The Three Daughters of Mara

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Mara's daughtersBefore the Buddha attained enlightenment, Mara sent his three daughters to tempt the Buddha and prevent him from reaching the final goal which Buddha was very close to attaining. The three daughters of Mara are Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion).

These same daughters (or sons for female readers) are also our companion. It is important to understand that Mara does not force us to stay and ‘enjoy’ the material world; we all choose to do so on our own free will. Mara merely allows his three daughters to accompany us. Mara is not our jailor. We are our own jailor because we are mesmerised by his three daughters.

Mara is described as death. He is called death not because he kills but because death can only exist when the illusory self exist. When One achieve enlightenment, One transcends the illusory self and as such transcends death and Mara. So, his three daughters are tasked to become obstacles to enlightenment.

Raga (lust) needs no explanation. Nothing confounds the mind of a person more than a member of the opposite sex.

However, Raga by herself is not enough. More is needed to occupy our mind. So, Tanha (desire), plays the role of making us crave for wealth, power and recognition. Our mind is occupied day and night on how to gain more and more of these things. Tanha makes sure that we are never satisfied. This is because if we are ever contented, we will stop thinking about her and she would lose her place among Mara’s daughters. So, new things are introduced day after day to keep us wanting. Our desire for mental stimulation causes us to spend hours in front of the television or playing games on our smartphone. Time which could have been better spent calming the mind.

When we are filled with pride or jealousy, know that Tanha is whispering to us.

Arati (aversion) is the most devious among the three daughters because we think that we are less like to spend time with her. Really, who would want to spend time with someone they dislike. However, how much time do we spend thinking about matters we do not like? How much time do we spend being unhappy about the current political scenario or other issues which, frankly, we can do very little about? How often does hatred and anger grip our hearts? This is why the Buddha taught that one of the obstacles to enlightenment is our indulgence in suffering. Many of us spend more time with Arati compared to Raga and Tanha. Arati may perhaps be the most attractive among the three daughters of Mara.

Even if we do not attain enlightenment in this very life, it is important to make every effort to understand and see the illusory self. Merely believing it is not enough. One’s state of mind at death’s door is the most important determining factor of the state One’s next rebirth. A person who can accept death and die peacefully is better assured of a better rebirth. If One had at least glimpsed the nature of the illusory self, One is in a better position to let go of One’s mind and body at death. Merely repeating to Oneself, “I am not this mind and body” without understanding may not be sufficient.

So, let us remember that Mara is not good or evil and is not our jailor. We choose to remain in the jail and as such, we are our own jailor. We must constantly be mindful of our thoughts to see the play of Mara’s three daughters and constantly debate with them with wisdom. This is why mindfulness and awareness is a skill we are often encouraged to develop on our spiritual path. We start at something easy like being mindful of our in-breath and out-breath or by counting our breath from 1 to 10 repeatedly. We then expand our mindfulness to our daily activities. A popular method is to be mindful when we walk, observing the movement of our feet while we pace back and forth. This is referred to as walking meditation.

Mindfulness is most beneficial when we are able to observe our thoughts and emotions whenever we are faced with something we greatly desire or very ill-disposed to. That is, we use mindfulness to counter the whispers by Mara’s three daughters. The Venerable Ananda once asked the Buddha what to do when a monk sees an attractive woman.

The Buddha advised, “Do not look at the woman”.

Venerable Ananda replied, “What if the monk has no choice but to look?”

 “Do not talk to her”.

“What if the monk has no option but to look and talk to her?”

Then do it with mindfulness”.

What the Buddha meant was to observe whatever thoughts and emotions that arises when the monk speaks to a woman he finds attractive and use the occasion to understand himself. He should observe the defilements that are elicited by the encounter and defeat them with wisdom. The Buddha had developed many effective contemplation tools to defeat the defilements associated with lust.

Every negative emotion can act as an alarm bell to warn us that some defilements have arose in our mind and we should be mindful of our thoughts and emotions. The occasion should be seen as an opportunity to understand ourselves and sharpen our wisdom. Challenge those defilements with the Words of Wisdom we discussed about.

If we continue to develop our mindfulness, it will surely come to our aid when we need it the most; when we are dying. A person who can die with mindfulness will be able to pass on with dignity and will attain a good rebirth. The daughters of Mara will eventually get bored with a person with mindfulness and leave him alone.

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