Updated: Jul 9, 2021
This is an illustration of the temptation of the Buddha by Mara, the demon king (aka Lord of the Senses, aka Lord of Death). I am not trying to convert anyone to Buddhism! This story has a teaching that we all can enjoy and benefit from.
Before I go into the story, I want to talk about Mudras, which are hand shapes that represent certain energies. Mudras are used in yoga, Indian dance, and other places as well.
In this illustration we see many fearful things attacking the Buddha. But he is simply reaching down his right hand and touching the earth. His left hand is resting on his lap, palm up and relaxed.
The right hand reaching down to the earth is in Bhumisparsha mudra, or “the earth witness” mudra. The left hand is in a mudra representing Prajna, or wisdom.
This mudra combo is in many artistic depictions of Buddha. These mudras commemorate his transformation into enlightenment, and victory over all fear and temptation sent by Mara. Buddha is essentially calling up the power of earth support and unshakable wisdom to sustain him as he faces the biggest challenge of his life.
This blog post is a quick and dirty post -- I am under deadline on some other projects. But I am exploring mudras this month in conjunction with mang'Oh Yoga. And this is a foray into mudras.
Let's talk about the temptations of the Buddha. This is one of my all-time favorite stories.
Buddha grew up as an over-indulged prince, originally named Siddartha. He had everything a human could desire. But his father hid him inside a city surrounded by walls. Anyone sick or old was thrown out of the city so Siddartha never saw sickness, old-age or death. One day as a young man, Siddartha asked his driver to take him outside the city to see what was going on in the world. During this drive, Siddartha encountered the "three divine messengers:" a sick person, an elderly person and a corpse. Siddartha was shaken to his core. He had no idea these things were coming for him. He vowed to find an escape. Obviously living in luxury surrounded by walls wasn't going to work in the long run. So he decided to become a yogi and dedicate every moment of his life to reaching enlightenment, or freedom from the troubles of the world.
He signed up with the greatest teachers of the time and spent years and years fasting, meditating and subjecting his body to the elements without shelter or regular meals. But it wasn't working. His teachers had no more lessons for him. He fasted so much he was wasting away. He put his hand on his belly and could feel his spine. He almost perished.
Just before he perished, a maiden happened by. She gave him some porridge and saved his life. He was filled with a sense of well-being and vowed to try again with a "middle path." Take care of the body, establish a sense of well-being and meditate. He sat down under the Bodhi tree and began his final transformation into enlightenment.
Here comes Mara, the King of the Demons. Mara is also known as the Lord of the Senses and the God of Death. He wanted to thwart Siddhartha in his quest for enlightenment.
The order of events differs depending on the text, but this is how I'm telling the story.
First Mara sends forth his three daughters: Trsna, Rati and Raga (Thirst, Desire and Delight). Siddhartha had already had enough of those three from his life in the city of walls, and he was done with sensuality.
Next, Mara sends forth Duty. Siddartha had been a prince and was being groomed to be the King. He essentially left his Father, wife and son-- and kingdom-- to pursue enlightenment. Obviously his family did not take that well. He OWES them, right!? Siddartha had made peace with his decision. But Mara thought maybe if he told Siddhartha that one of his great enemies had taken over the kingdom, Siddhartha might be tempted to have a change of heart and go save his family and kingdom. Siddartha was not moved.
Mara sent fear. Storms, monsters, armies and weapons. Siddartha was so established in wisdom, he did not waver.
Finally, Mara sent doubt. Who the hell are you to think you can reach enlightenment?
That is when Siddartha reached down and touched the earth. And Mother Earth herself rose up and gave testament to his merits. He had worked for a lifetime cultivating the qualities of a wise person and knew the truth. Sensual temptations, other people's projections of obligation, physical discomforts and fear, doubt of worthiness- -- all of this is illusion. When you are connected to true wisdom, all this stuff can't shake you.
Mara and his armies and temptations disappeared. Siddartha got to the final meditation that would transform him into the Buddha, the awakened one.
It is said that after Buddha emerged from the Boddhi tree, Mara came back and whispered in his ear: "You have achieved the highest peak, and attained all knowledge. But mankind is not ready for you. Don't teach this wisdom. Better to give up, disappear. Let things be." Then other Gods showed up and supported Buddha in passing down his wisdom so that other beings might benefit.
You may not be on the enlightenment track, but if we think of this as a metaphor . . . all of us want to be happy, established in ease, in equanimity . . . all of us want to be impervious to the ill-wishes of others. We want to be established in wisdom so we can remain clear in the face of life's troubles. So that we can act in accordance with our hearts and our higher ordeals, rather than react to our triggers. We all want to have a sense of harmony with ourselves, our loved ones, our workmates, nature and life, the universe and everything.
So how do we do that? Meditation, journaling, perhaps therapy. Thinking things through. Just as we have to chew our food to transform it into energy, we have to process our experiences somewhat actively to transform those experiences into wisdom and integrity.
One more thought came to me as I was practicing this mudra combo this week. In the story of the Buddha, he spent many lifetimes, working hard, achieving the "merits" to bring him to enlightenment. Yes, it takes work to cultivate unshakable wisdom within ourselves. It usually doesn't "just happen" to someone without some meditating involved. At the same time, many Buddhist texts tell us that we all have the awakened one already within us. We already have all the qualities we need to wake up and be established in unshakable peace. When we turn the left palm up in Prajna mudra, we connect with our innate wisdom within. When we reach our right hand down into Bhumisparsha mudra, we are connecting to our inherent worthiness. When Mara comes at us, as he does, and tells us that we don't deserve something, we can connect to that inherent worthiness. Yes there may be things that we would like to cultivate within ourselves--that just takes practice. But that doesn't take away from our inherent worthiness. You deserve to exist and be and find peace just because you are here, now. The energy of the universe that gives rise to all things gave rise to you. You are that energy, that light.
This week I will be practicing the mudras of Bhumisparsha and Prajna and see how it feels. I invite you to join me!
May this practice serve for the awakening of all. ❤️🌸🙏🙏
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