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Mara & Metaphor
In the ancient language of the Pali Canon, distracting thoughts arising from clinging conditioned mind are often portrayed as actions of the malevolent deity Mara. The Buddha, (and the recorders of the Canon) often used metaphor when referring to thoughts and thought-constructs (fabrications). While referring to a particular individual being, Mara is metaphor for reactive, distracting, and clinging conditioned mind.
The use of metaphorical “deities” as depictions of mind states or mental fabrications is understandable when the cultural and “spiritual” environment of the time is given consideration. The Buddha was teaching people who were influenced by Brahmin teachers. These were teachers of the Vedas and later the Upanishads which were the doctrinal precursor to modern Hinduism.
The Buddha studied with two respected Brahmanical teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. After learning all that they had to offer and mastering their meditation techniques and other rituals and practices they taught, he rejected both teachings as not leading to understanding.
Although he rejected the teachings rooted in the Vedas, he realized that many he would be teaching had deeply rooted fabrications based on these common teachings. It was common to associate fabrications with external objects including gods and goddesses and devas. Also, animals, and phenomena such as fire and weather were also used metaphorically.
The Buddha used these common beliefs as an expedient. He used common terms and teaching methods in order to instruct people as effectively as possible. His teaching of Kamma is another example of this. His teachings on Kamma were contradictory to the prevalent belief, but he used a term that was commonly understood.
It must be remembered that the Buddha never taught anything out of context. Every teaching the Buddha presented was taught in the context of his very first teaching of The Four Noble Truths. The primary purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is recognizing and abandoning deluded views rooted in a misunderstanding of Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha – the Three Marks of Existence. 
He used metaphor in a way that pointed out the harm that follows from holding these fabrications, depicting deities not as actual benevolent beings to be worshiped but as malevolent fabrications to be recognized as such and abandoned.
The Buddha consistently described his Dhamma as “understanding suffering (dukkha) and developing the cessation of suffering.” The second noble truth shows that it is craving for the establishment of an ego-personality (anatta) and clinging to this establishment that originates and continues suffering. Paramount to this is understanding conceit, or “I-making.” It is through mental fabrications that deluded views of a permanent “self” arise and are maintained.
The Eightfold Path is a framework for recognizing and abandoning these deluded views. In the proper context using metaphor to depict these deluded views clearly shows that these metaphorical “objects” are to be seen as mental fabrications to be recognized and abandoned as deluded thoughts rooted in craving and clinging.
In order to maintain authenticity the recorders of the Buddha’s teachings used the same metaphorical method. These were monks and nuns who memorized the Buddha’s direct teachings. When the Buddha’s teachings were first recorded a few hundred years after his passing these metaphors were included.
As Buddhism spread from Northern India the use of metaphor was given more significance as the Buddha’s teachings was adapted and accommodated into cultural conventions and charismatic individual’s views. Often metaphorical objects were now used to give authenticity to the desire for a more mystical and esoteric “Dharma.”
These views that the Buddha taught were to be recognized as rooted in ignorance, and were to be abandoned, were now given validity as god-objects to be mollified or gained favor from through generating merit. Many later-developed “Buddhist religions” have created rituals and other practices in order to appease deities or to establish a “self” in a favorable future birth, or mystical realm.
Metaphorical malevolent deities were now overseeing gods and goddesses holding the power to grant favors and draw one towards “exalted” mind states further contradicting the Buddha’s teachings of personal individual responsibility for developing individual understanding, as he had.
The metaphor has been further “stretched” to include “awakened” charismatic Buddhist teachers who now had the magical powers to transfer understanding directly to another mind without the individual development of the Eightfold Path.
As a result of confusing metaphor for objects to be worshipped the Buddha’s direct teaching has been diminished in importance in favor of culturally and individually influenced views of what a “Buddhist religion” should be, complete with powerful priests, wrathful and peaceful deities, and higher realms of consciousness to achieve.
Often appeasing deities and achieving higher realms of consciousness are taught as “intermediary steps” that at some point can be abandoned. The problem is that a new self-referential identity has now been fabricated in what was originally a metaphorical object. Metaphor has in fact become a more important focus than the direct teachings of the founder.
This contradicts the context of the Buddha’s teachings of recognizing and abandoning all self-referential views and obscures the framework of the direct Eightfold Path as the middle way between extreme views.
It can be seen that on this one point, exchanging metaphorical mental fabrications for reality, is the basis for much of the later-developed contradictory “Buddhist” teachings. The vehemence that these views are often defended shows the level of self-identification with these fabrications.
Later-developed Buddhist doctrine has its roots in a sect known as the Mahasanghikas. A few hundred years after the Buddha’s death the Mahasanghikas split from the monks and nuns who were maintaining the Buddha’s teachings. The split occurred over the Mahasanghikas’ desire to relax some monastic rules and the desire to establish a more mystical and visionary form of Buddhism.
This included establishing the Buddha as a god who was one of an endless lineage of Buddhas extending infinitely past and future. This served to both elevate the Buddha in a way that he avoided as a distraction, and diminished his teaching as an individual Dhamma, in favor of following a religion rooted in mystical metaphor and special rituals and esoteric practices. 
Metaphor now became “reality” and the establishment of beliefs, rituals, and practices that would continue “I-making” was encouraged rather than seen as rooted in ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha taught that what is commonly thought of as a self is “anatta,” not-a-self. Anatta is the result of an ignorant view of reality and the clinging interaction of a distracted and deluded mind with impermanent phenomena.
It is the hardened belief in the fabrications produced by anatta, by clinging mind, that results in the overall unsatisfactory experience of human life. The hardened belief in anatta as the self is as deluded as the belief in Mara as anything more than a fabrication of Siddartha Gautama’s un-awakened mind. It is the same delusion that continues the belief in anatta that gives rise to “Mara” or thought constructs that would only further distraction, confusion and suffering.
In the Kappa Sutta, Kappa questions the Buddha using metaphor:
“For one stranded in the middle of a lake with the constant danger of drowning, where is the island of lasting safety?”
Being stranded in a lake is metaphor for the continual experience of dukkha while wandering aimlessly in samsara. [A]
The Buddha responds: “Lasting safety is possible. Have nothing, cling to nothing, abandon all that is anatta. Release is the island, there is no other island. Unbinding brings the complete cessation to all confusion and suffering. Unbinding brings complete cessation to the pain of wandering endlessly in samsara.
“Understanding suffering, abandoning craving and clinging, knowing cessation, developing the Eightfold Path, fully mindful, non-distracted, fully unbound, these don’t become Mara’s servants, these are no longer distracted by Mara.”
The Buddha clearly teaches that all thoughts arising from the belief in anatta are deluded and that through developing release through the Eightfold Path, clinging, aversion and deluded thinking ceases and aimless and endless wandering in samsara ends.
The Vajira Sutta is another example of the use of metaphor in presenting a similar teaching. Vajira, a nun, is sitting in meditation when the distraction of doubt and conjecture arise. Rather than engaging in further conjecture, Vajira, well-grounded in the Dhamma, recognizes doubt and conjecture as aspects of clinging conditioned mind:
(Mara approaches Vajira in meditation)
“Who originated this living being? Where is this living being’s maker? Where does this living being cease?
Vajira recognizes these thoughts are arising from a deluded and clinging conditioned mind:
“This is Mara, the evil one. Mara, it is you that is deluded by assuming a living being. Your position, your view, is a twisted mass of mental fabrications. There is no living being here that can be permanently established. It is only in the assembling of the parts of a chariot that a chariot is established. So it is that when the five aggregates are present do you declare a living being!
“What you declare as a living being is only stress that has arisen; craving and clinging to views its cause. Nothing but stress arises and nothing but stress falls away. There is nothing here that you declare but clinging, craving and stress.”
Upon this declaration of understanding, Mara vanishes – clinging conditioned mind ceases.
It is often portrayed that the Buddha taught “gods and men” the same Dhamma showing that there is no difference between confused mind states that are considered super-mundane and mundane. A passage from the Samyutta Nikaya 1:23 the Buddha uses metaphor directly portraying a confused mind as “a deva approaching the Buddha…” The deva inquires of the Buddha regarding the entanglements of the world:
“A tangle inside, a tangle outside, this world is entangled in a tangle. I ask you this, Gautama, who can disentangle this tangle?”
The Buddha does not teach to appease deities or aspire to a “higher” mental realm. He teaches to recognize directly confused and deluded thinking in the context of The Four Noble Truths:
“One who is wise, established on virtue, developing the mind and wisdom, one who is ardent and discerning, they can disentangle this tangle. Those in whom lust and hatred along with ignorance have been expunged, Their fabrications destroyed, for these the tangle is disentangled.”
Whether living life within the framework of the Eightfold Path, or more specifically seated in Shamatha-Vipassana meditation, recognizing doubt and conjecture as Mara, as aspects of anatta used to distract the mind and further suffering and confusion, clear mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths brings release and lasting peace and happiness.
Metaphor is useful in describing mental fabrications but should always be seen in the context metaphor is used in relation to the Dhamma. As the purpose of the Buddha’s Dhamma is to recognize and abandon all deluded views arising from ignorance of The Four Noble Truths, metaphor is used to depict the result of deluded beliefs and should not be elevated to “deity” status or as a mental state to aspire towards.
The Buddha’s own awakening story and these accounts of the deva, Kappa, and Vajira, clearly show using metaphor to depict mental fabrications. Once recognized within the refined mindfulness developed through the Eightfold Path these metal fabrications cease causing desire and confused devotion.
[A] Samsara: The endless environment of delusion and suffering. An unawakened being is said to be wandering aimlessly in samsara. Samsara is the environment of the phenomenal world arising from individual ignorance.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.