The Armies of Mara

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by Sayadaw U Pandita


Meditation can be seen as a war between wholesome and unwholesome mental states. On the unwholesome side are the forces of the kilesas, also known as “The Ten Armies of Mara.” In Pali, Mara means “killer.” He is the personification of the force that kills virtue and also kills existence. His armies are poised to attack all yogis; they even tried to overcome the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.

Here are the lines the Buddha addressed to Mara, as recorded in the Sutta Nipata:

Sensual pleasures are your first army,
Discontent your second is called.
Your third is hunger and thirst,
The fourth is called craving.
Sloth and torpor are your fifth,
The sixth is called fear,
Your seventh is doubt,
Conceit and ingratitude are your eighth,
Gain, renown, honor, and whatever fame
is falsely received (are the ninth),
And whoever both extols himself and disparages others (has fallen victim to the tenth).
That is your army, Namuci [Mara],
the striking force of darkness.
One who is not a hero cannot conquer it,
but having conquered it, one obtains happiness.

To overcome the forces of darkness in our own minds, we have the wholesome power of satipatthana vipassana meditation, which gives us the sword of mindfulness, as well as strategies for attack and defense.

In the Buddha’s case, we know who won the victory. Now, which side will win over you?

Having overcome doubt, the yogi begins to realize some aspects of the Dhamma. Unfortunately, the Eighth Army of Mara lies in wait, in the form of conceit and ingratitude. Conceit arises when yogis begin to experience joy, rapture, delight, and other interesting things in practice. At this point they may wonder whether their teacher has actually attained this wondrous stage yet, whether other yogis are practicing as hard as they are, and so forth.

Conceit most often happens at the stage of insight when yogis perceive the momentary arising and passing away of phenomena. It is a wonderful experience of being perfectly present, seeing how objects arise and pass away at the very moment when mindfulness alights on them. At this particular stage, a host of defilements can arise. They are specifically known as the vipassana kilesas, defilements of insight. Since these defilements can become a harmful obstacle, it is important for yogis to understand them clearly. The scriptures tell us that mana, or conceit, has the characteristic of bubbly energy, of a great zeal and enthusiasm arising in the mind. One overflows with energy and is filled with self-centered, self-glorifying thoughts like, ‘’I’m so great, no one can compare with me.”

A prominent aspect of conceit is stiffness and rigidity. One’s mind feels stiff and bloated, like a python that has just swallowed some other creature. This aspect of mana is also reflected as tension in the body and posture. Its victims get big-headed and stiff-necked, and thus may find it difficult to bow respectfully to others.

photo by Tjook (@xtjook

photo by Tjook (@xtjook

Conceit is really a fearsome mental state. It destroys gratitude, making it difficult to acknowledge that one owes any kind of debt to another person. Forgetting the good deeds others have done for us in the past, one belittles them and denigrates their virtues. Not only that, but one also actively conceals the virtues of others so that no one will hold them in esteem. This attitude toward one’s benefactors is the second aspect of conceit, rigidity being the first.

All of us have had benefactors in our lives, especially in childhood and younger days. Our parents, for example, gave us love, education, and the necessities of life at a time when we were helpless. Our teachers gave us knowledge. Friends helped us when we got into trouble. Remembering our debts to those who have helped us, we feel humble and grateful, and we hope for a chance to help them in turn. It is precisely this gentle state that defeats Mara’s Eighth Army.

Yet it is very common to find people who don’t recognize the good that has been done for them in the past. Perhaps a layperson finds himself or herself in trouble, and a compassionate friend offers help. Thanks to this help, the person manages to improve his or her circumstances. Later, however, he or she may demonstrate no gratitude at all, may even turn and speak harshly to the erstwhile benefactor. “What have you ever done for me?” Such behavior is far from unknown in this world.

photo by Michalis Taliadoros

photo by Michalis Taliadoros

Even a monk may become arrogant, feeling he has reached fame and popularity as a teacher only through his own hard work. He forgets his preceptors and teachers, who may have helped him since his childhood days as a novice. They will have taught him the scriptures, provided him with the requisites of life, instructed him in meditation, given him advice, and admonished him when appropriate, so that he grew up to be a responsible, cultured, civilized young monk.

Come the age of independence, this monk may reveal great talent. He gives good Dhamma talks that are well received by the audience. People respect him, give him many presents, and invite him to distant places to teach. Having reached a high station in life, the monk may become rather arrogant. One day, perhaps, his old teacher approaches him and says, “Congratulations! I’ve been watching you ever since you were a small novice. Having helped you in so many ways, it does my heart good to see you doing so well.” The young monk snaps back, “What have you done for me? I worked hard for this.”

Problems can occur in the Dhamma family as in any human family. In any family, one should adopt a positive, loving, and compassionate attitude toward resolving difficulties. Imagine how it could be if the members of the world family could get together with love and compassion and consideration for each other when a disagreement arises.

In this world there are ways of solving problems that may not be very fruitful but are unfortunately widespread. Instead of acting directly and from fellowship and love, a family member might start to wash dirty linen in public; might belittle other family members; or criticize their personalities and virtues, either directly or indirectly.

Before hurling insults and accusations at another family member, one should consider one’s own state of mind and circumstances. The tendency to lash out, defame, and belittle is an aspect of conceit. The scriptures illustrate it with the image of a person enraged, taking up a handful of excrement to fling at his or her opponent. This person befouls himself or herself even before the opponent. So, if there are matters on which we disagree, please let us all try to exercise patience and forgiveness in the spirit of the good-hearted.

Imagine a traveler on a long and arduous journey. In the middle of a long hot day he or she comes across a tree by the side of the road, a leafy tree with deep cool shade. The traveler is delighted, and lies down at the roots of this tree for a nice nap. If the traveler cuts down the tree before going on his or her way, this is what the scriptures call ungrateful. Such a person does not understand the benevolence a friend has shown.

photo by Helmandblog

photo by Helmandblog

We have a responsibility to do more than refrain from chopping down our benefactors. It is true that in this world there are times when we cannot repay what we owe to those who have helped us. We will nonetheless be regarded as a good-hearted person if we can at least remember their acts of benevolence. If we can find a way to repay our debt, we should of course do so. It is quite irrelevant whether our benefactor is more virtuous than we, or is a rascal, or happens to be our equal in virtue. The only requirement for him or her to gain the status of benefactor is to have helped us in the past.

Once upon a time, a man worked very hard to support his mother. As it turned out, she was a promiscuous woman. She tried to hide this from her son, but eventually some gossiping villagers disclosed her activities to him. He answered, “Run along, friends. As long as my mom is happy, whatever she chooses to do is fine. My only duty is to work and support her.”

This was a very intelligent young man. He understood the limits of his own responsibility: to repay his debt of gratitude to her who had borne and suckled him. Beyond this, his mother’s behavior was her own business.

This man was one of the two types of rare and precious people in the world. The first type of rare and precious person is a benefactor: one who is benevolent and kind, who helps another person for noble reasons. The Buddha was one of these, sparing no effort to help beings liberate themselves from the sufferings of samsara. All of us owe him grateful remembrance, and we might even consider our diligence in practice to be a form of repayment. The second type of rare and precious person is the one who is grateful, who appreciates the good that has been done for him or her, and who tries to repay it when the time is ripe. I hope you will be both types of rare and precious person, and will not succumb to the Eighth Army of Mara.


Sayadaw U Pandita is the abbot of Panditarama Monastery and Meditation Center in Rangoon, Burma.

From In This Very Life, published by Wisdom Publications, Copyright © 1991 Saddhamma Foundation.

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