09 April 2011

On Māra, Hell and All That Other Crap We'd Rather Not Hear About

I'm starting to get more direct with folks who poo-poo the Māra and hell talk in Buddhism.  "Sounds like Catholicism," I heard someone say recently.  If that's so, I think it would only mean that Catholicism is on to something, along with every other tradition that recognizes what a life governed by greed, anger or ignorance looks like, and that acknowledges the tug of all those things that keep us from realizing and living our true nature.

It's not a matter of being "for" or "against" a particular teaching.  That's just an empty intellectual exercise that keeps one from the real work and reinforces the idea of an "I".  In this, as in everything, the point is to examine the life and times of this fathom-high body, the domain in which the rising and falling of the world is played out:

I've done wrong.  I continue to do wrong.  There are days when I get so stuck in my wrongdoing that I begin to wonder if there's a way out.  There have been days when I got so stuck I didn't even care about finding a way out.  I've had people pull me aside at a couple of stages in my life, put their hands on my shoulders, look me square in the eyes, and tell me that if I didn't get my act together it would not go at all well.  I didn't always listen.  And I spiraled down enough to get a sense of how bad it could get, and I turned around.  I have no trouble at all admitting to the reality of hellish existence, and if I haven't found a long-term spot there, it's not because I'm special.  I could well head back at any time.  I will always have work to do. 

Talk of hell and Māra is a reminder that I am not the center of the universe.  It's a reminder of my real weakness and my real ego-centeredness.  It is a deep realization that helps put an end to grandiosity and narcissism and helps open me up to the Dharma.

But I'll concede this much to the poo-pooers: it's one thing to acknowledge one's own defilements, and it's another thing to point out others'.  It's one thing to realize one's own propensity for hellish living, and it's another thing to assign others a choice spot there.  No one needs to hear the fire-and-brimstone guy getting all worked up in one's face.  The mirror will do, if we but care to look.

And I'll concede another point, too: even hell has within it an end and a way out.  There's nothing permanent about that aspect of existence any more than there is about any other aspect.  That it is most difficult and takes herculean effort to accomplish should still keep one sober, though. 

Śāntideva and Hakuin feared hell.  That's not such bad company to keep.  (And they knew nothing of Catholicism!)

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