The Voices of Mara

A pith description of the Buddha’s whole teaching goes something like this: “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.”

I don’t know if it is vanity or ignorance (or both) that make us imagine: if I am struggling, I must be doing something wrong. It is madness to blame ourselves for the inevitable snags and struggles we encounter. Yet we do.

The end of suffering does not mean the end of unpleasant experience. As one of my old Zen teachers used to say, “The whole of our practice can be summed up like this: not making things worse.” Life is already hard enough. We don’t need to pile on.

In a wonderful text titled the “Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow,” the Buddha explains that while being struck by an arrow is painful, we make it worse by “resisting, worrying, grieving, lamenting, beating our breast, weeping and become distraught.” We add a second arrow.

The first arrow is inevitable; life is ripe with difficult experiences. But the second (or third, or twentieth), arrow, he suggests, is optional. It is possible to train the heart-mind to turn toward, face and feel our inevitable difficulties directly, rather than plying ourselves with worry, resistance and self-judgment.

In the story of life of the Buddha, the slinger-of-arrows is personified in the figure of Mara. Mara attacks the ardent seeker Siddhartha as he sits resolute, under the Bo tree, taunting him with visions of beautiful women (greed) and decaying bodies (aversion.) But the soon-to-be Buddha refuses to budge. As arrows sail toward him, he halts each one mid-air with the potent power of mindfulness, declaring, “I see you Mara!” And with these words Mara’s arrows miraculously transform into lotus flowers, showering him with scented petals.

Mara’s final trump card is doubt. After his arrows fail, he slinks up to the seated yogi and whispers in his ear: “Who do you think you are?” It’s a great question; one that cuts right to the heart of the teaching. Who do we think we are?

But Siddhartha doesn’t bite. Instead of trying to defend himself, he reaches down with his hand and touches the earth. Instead of arguing or explaining, he connects and confirms his inherent belonging.

In our modern, psychologically-infused vernacular, Mara is known as the voice of the inner critic or judge; the energetic force that evaluates, belittles, threatens and cajoles in the (misguided) effort to maintain homeostasis, and to keep us safe and small. Getting to know and unhook from these voices is essential if we want to stretch, grow and awaken. This is true for us both individually and collectively. Each of us and all of us need to learn how to meet the voices of Mara with savvy, humor, persistence and ferocity.

How can we bring mindfulness to voices that shame and diminish—whether they are directed inward toward ourselves, or cast out toward those we label “other?” How can we harness the power of awareness to transform arrows of bias, oppression and hatred into fragrant flowers? And when we find ourselves in the grip of fear or doubt or divisiveness, what does it mean to reach down and touch the earth? How can we learn to welcome and even celebrate all the cast-off parts of ourselves, and the many diverse communities of people we encounter?

Being Bodhisattvas

It was a dramatic gesture. A fat roll of white paper unfurled across the pale wooden floor of the meditation hall. A woman with sweeping red hair announced: “This scroll is covered with hundreds of signatures. They represent the voices of from students across the globe asking for our leadership and guidance on climate change. It is time for us to listen.”

Five years ago, I sat in a wide circle with one hundred International Vipassana Teachers gathered for three days of meetings, dialogue and education. Bob Doppelt, the Executive Director of the Resource Innovation Group, and a tireless climate change expert, educator and author addressed us. Bob’s calm demeanor and matter-of fact presentation belied the urgency of his message. He shared grim statistics, graphs and charts, photographs of polar bears adrift on floating ice floes, videos of clear cuts and tar sands.

“We’ve passed the tipping point, he said. ”We may be able to slow the onslaught, but we can no longer turn it around.” Then he offered a challenge.

“If anyone can transform this, you can. And you must. Changing lightbulbs, recycling, electric cars…none of that is enough. What is needed,” he said, “is a new narrative, a shift from ‘me to we,’ which Buddhist teachings are in a unique position to provide.”  


Almost three decades ago I lived for several years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. While there, I was introduced to the image and archetype of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhi (awake, wise) sattva (sentient being) is someone who understands the radical reorientation needed to make this shift. Bodhisattvas are awake to the truth of our interconnectedness. They understand that no one of us can be truly free while others still suffer.

This is the same truth Dr. King described as the “single garment of destiny” that binds us together. It is the flip side of the experience of separateness Einstein called “an optical delusion of consciousness.” It is the essence of what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes as our fundamental “inter-being.”

Based on this understanding, Bodhisattvas vow to remain in the world for the benefit and mutual awakening of all beings, everywhere. Instead of pursuing the peace of personal enlightenment, they willingly roll up their sleeves and dive into the fray.

For many years, I’ve carried the wish to bring the term “Bodhisattva” into our popular vernacular as a way to introduce a powerful, alternate perspective for how to meet the confusion, greed, and divisiveness that threaten human life and the life of the planet.

The path of engaging the world as modern Bodhisattvas begins by turning toward suffering, allowing ourselves to be touched by the pressing issues of our time—climate change, racism, misogyny and oppression—and then clarifying our heartfelt aspirations and commitments: What do I care about? What pains me most deeply? How can I meet the suffering of our wide, aching world with integrity, creativity and compassion?

Next month I’ll be offering a 4-week video and webinar program titled, “An Appropriate Response: Embodying the Heart of a Bodhisattva” to explore these questions.

You can participate from anywhere. All are welcome.

For more information go to:

Is the Universe Friendly or Unfriendly?

Einstein declared that the most important question facing humanity is this: “Is the universe friendly or unfriendly?” How we answer this question, he insisted, determines how we relate to and engage with ourselves, each other and the world.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with the premise of “original sin.” Buddhist teaching offers a more generous option: basic human goodness, smeared by ignorance. It is not evil, but confusion that seeds our bad behavior.

Illusion is hard-wired. We are always peering through lenses colored by personal and cultural bias. As Anais Nin wrote: “We don't see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” To imagine we see the world clearly is ignorance. To believe our illusory, limited views and opinions as Truth is pure delusion.

I often use the image that we are all walking around looking at the sky through a straw. Is that the sky we see? Sure it is. But only a small circle of it. The trouble comes when we grip our straw-circle too tightly, proclaiming that everything outside our narrow perspective is scary or bad or wrong. This is the source of the divisiveness, heartache and harm escalating throughout our world as racism, misogyny, homophobia, oppression.

The sky is vast and mysterious. It belongs to no one. What is needed for us to be curious and humble enough to stretch our limited circle, and to invite and even celebrate diverse perspectives?

This is the work of individual and collective mindfulness: the willingness to open, receive and allow whatever arises, and to meet it with inquiry and interest. As our minds stretch and soften, we become more malleable, more able to meet the world with skill and kindness. As we cultivate the ability to see and see through the edges of our limited ideas and assumptions, we come to open our hands and open our hearts to a wider, more inclusive sky.


Being Human

The Chinese character "ren" depicts a human stick figure: feet planted firmly on the ground, limbs reaching upward toward the sky, the length of the body stretched between heaven and earth. Here lies our fundamental dilemma. Infinity meets mortality. Who we are is at once ripe with imagination and dreaming, and simultaneously bound to a body that ages and sickens and dies.

How do we reconcile the sublimity of our potential with the limitations of our embodiment? What does it take to straddle this unique human predicament? How can we live fully within this peculiar event called being human?

The heart of spiritual and meditative practice is about pausing to contemplate these questions. Cultivating a spiritual life means unwinding our frenetic scurrying long enough to ponder the absolute weirdness of incarnate existence in all of its anguish and beauty. And then allowing the rubbery habits of getting somewhere and being certain to soften into curiosity and amazement.

I’ve spent almost 30 years immersed in Buddhist teaching and practice: as a Zen monk, as a consultant aspiring to bring the wisdom I learned in the monastery into the workplace, and as a daughter, sister, wife, step-mother, teacher and friend. The truth is that I know less now than I did when I started. And this is probably a good thing.

Zen holds a special appreciation for having a “beginner’s mind.” Being a perpetual beginner is a discipline that demands the willingness to keep letting go, and the courage to embrace not-knowing. Copping to our bewilderment is not easy. The everyday world offers kudos to those who know (or claim to know), and often looks askance at those who confess to being baffled. 

Even modern spiritual life has been infused by the doctrine and discipline of science. The mystery of the mind has taken a back seat to neuroscience and the current creed of “it’s true only if you can measure it.” Of course, science is an amazing accomplishment. As a type 1 diabetic for over 40 years, I am the direct beneficiary of recombinant DNA and insulin-pump technology that literally keep me alive.

And yet. 

When I find myself in conversation with experts who claim that a current scientific theory is absolute, I am unconvinced. In the decades I’ve lived with diabetes, the scientific explanation  for my disease has changed (at least) three times: first it was considered genetic, then viral, now auto-immune. Which is true? Perhaps all three. The real truth is: we don't know for sure.

The point is not to take sides. The point is to bring a healthy skepticism to our sureness so we can revive our curiosity and wonderment about what it means to be alive. And as we learn to navigate the fluidity inherent in not-knowing (or even not-being-so-sure), we can begin to discover the source of fullness and creativity bubbling just beneath the surface of our shared mysterious life.