observe a teacher for three years before consenting to be his/her student. It takes that long, apparently, to clearly differentiate Mara from Buddha. As we live in a modern world of instant gratification, we don't wait three years or often even three weeks. I know of people who ask to be a teacher's student one hour after meeting him/her. Easy come, easy go -- that is the style of much that passes for real spiritual activity these days. The real path is full of pitfalls, including the difficulty of knowing which teachers are real and reliable, and which just seem to be.

So how do we differentiate Mara from Buddha? What are criteria and how do we test for them? With each new collapse of what appeared to be a reliable spiritual leader, we learn a little more. One thing to look for is grandiosity masquerading as confidence. Mara is extremely sure of him or herself. Mara never shows doubt, never reveals vulnerability or unseemly emotion. Mara is always smoothly in charge, always knows what to do -- and why shouldn't he (or she)? Mara appears to be fully realized, completely enlightened -- as Mara's students will often be reminded in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.

My teacher liked to quote a Japanese proverb, "A good father is not a good father." In other words, a really good father will be fully aware of his faults, will apologize for them, and always will be trying to be a better father. A father who only seems to be good always seems to be above reproach. Any difficulties are someone else's fault.

Another sign that we are in the presence of Mara, not Buddha, is a quality of hypnotic glow. Because of their seeming immunity from ordinary human failings, narcissists hold a powerful attraction for needy and suffering people. Mara often has a large, enthusiastic following, while Buddha may live in a modest apartment or a mountain hut, with only a few students (though sometimes this pattern is reversed). Mara is radiant; Buddha often appears to be unremarkable (though this may be a disguise). One colleague of mine who spent years on pilgrimage in India and Nepal told me that those who were known as the best teachers often lived in obscurity, unknown except to a few, staying clear of the large monastic establishments and their entrapments of money, fame and power. There is much teaching in the Buddhist Abhidharma about "fame and gain." Fame and gain must have been well known to the ancient sages if they felt the need to write about it so much. Undoubtedly Mara was alive and well in those days too.

Projecting one's own mistakes onto other people is the signature defense of the narcissist. The narcissist sees him or herself as perfect, so any difficulties must be someone else's problem. That is why most narcissists are poor candidates for therapy. They rarely seek help, because they don't perceive that they have any problems. And since they have no genuine interest in other people's feelings, needs or opinions, a core mission of therapy is defeated before it starts. Many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to treat narcissists, seeing it as a waste of time.

So Mara appears to have all the outer and inner attributes of a Buddha save one: Mara doesn't really have the best interests of other people at heart. Mara can be quite empathetic -- it helps in satisfying your own needs if you can accurately perceive and thus manipulate the needs of others. Mara can also be a genuine benefactor, as long as it is in the service of ultimately getting what Mara wants. Seeing through all this is tricky. I don't know if the Dalai Lama's three year testing period is practical or realistic in today's world, but I can see why he says it. Caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware -- is just as true in the spiritual realm as it is in any other human endeavor.