When Buddha had tea with Mara

54148333_sThis is an odd (and long) one, which, because it’s not a direct quote, I’ve put in the category of Fake Buddha Stories.

Hold onto your headgear!

Tara Brach has a blog post called “Inviting Mara to Tea.” Now Mara, in case you’re not aware of him, is a character from the Buddha’s life. He’s what we’d call a “supernatural” being (although Buddhism sees him as entirely natural, but not from our realm of existence).

He represents doubt, and so most western Buddhists take his appearances as being a poetic representation of our inner doubts. He frequently appears to the Buddha and to his disciples, often in a very taunting way. One time he visited the Buddha when he was in pain from an injury, and mocked him for just lying around. He famously sent his armies to distract the Buddha from gaining awakening. Here’s a reference to that encounter.

Mara appears to all of us in the form of our doubting thoughts: I can’t do this. No one likes me. Meditation is a waste of time.

In her blog post Tara says the following about the Buddha’s encounters with Mara:

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.

Brach is correct at the beginning. The Buddha doesn’t have to send Mara away, because Mara is a personification of the mental state of doubt. What we do with doubts is to recognize that they are not reality, but are distorted constructs in the mind. When we see our doubts as doubts, they lose their power over us. When we see Mara, Mara vanishes.

But when it comes to having tea with Mara, I’m very skeptical. For a start, there’s the question of tea. According to Wikipedia, tea likely originated in southwest China and wasn’t commercially grown in India until the British arrived. There’s no mention of tea in the Pali canon, and my Pali-English dictionaries don’t even include a word for it. In fact, the only drinks I recall being mentioned in the Pali canon, with the exception of spirits and fermented beverages, which were forbidden to Buddhist practitioners, are water and (more rarely) milk. Fruit juice is allowed in the monastic code of conduct, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it referred to in any of the discourses (suttas).

Then there’s the question of receiving Mara as an honored guest, which doesn’t fit with any of the encounters that I’ve seen.

Jack Kornfield, in his After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (page 124), has the Buddha regarding Mara not just as a guest, but as a friend:

“Oh, my old friend has come,” says the Buddha, as he warmly greets Mara, inviting him in for tea.

Again with the tea! Jack goes on to say, “In one scripture the story ends when Mara becomes awakened as a Buddha himself.” I think we should leave that one for another time!

Although various monks and nuns addressed Mara as “friend,” as far as I’m aware the Buddha is never depicted as having referred to anyone that way, since doing so would have implied an inappropriate sense of equality. Except for times when the Buddha calls Mara by his alternative name, Namuci (a demon in Vedic mythology), he addresses him as “Evil One,” pāpimant.

It’s Thich Nhat Hanh who’s most prolific with the story about Mara and the Buddha having tea. He refers to this incident in “Awakening of the Heart,” “The Heart of Understanding,” “No Mud, No Lotus,” “A Pebble for Your Pocket,” and “Under the Rose Apple Tree.”

There’s one long passage dealing with the Buddha’s tea-break with Mara in a transcribed talk that’s available online.

Thich Nhat Hanh begins his story in the following way:

I would like to tell you a story that took place a number of years ago. One day I saw the Venerable Ananda—you know who he is? Ananda is a cousin of the Buddha, a very handsome man with a very good memory.

Already this is very peculiar. “One day I saw the Venerable Ananda.” What does this mean? That Nhat Hanh is recalling a previous life? That he dreamed or imagined this incident? That’s he’s making it up as a form of “infotainment”? (That last is the one I’d bet on.)

A little later he says “Sometimes Ananda was so concerned about the happiness of the Buddha that he forgot about himself. Sometimes he did not enjoy what was there in the present moment, being much younger than the Buddha.” The problem here is that tradition has always held that Ananda and the Buddha were exactly the same age — even born on the same day. So where Nhat Hanh is getting this from is rather a puzzle.

We’re told that Mara arrives and asks to see the Buddha, which Ananda is reluctant to allow. But the Buddha welcomes his rival and addresses him as “friend.”

The story goes on to have Mara propose to the Buddha — over tea of course — that they switch roles, since being Mara is apparently hard work. The Buddha points out, though, that being a Buddha is hard work too.

Nothing about this story is familiar to me. Of course there’s a lot of material in the Pali canon about Mara, and it’s quite possible I’ve just never come across this particular one. With unusual elements such as the following —

  • Mara asking to see the Buddha (traditionally he just arrives — after all he represents the Buddha’s doubt and isn’t a real person)
  • the Buddha calling him “friend” (which he never does, preferring epithets such as “Evil One”)
  • Ananda mysteriously shedding a few decades
  • the role-swapping proposal
  • and the puzzle of this “tea” (which Nhat Hanh calls “herbal tea” in one of his books)

— it seems odd that this amazing story should be so elusive.

At first I wondered if Nhat Hanh made this up for the purposes of entertainment, and that other teachers subsequently assumed that such a respected teacher, referring to an incident about the Buddha’s life, must be referring to a canonical passage. On the other hand, there’s a 1991 book by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman that includes this story (predating any TNH reference I’ve found) so perhaps they’re the originators, or took the story from a non-canonical (possibly commentarial) source. I’m honestly baffled!

If you’ve stumbled across a scriptural source for this story, please do let me know about it!

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6 thoughts on “When Buddha had tea with Mara”

  1. Ohh that’s sharp observation about tea! Seeing how many chai shops are scattered throughout India, one is forgiven when making assumption that there may have always existed a chai culture. Thank you for correcting this misunderstanding!

  2. Hi, thanks for the great article! As far as i remember from a Dharma talk of Thich Nhat Hanh, he wrote the story about Buddha and Mara as an afterword to the book “Uncommon Prayer: A Book of Psalms” by Daniel Berrigan, to better illustrate the non-dual nature of things. He explicitly said (in the Dharma talk) that he of course invented the story himself, and it’s clear from the text:
    http://a.co/df8fi0E
    One can read the story in the book preview.
    The book was first published in 1978, but the afterword is probably only from 1998…

    1. That was very helpful, Nick. The story you linked to is rather different, but I can imagine it evolving into the version that involves the Buddha and Mara having tea together.

      1. Yes, maybe it’s some old version, that Thich Nhat Hanh made more poetic and added details with time. It already has the elements Mara asking Ananda to see Buddha, mentions of friendship, “role switching”, the difficulty of each others “job”… but not tea yet 🙂

  3. Thank you for this. The Westernization and cute-ifying (yeah, I made that up) of Buddhism are signs that we Westerners don’t want to work too hard at the ferocious work of meditation. The Hopi Native Americans have also had their difficult wisdom rendered fit for an up-scale meditation catalog.

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