Mara For Our Time
by Catherine Gammon
This week throughout the world Buddhists commemorate the passing of Shakyamuni Buddha into Parinirvana—both death and final enlightenment, complete and perfect cessation.
In the story told of Shakyamuni’s passing there is a moment when a demonic Mara visits to tell him it’s time for him to die.
The Buddha replies that Mara should not worry, his life will end in three months’ time.
I recently watched a short, chilling, beautiful, often harsh, possibly demonic film called Obey—artfully assembled by British filmmaker Temujin Doran from images available on the web and based on the book Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges.
The Vimeo description says the film “charts the rise of the Corporate State, and examines the future of obedience in a world of unfettered capitalism, global-isation, staggering inequality and environmental change.”
More on the film can be found at the wonderful BrainPickings by Maria Popova.
The artistry used to raise these issues in many ways duplicates, on a very sophisticated level, the tendencies of propaganda it critiques, although clearly to different ends. In the words of one of the comments (posted by Tim Shaker) on the Vimeo page, “This film raises some issues that desperately need more public awareness, but uses the same emotional-programming scare tactics that it criticizes. Not to say preaching to the choir doesn’t play a part too though.”
As a Buddhist I don’t quite feel a perfect fit with the “choir” possibly being preached to, but at the same time the film’s radical reading of the global situation resonates with my own thinking—at its harshest, darkest, bleakest.
I believe—or think I believe—that if we wish to act beneficially in response to the suffering of this world, this world, we have to find in ourselves a response that includes and can move beyond the impasse this critique articulates.
It occurred to me this morning, as we prepare here in Brooklyn for our Parinirvana observance, that in some ways the truth visualized and spoken in the harshness and beauty of Obey is the voice of Mara—not the voice of a Mara who lies or hates or tempts or destroys but the voice of Mara as one’s own shadow, the Mara who is telling us it is time for us to die, and also the Mara who asks, when the young Shakyamuni is giving total effort to realizing awakening, “Who do you think you are to think you can do this?”
Shakyamuni’s response was to touch the earth—an expression of interconnec-tedness with all life, a request to the earth to bear witness to his effort—and in so doing he awoke and became the Buddha.
Ultimately this film, and my own many Maras, move me to ask, “Who do I think I am that I think I can do anything about this?”
The answer is I don’t, I can’t. But I would like to find a way to touch the earth in the face of this question, in the face of this chilling, beautiful, often harsh, possibly demonic thinking, which is not false, but incomplete. I would like to find a way to touch the earth that allows me to continue, moment by moment, to ask What is it? and What then must we do?
I would like to frame my answer, any answer I may receive, enact, let go of, over and over, in the practice of the bodhisattva vows.
I have been making an effort to study this question through careful study of Eihei Dogen’s verses for arousing the bodhisattva vows, the Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon, from the Shobogenzo fascicle “Keisei Sanshoku” (“Valley Streams, Mountain Colors”).
A talk I gave on the beginning of the Eihei Koso was recorded at Glastonbury, U.K., in November 2012. It lays out, I hope, some ways to frame the question and can be accessed with this link:
The talk gets nowhere near an answer. But I hope the frame helps us to begin.