It is told that on the night before the Buddha became enlightened, as he sat under the Bodhi tree meditating, he was attacked repeatedly by the Demon King Mara. Mara tried to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment by tempting him and afflicting him with harmful emotions. Mara tried to get the Buddha to give into greed, lust, anger, doubt, and more. But Mara was unsuccessful.
Even after the Buddha reached enlightenment, Mara would still come around from time to time. One time he came to visit the Buddha while the Buddha was in his home. Ananda, the Buddha’s most loyal attendant, saw Mara approaching and told him to go away. Mara asked Ananda if he might be invited in. Ananda was quite sure that the Buddha would turn Mara away, but Mara asked Ananda to go ask his master himself. Ananda went inside and told him about the visitor that had come. “It is wonderful to have a visitor,” the Buddha said, “Invite him in and seat him at the place of honor at the table, and put on some tea for my guest.” Ananda was wary but did as his master instructed.
There are different stories about what the Buddha and Mara talked about during the visit. Thich Nhat Hahn offers one version of the story. He says that not only did the Buddha welcome Mara in, but even greeted Mara with a hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hahn writes,
Buddha just looked at Mara in a very loving way and he said, “Dear friend, how have you been? Is everything okay?” Mara said “No, not okay at all. Things go very badly with me. You know something, Buddha? I’m very tired of being Mara. Now I want to be someone else, like you. You are kind; wherever you go you are welcome. You are bowed to with lotus flowers, and you have many monks and nuns with very lovely faces following you. You are offered bananas and oranges and kiwis and all kinds of fruits.
“As a Mara I have to wear the appearance of a Mara. Everywhere I go I have to speak in a very tricky language. I have to show that I am really Mara. I have to use many tricks, I have to use the language of Mara, I have to have an army of wicked little Maras and, if I breathe in and breathe out, every time I breathe out I have to show that smoke is coming from my nose… So I have come to propose to you that we exchange roles. You be a Mara and I’ll be a Buddha.”
The Buddha looked at Mara very calmly, smiling to him, and asked this question: “Mara, do you think it’s a lot of fun being a Buddha? People don’t understand me—they misunderstand me and put a lot into my mouth that I have never said. They have built temples where they put statues of me in copper, in plaster, sometimes in emerald, in gold. And they attract a lot of people who offer them bananas, oranges, citrus, and a lot of things.
“Sometimes they carried me on the street in a procession. I don’t like being a Buddha like that. You should know that being a Buddha is also very difficult. I don’t think that you would enjoy being the Buddha. The best thing is for each of us to stay ourselves and try to improve the situation and enjoy what we are doing.”
The story of Kisa Gotami, is a story I first learned in my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school in my hometown of Wayland, Massachusetts. The story goes like this. Kisa Gotami was the mother of an only son. She loved her son deeply, but tragically her son became ill and died rather suddenly. Kisa Gotami became wracked by grief. She hurried into the village and desperately went to the various healers and monks begging for someone, for anyone, to perform a miracle and bring her son back to life. All of the healers and monks told her that they didn’t have the power to do that, but that if anyone did, it would be the Buddha. So, Kisa Gotami went to visit the Buddha to ask him bring her son back from the dead. The Buddha told her that there was a magical spell that could make her wish come true, but the magic spell required that she bring him a white mustard seed from a home that has never known death.
So, Kisa Gotami set out across the countryside, the valleys, the mountains, the forests. She visited palaces and mansions along with modest dwellings. In each home she visited she inquired about a white mustard seed and also asked if the home had ever known death. Each family she talked with had a story to tell, the death of a grandparent or great-grandparent. The death of a spouse. The death of a child. At first Kisa Gotami was annoyed and disappointed. None of these people can help me, she despaired. But then she realized the lesson was that she was not alone. She found healing from her connection with others. She became transformed in her desires, transformed in her heart.
This morning I’m going to talk about inviting Mara to tea, an act that is really hard and challenging and uncomfortable. In doing so, I’m going to turn to the writings and teachings of psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, who offers a different interpretation of the story of inviting Mara to tea.
Many of the stories and teachings of Buddhism have a common thread running through them. The thread is that running away from what troubles us, avoiding what’s painful to face, and only seeking happiness are not effective ways to live. If avoidance and escapism are your default settings for getting through life, then Buddhist teachings and wisdom stories will challenge you. The lessons this tradition has to offer are lessons of engagement rather than pushing away, of staying in the game rather than running for the hills. These lessons really challenge me. They may challenge you too.
There’s actually going to be a lot of Buddhism at church this month. Next Sunday there will be children’s fellowship at both services and the program they’ll be doing together is Laughing Yoga. And then the week after that, two of our members will be beginning an adult religious education class based on the book Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron.
Let’s return to the story about inviting Mara to tea. Remember, Mara is the Demon King who comes to tempt the Buddha with intense emotions – anger, doubt, greed, and so on – that threaten to corrupt him. Here is how Buddhist teacher Tara Brach interprets the story,
Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”
He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.
When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.
I think that Mara can appear as either an internal psychological state or emotion or as an external opponent, something outside of ourselves that bothers us. I think that it is important to invite both Maras to tea. How many of us have difficult feelings well up within us? Anger, self-doubt, anxiety, fear, worry, disappointment? When I feel those things, I’d rather run away. I’d rather shut the door and hole up. I’d rather avoid those feelings and come up with ingenious distractions. But what Tara Brach teaches, what the Buddhist stories I’ve shared teach, is that what we actually need to do is to face those tough feelings, to invite Mara in. To name Mara. And to treat even our deepest fears and worries with compassion. Hi, I see you. Hi, how are you doing?
And, we actually begin to get some power over those fears when we name them, acknowledge them, and face them. As a friend of mine puts it, “A good look at the worst that can happen disarms it, and you can often see that your deepest fears are often very unlikely. Hospitality with what scares us is hard work but it often takes the teeth out of the monsters, much like shining a light under the bed for your child… We mustn’t dismiss our fears or flee from them, but we can shine a light on them. We can invite Mara to tea, over and over and over again.”
Tara Brach tells the story of an older teacher who was invited to give a speech at a very large and prestigious gathering. As it turns out, this teacher was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the time, he was completely fine. Nobody could tell except for his closest friends. As he walked on stage, in front of this gathering, his mind went blank. He completely forgot the talk he was prepared to give. Not only did he forget what he had planned to say, but he also realized he didn’t know who his audience was or why he was even there. Tara Brach tells that what he did in that moment was to simply begin to name his feelings, to name what he was experiencing, to name what is happening right now, and to bow to it. Fear. Bow. Racing heart. Bow. Embarrassment. Bow. Confused. Bow. And, finally, through naming all the things he was experiencing, he calmed down and was able to say that he was sorry that he was unable to give the audience what they had come to hear.
Tara Brach writes, “Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.”
This lesson, this teaching about inviting Mara to tea works not only for the emotions and feelings that cause us to struggle and panic and suffer. It also applies to opponents or adversaries we encounter outside of ourselves. Next Sunday I’m going to be talking about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. One of the things I’m really struck by as I read about and study Mandela’s life is his capacity to sit down to tea with people who had really hurt him. I am fascinated by the story of Mandela having lunch with a government official who had schemed to have him assassinated during the early days of apartheid.
Who in your life do you run from, hide from? Who in your life do you avoid? Who in your life do you need to invite in to sit down for tea?
This is scary. This isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t comfortable. But, as uncomfortable as it is, facing our fears, facing our anxieties, and facing our pain – and facing those who we’re struggling to be with – can be a pathway forward for us.
Like the Buddha, may we invite Mara in for tea when Mara comes to pay a visit.
Like Kisa Gotami, may we find peace in our companionship and in our connectedness.
May we have the courage, and strength, for our lives to move in these directions.