01
May
06

mara & buddha- embracing our suffering


I would like to tell you a story that took place a number of years ago. One day I saw the Venerable Ananda—you know who he is? Ananda is a cousin of the Buddha, a very handsome man with a very good memory. He memorized everything the Buddha said, and after the Buddha passed away, he repeated exactly what the Buddha said during his life. Then other monks tried to learn and memorize also. Later on, all this was put down into writing and that is why we have the Sutras today. “Sutras” means the teaching of the Buddha in written form. They exist in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and in Vietnamese, but originally it was in a kind of Bengali, very close to Pali and Sanskrit.

One day I saw the Venerable Ananda practicing walking meditation in front of the hut of the Buddha. You know, Ananda became a monk, a student of the Buddha. He was the attendant of the Buddha during many years. He took very good care of the Buddha. Of course, the Buddha loved him and there were people who were jealous of him. Sometimes Ananda was so concerned about the happiness of the Buddha that he forgot about himself. Sometimes he did not enjoy what was there in the present moment, being much younger than the Buddha.

One day standing on the hill looking down, the Buddha saw beautiful rice fields. The rice was ripe, about to be harvested. But because Ananda was only thinking of how to make the Buddha comfortable, he didn’t see it. So the Buddha pointed to the rice fields below and said, “Ananda can you see it’s beautiful?” It was like a bell of mindfulness—suddenly Ananda saw that the rice fields down there were so beautiful. The Buddha smiled and said, “Ananda, I want the robes of the monks and the nuns to be designed in the form of rice fields—golden colors like the rice that is already ripe, small portions of the rice fields like that.” Ananda said, “Yes, that is possible, I will go tell my brothers and from now on we will make the sanghati, the robes of the monks and nuns, in the form of rice fields.”

Another time when Ananda was with the Buddha, north of the Gangha River in the city of Vaisali, the Buddha pointed to the city, the trees, and the hills, and said to Ananda “Don’t you see Vaisali is beautiful?” Then Ananda took the time to look at the beauty of the city.

The day I saw Ananda practicing walking meditation around the hut of the Buddha, he was trying to protect the Buddha from guests. Many guests came, and they always wanted to have a cup of tea with the Buddha, and the Buddha could not just receive guests all day. So Ananda was trying to help. That day Ananda was practicing walking around the hut of the Buddha. It’s not exactly a hut, but a cave—the Buddha was staying in a cave, very cold. And Ananda saw someone coming, coming, coming in his direction.

He had the impression that he knew this person, but just forgot his name. When that person had come very close, he recognized him as Mara. You know Mara? Mara is the one who had caused the Buddha a lot of difficulties. The night before the Buddha attained final enlightenment, Mara was there to tempt him. Buddha was tempted by Mara. Mara is the tempter. He always wanted the Buddha to be a politician, to be a king, or a president, or a foreign minister, or running a business, having a lot of money, a lot of beautiful women; and he was always trying to tempt the Buddha so that Buddha would go into these directions. That is Mara.

Ananda saw Mara approaching. He felt uncomfortable. Why should Mara come at this time? But Mara saw him already—Ananda could not hide himself—so he had to stand there and wait for Mara and they had to say things like, “Hello, how do you do?” People say that even if they don’t like each other. They say, “Hello, good morning, how are you,” and so on. They don’t mean it. Then they come to the real thing: “What are you here for Mara?" “I want to visit the Buddha,” Mara said, “I want to see him.” Ananda said, “Why should you want to see the Buddha? I don’t think the Buddha has time for you.”

You know when the head of a corporation or a director of an office doesn’t want to see you she says, “Go and tell him I am in conference.” And Ananda was about to say something like that, but he remembered that he had to practice the Five Precepts and could not tell a lie. So he refrained from saying that the Buddha is in conference. He was frank. He said, “Mara, why should the Buddha see you? What is the purpose and are you not ashamed of yourself? Don’t you remember that in the old days, under the Bodhi tree, you were defeated by the Lord? How could you bear seeing him again? I don’t think that he will see you. You are the enemy of the Buddha,” and Ananda continued to say what was really in his heart.

You know Mara was very aware, a very experienced person. He just stood there and looked at the young Venerable Ananda and smiled. After Ananda finished, he said, “What did you say Ananda, you said the Buddha has an enemy?” Then Ananda felt very uncomfortable to say that the Buddha had an enemy. That did not seem to be the right thing to say, but he just said it. He said, “I don’t think that the Buddha will see you, you are his enemy,” So if you are not very concentrated, very deep, very mindful, you may say things like that against yourself, against what you know and what you practice. When Mara heard Ananda say that he is the enemy of the Buddha, he burst out laughing and laughing and laughing, and that made Ananda very uncomfortable. “What, you’re telling me that the Buddha also has enemies?"

So finally Ananda was defeated, completely defeated. He had to go in and announce the visit of Mara, hoping that the Lord would say, “I have no time for him, I need to continue sitting.” But to his surprise, the Buddha smiled beautifully and said, “Mara, wonderful! Ask him to come in.” That surprised Ananda. Remember Ananda was young with not a lot of experience. All of us are Ananda, you know. So Ananda had to go out again and bow to Mara and ask him to come in because the Lord wanted Mara to be his guest.

The Buddha stood up, and guess what? The Buddha did hugging meditation with Mara. Ananda did not understand. The Buddha invited Mara to sit on the best place in the cave—a stone bench. And he turned to his beloved disciple and said, “Ananda, please make tea for us.” You might guess that Ananda was not entirely happy. Making tea for the Buddha—yes. He could do that 1,000 times a day. But making tea for Mara was not a very pleasant idea. But since the Lord had asked, Ananda went into a corner and began to make tea for them and tried to look deeply, why things were like that.

When the tea was offered to the Buddha and the guest, Ananda stood behind the Buddha and tried to be mindful of what the Buddha would need. You see, if you become a novice, you have to practice being an attendant to your teacher. You stand behind him or her and you try to know what your teacher needs each moment. But it did not seem that the Buddha needed anything. He just looked at Mara in a very loving way and he said, “Dear friend, how have you been? Is everything okay?" Mara said “No, not okay at all. Things go very badly with me. You know something Buddha, I’m very tired of being Mara. Now I want to be someone else, like you. You are kind, wherever you go you are welcome. You are bowed to with lotus flowers, and you have many monks and nuns with very lovely faces following you. You are offered bananas and oranges and kiwis and all kinds of fruits.

“As a Mara I have to wear the appearance of a Mara. Everywhere I go I have to speak in a very tricky language. I have to show that I am really Mara. I have to use many tricks, I have to use the language of Mara, I have to have an army of wicked little Maras and if I breathe in and breathe out, every time I breathe out I have to show that smoke is coming from my nose. But I don’t mind very much all these things. What I mind most is that my disciples, the little Maras, are beginning to talk about transformation and healing. They’re beginning to talk about liberation, Buddhahood. That’s one thing I cannot bear. So I have come to propose to you that we exchange roles. You be a Mara and I’ll be a Buddha.”

When the Venerable Ananda heard that, he was very scared. Oh, his heart was about to stop! What if his teacher accepted the exchange of roles? He would be the attendant of a Mara. So he was hoping that the Buddha would refuse the proposal. Then the Buddha looked at Mara very calmly, smiling to him, and asked this question: “Mara, do you think it’s a lot of fun being a Buddha? People don’t understand me—they misunderstand me and put a lot into my mouth that I have never said. They have built temples where they put statues of me in copper, in plaster, sometimes in emerald, in gold. And they attract a lot of people who offer them bananas, oranges, citrus, and a lot of things.

“Sometimes they carried me on the street in a procession and I was sitting on a cart decorated with flowers, doing like this—like a drunk person. I don’t like being a Buddha like that. So you know, in the name of the Buddha—in my name—they have done a lot of things that are very harmful to the Dharma. You should know that being a Buddha is also very difficult. If you want to be a teacher and if you want people to practice the Dharma correctly, that is not an easy job. I don’t think that you would enjoy being the Buddha. The best thing is for each of us to stay in his or her own position and try to improve the situation and enjoy what we are doing.”Then the Buddha, in order to summarize all that he just said, read to Mara a verse, a gatha. But the gatha is a little bit too long, I don’t remember. The essence of the gatha is just what I have said in the former part of the story.

If you were there with Ananda and if you were very mindful, you would have had the feeling that Buddha and Mara were a couple of friends who need each other—like day and night, like flowers and garbage. This is a very deep teaching of Buddhism, and I trust that the children will understand—very deep. You may compare Buddha with the flowers, very fresh, very beautiful. And you may compare Mara with the garbage. It doesn’t smell good. There are a lot of flies who like to come to the garbage. It’s not pleasant to touch, to hold in your hand, to smell the garbage.

Yet all flowers become garbage. That is the meaning of impermanence: all flowers have to become garbage. If you practice Buddhist meditation, you find out about very interesting things—like about the garbage. Although garbage stinks, although garbage is not pleasant to hold in your hand, if you know how to take care of the garbage, you will transform it back into flowers. You know gardeners don’t throw away garbage. They preserve the garbage and take care of the garbage, and in just a few months the garbage becomes compost. They can use that compost to grow lettuce, tomatoes, and flowers. We have to say that organic gardeners are capable of seeing flowers in garbage, seeing cucumbers in garbage. That is what the Buddha described as the non-dualistic way of looking at things.

If you see things like that, you will understand that the garbage is capable of becoming a flower, and the flower can become garbage. Thanks to the flowers there is garbage, because if you keep flowers for three weeks they become garbage, and thanks to the garbage there will be flowers. You now have an idea of the relationship between Buddha and Mara. Mara is not very pleasant, but if you know how to help Mara, to transform Mara, Mara will become Buddha. If you don’t know how to take care of the Buddha, Buddha will become Mara.

You see there are people who, in the beginning, love each other very much. They believe that without each other they cannot survive. Their love is so important. They cling to each other because they think that love between them is the only element that can help them survive. But because they don’t know how to preserve the love and take care of their love, they get angry at each other, they misunderstand each other, and later on love is transformed slowly into hate. There are those who say, “I hate you, I don’t want to see you anymore, I wish you would die.” Those people in the past had proclaimed that they needed each other, they could not survive without each other, they loved each other, so love transforms into hatred. It’s like a kind of flower transformed into garbage.

So what you learn today is very deep. Flowers and garbage are of an organic nature because both flowers and garbage are living realities. Buddha and Mara are also organic, and they need each other. It is thanks to the difficulties, thanks to the temptations, that the Buddha has overcome his suffering and his ignorance and become a fully enlightened being. The day before yesterday, I gave a Dharma talk on suffering, and I said that if you look deeply into the nature of your suffering, you will find a way out of it. So if you want a flower, you have to use the garbage. That is why the people who suffer a lot now should not be discouraged. Suffering is their garbage. If they know how to take good care of their garbage they will be able to make the flower come back to them, the flower of peace, of joy. The Buddha shows us the way to do so.

When I was in Moscow several years ago, we offered a retreat to Muscovites, and a few Christians from Korea held a kind of a retreat very close to ours. Some of them came to our friends and asked why they should follow the Buddha. The reason we should not follow the Buddha, according to them, is that Buddha is a mortal. “Mortal” means someone who has to die. In their mind what we need is someone who will not die. Since the Buddha is someone who has to be born and who has to die, he cannot help us—that is the meaning of the declaration made by those friends.

I think it’s a wonderful thing to die, because if you are born and you die, it means you are a living reality, like the flower and the garbage: they are living things. We are for life. Anything that is not born, not dying, not growing, is not alive. To be alive means to be born, to grow, to get old, to die, to be born again, to grow, to get old, to die and to continue like that. How do you expect life to be possible without change? But there is one thing that the children may like to know. There is a difference between “flower” and “flowerness.”

The flower may die, but not the flowerness. Even if a flower has become garbage, you know you can bring the flower back. If you are a good gardener, if you know how to use compost, seeds, water, you will be able to bring the flower back. This means a flower may die, but flowerness is something that is there all the time: because flowerness is not a thing, flowerness is the nature of a thing. So it is with Buddha and Buddha nature. Buddha nature is called in Sanskrit buddhata. We all have buddhata inside of us, this Buddha nature. If we want, we can make the Buddha be born every moment in our hearts. That is a very wonderful thing. You can make the Buddha be born in your heart every moment, because you have Buddhahood in you, you have the nature of the Buddha in you. Buddha is a living thing: Buddha is born, Buddha grows up, Buddha hides himself away, Buddha dies. But Buddhahood is there in us.

We might think that terms like “Buddha nature” are difficult because we don’t know that this is something very simple, very simple. Children can understand very well. We have flowerness in us; we have “garbageness” in us also. Don’t think that they are two enemies—no. They look like enemies—Ananda was not very skillful in seeing that—but they can support each other. In Buddhism, there is no fight between good and evil—that is the most wonderful thing in the Buddhist practice! There is no fight between good and evil. Good and evil are both organic matters. If you have understanding and wisdom, you will know how to handle both the flower and the garbage in you, you can make the Buddha be born every moment of your life, and peace and happiness will be possible. This is a very deep Dharma talk for young people. I hope that you will be able to deepen your understanding of this Dharma talk. Your big brothers and sisters and the Dharma teachers will help you. This may be a very important lesson that you will learn in your life.

Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on August 6, 1996 in Plum Village, France

http://www.dharmamemphis.com/magnolia/talks.html

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