In popular mythology, devils are quixotic and cruel tyrants who relish tormenting their victims. Their vitality obscures how the demonic is subjectively experienced as a state of existential and psychological paralysis. When seized by a demon, one feels suffocated, oppressed, and fatigued as one struggles to be free from what entraps one. The devil is a way of talking about that which blocks one's path in life, frustrated one's aspirations, makes one feel stuck, hemmed in, obstructed. While the Hebrew Satan means "adversary," the Greek diabolos means "one who throws something across the path." In India, Buddha called the devil Mara, which in Pali and Sanskrit means "the killer."
In an early discourse entitled "The Striving", Gotama recalls,
I was living on the bank of the Neranjara River engaged in deep struggle, practicing meditation with all my strength in the effort to find freedom. Then Mara came up to me and started talking in words appearing full of sympathy: "You are so thin and pale," he said. "You must be nearly dead. It would be far better to live. You could do much better by leading a holy life."
The devil appears to have Buddha's best interests at hear. At first glance, what he says seems reasonable. Mara discourages Buddha's asceticism and extols a life dedicated to doing good in the world. He does not encourage Gotama to do anything evil. His aim is to weaken his resolve to be free from the compulsive drives that trap him in cycles of anguish.
While speaking to Gotama, Mara "stood right next to Buddha." The devil insinuates himself in such a way that he seems to be part of Buddha's own thinking. But Buddha recognizes him, saying,
I see your troops around me, Mara, but I will proceed with the struggle. Even if the whole world cannot defeat your arms, I will destroy it with the power of wisdom just as unfired pot is smashed by stone.
To show his potency, Mara is depicted as a warlord mounted on an elephant, commanding a legion of troops. Buddha did not consider "any power so hard to conquer as the power of Mara." He enumerates the armies under Mara's command as sensual desire discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, lethargy, fear, doubt, restlessness, longing for gain, praise, honor and fame, and extolling oneself while disparaging others. Gotama tells of how he struggled to be free from these forces that seemed to besiege and attack him, blur his vision, darken his understanding, and thus divert him from his goal of freedom.
Identifying with a desire or a fear tightens the knot that binds one to it and, thereby, the sway it can have over one. Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him. Instead of perceiving them as forces of an avenging army intent on destruction, he recognized that they were no more solid than brittle, unfired pots that crumble on being struck by a well-aimed stone. As soon as Buddha stopped compulsively identifying the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arose within him as "me" or "mine," Mara could no longer influence him.
This does not mean that Buddha was either unaware of these thought and feelings or that they no longer occurred for him. Rather than deleting them, he discovered a way of being with them in which they could gain no purpose on him. Mara describes this with an analogy:
I remember once seeing a crow hovering above a lump of fat on the ground. "Food!" it thought. But the lump turned out to be a rock, hard and incredible; the crow flew away in disgust. I too have had enough; I'm like that crow pecking at a rock; I'm finished with Gotama.
Buddha makes himself immune to Mara. No matter how much Mara tries to inveigle his way into his mind, Buddha remains calm and equanimous. He inhabits that free and selfless space that is outside of Mara's range. He is one "whom Mara cannot overcome, any more than the winds can overcome the Himalaya." Buddha compares someone who has "deprived Mara's eye of its opportunity" to a deer wandering at east in the remote depths of a forest, who "walks without fear, stands without fear, sits without fear, lies down without fear." For, having "blindfolded Mara," he becomes "invisible" to the devil. Mara, however, compares himself to a crab whose limbs have been ton off by children. He says to Buddha: "All those distortions, maneuvers, and contortions of mine have been cut off, broken, and smashed to bits by you."
Unless we are prepared to regard the devil as a ghostly apparition who sits down and has conversations with Buddha, we cannot but understand him as a metaphoric way of describing Buddha' own inner life. Although Buddha is said to have "conquered" the forces of Mara on achieving awakening, that did not prevent Mara from harassing him until shortly before his death fifty years later. Mara's tireless efforts to undermine Buddha by accusing him of insincerity, self-deception, idleness, arrogance, and aloofness are ways of describing the doubts within Buddha's mind.
Mara stands for those patterns of behavior that long for the security of clinging to something real and permanent rather than facing the question posed by being a transient and contingent creature. "It makes no difference what you grasp," said Buddha, "when someone grasps, Mara stands before him." Mara is that desperate longing for a self and a world that are comprehensible, manageable, and safe. Such clinging, however, turns into a kind of death. As its hold tightens, one feels as though life itself is being stifled and snuffed out. Mara is sometimes called Namuci, the drought demon of Vedic mythology, whose name means "one who withholds the water." The hold that Mara exerts blocks the flow of life just as Namuci's grip prevents the monsoon from unleashing its waters.
In response to Mara's provocation, Buddha says, "I know you, evil one. Do not think otherwise." The devil is conquered not by forcibly expelling him but by understanding his strategies and seeing through his charade of invincibility. Experiential insight into the nature of Mara is the key to freeing oneself from his grip. Buddha was able to overcome Mara by stabilizing his attention sufficiently in meditation to be able to see clearly and deeply into the nature of the demonic powers that assailed him. Once he understood exactly what he was up against, he could no longer be tricked by Mara's hypnotic and seductive gaze.