'Mara,' [Batchelor says], 'is a way of talking about the contingent and imperfect structure of the world. A lot of western Buddhists, and maybe Asian Buddhists, too, tend to read Mara as a psychological function: as negative states of mind, attachments, grasping and so on. This is only part of the picture. It fails to see that Mara is a metaphor for the very structure of the contingent world that is constantly breaking down, and exposing you to death and the unpredictability of life itself. All that is Mara.'
The figure of Mara is familiar to most Buddhists as the trickster character in the traditional story who tries to prevent Siddhartha Gautama from attaining Enlightenment while he sits beneath the bodhi tree. Mara sends fearsome armies to assail the Bodhisattva, and gorgeous daughters to tempt him back to worldly life. But Mara fails. The Buddha is victorious, and the defeated Mara slinks away, dejected.
'The Buddha describes Mara as antaka, which means 'the maker of limits'. We have no trouble understanding this psychologically: if I'm in a state of anger or attachment, I'm limited, trapped. I'm in one of Mara's snares. It's harder to understand this in the context of our lives as a whole, but the fact is that our existence here is finite, and so Mara is a metaphor of finitude. If I have a stroke, that will probably limit my capacity to realise those values I most deeply cherish. If I'm imprisoned by some tyrannical regime, that's Mara. Death is more obviously a limit to our freedom. So Mara is that which blocks my way in life, inhibits my capacity to realise my values and goals.'
We talk about how orthodox this understanding of Mara is. In both Theravada and Mahayana traditions, the figure of Mara quickly became the four maras, and was turned into a theological doctrine. Most of the stories about Mara in the suttas weren't translated into Tibetan. Meanwhile, the figure of the Buddha was elevated to higher and higher degrees of perfection, as all-wise, all-loving and so on, until he was effectively dehumanised, becoming completely devoid of limiting features apart from his human body.
'But the early tradition did preserve the sense that the Buddha exists in a constant tension with this counter-image, or shadow, called Mara, which I understand as his own conflicted humanity. That leads to my point - which is not at all orthodox - that Mara never goes away. Although the Buddha achieved a certain freedom, Mara was still around, whispering in his ear. But I don't have any sense that the Buddha was troubled by this. He was subject to temptation, you might say, subject to thoughts and feelings arising in his mind that we might call "self-doubt". This self-doubt appears as a personality - there is something very consistent about Mara's voice. It reminds me of Satan's voice in Milton's Paradise Lost. It's insidious; alternately extremely self-confident then un-self-confident, swinging from arrogance to despair.'
We talk about the character of Satan in Milton's poem, the archetypal rebel. I suggest that the figure of Satan, who rebels against an omnipotent, omniscient, tyrannical God, is attractive because he represents something about our humanity, something imperfect yet magnificent in his courage and individuality. 'Mara is rebelling against Enlightenment,' adds Batchelor. 'Mara is that part of us which, when we sit in meditation, for example, does not want to watch the breath. I think Mara is our humanity. There's something touching about those passages in the suttas where Mara fails in his tempting of the Buddha.
'You lose sight of the Buddha when you delete Mara, because you lose sight of that part of the Buddha with which you can identify. You can see yourself in Mara much more easily than in the Buddha. And yet if you bring these two split-off parts back into a single image, the Buddha becomes humanised while Mara paradoxically becomes 'Buddha-ised'. In this sense, Mara is not just a problem, Mara is necessary for Enlightenment to happen. Mara is the problem without which there would be no solution.