These days one hears little about the Devil for the same reason that most people don’t talk much about God. The existence of these deities as external forces that control our lives, to whom one can on the one hand pray for deliverance or respectively bargain with for what one desires, just flies in the face of both our life experience and scientific knowledge.
For those of us who walk the path … whether it’s Buddhism or Sufism or Kabbalah or Gnosticism … we know, however, that the truth is rather that the Buddha/God essence is within each of us from the moment of our birth and remains there. But it has become hidden to us over the years by success layers of our ego-mind’s reaction to life experiences. We become wounded by those experiences. And so we walk the path to reconnect, to rediscover our true selves. Our salvation comes from within us, not from some outside force.
But while we learn that the Buddha was tempted by Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of the Devil, I have never, I believe, heard that word used when speaking of the challenge of healing ourselves, protecting ourselves from suffering. The challenge is stated as freeing ourselves from the control of our ego-mind. As the Buddha said, to free ourselves of the conceit “I am” is the ultimate freedom.
Recently, however, when meditating I realized that for the first time, after talking with a friend the previous evening, I had felt the presence of the Devil. My friend knows he has to limit his consumption of alcohol. But he said he wanted a second glass of wine that night. And that after dinner he wanted to go to some bars and have a beer like he does when he travels with other friends of his. Knowing I would disapprove and say “no,” the expression on his face when he talked was a mocking expression, sly. I was aware of the strangeness of it at the moment, but I didn’t recognize it.
I now understand that just as in some religions the Devil is thought to be a fallen angel, in Buddhism the Devil can be equated with our ego-mind, which is our internal fallen Buddha nature. We have become so wounded repeatedly over the years that the ego-mind has no trust, no faith, and is consumed by fear. It has become cynical of the world around us and has overpowered our true self to “protect” us and we are in its control. And so the Devil, our own Devil, is inside each of us; it is the nature of our ego-mind.
When Ernestine, the Flip Wilson drag character, would say, “The Devil made me do it!” or when in a comic strip a person is portrayed with an angel sitting on one shoulder whispering in his year and the Devil sitting on the other doing the same, being confused by the competing advice, I believe these were meant to be internal Devils. So the concept is not foreign to our culture.
This naming of our ego-mind does not change anything in Buddhist teaching. But it may be very helpful in a practical way for those walking the path and struggling to free themselves from the control of their ego-mind, the control of their emotions and perceptions.
We very much identify with our ego-mind. Its feelings and perceptions are all we’ve known our entire lives. We do come to learn that our feelings and perceptions are not a reflection of our true selves. they are not found in our heart, they are a learned experience, a foreign impression, and we may even say, “not me!” regarding them.
And yet the power of these feelings often are barely diminished because we do not deeply disown them, despite our saying “not me.” When push comes to shove, we always return to the perspective of our wounded self. We have not purged ourselves from their grip. Their roots in our self-perception go too deep.
Applying the concept of the Devil to the ego-mind may be very helpful because that name does not conjure up “I.” It conjures up instead trickery, deceit, doing something against one’s best interest, evil … which is in effect how the ego-mind operates and controls us. It thus should make it easier for people to disown it and say “no” to its guidance.
(Many posts address the question of how to free yourself from the grip of your ego-mind, but these provide the core of the process: “The Heart’s Embrace” and “Test the Wisdom of What You’re Doing or Thinking of Doing.”)