The Padhānasutta picks up the story some time later, when the Bodhisatta was meditating on the banks of the Nerañjara river ([snp3.2]). He is confronted by Māra and his ten armies, and responds with a bold and confident assertion of his future enlightenment.
The title word padhāna means both “striving, putting forth energy”, and also the active application of energy in practice, and thus comes close in meaning to “meditation”; a padhānasāla is a “meditation hall”. Like the Pabbajjāsutta, we have two almost complete parallels in Indic languages, in the Mahāvastu again, and in the Lalitavisatra, a popular legend of the Buddha in Sanskrit; while it is a later text, this passage is mostly verbatim.
The chronology of these episodes is not entirely clear. According to the commentary, this Sutta depicts the time the Bodhisatta was engaged in the practice of severe, Jain-like austerities. Māra says he is thin, discolored, and near death, which is how he is described in the prose accounts of this period of “striving” ([mn36:26.1]). It was immediately after this encounter that he realized the futility of such practice and undertook the gentler path of jhāna.
It’s an odd narrative twist, and one that I feel is unpersuasive. The whole point of the Padhānasutta is the Bodhisatta’s absolute confidence and commitment, and it feels strange that he would then simply realize that he was wrong after all and completely change course, dismissing all his work as “pointless” (anatthasañhita). Clearly whatever he was doing was not pointless, for it allowed him to overcome Māra’s armies.
Moreover, the qualities and practices spoken of in the Sutta sound Buddhist, and quite unlike the Jains or other practictioners of self-torment. He says nothing about burning up past kamma, or that pleasure is to be gained by pain, which is the belief that drove him to extremes of austerity ([mn85:10.2]). On the contrary, he speaks of having faith, energy, and wisdom, of mindfulness, and especially the calm mind of immersion in samādhi. The prose accounts of austerities say nothing like this. Indeed, it was the fact that he could not find tranquillity that drove him to abandon austerities. When listing the “ten armies of Māra” he names only psychological obstacles to meditation as understood in Buddhism, which are not mentioned in the prose accounts.
One unusual phrase is where the Bodhisatta says to Māra that he had attained the “supreme” (uttama) “feeling” (vedanā). This is reminiscent of the prose claim that he had experienced the “ultimate” (parama) “painful feeling” (dukkha vedanā, [mn85:30.2]), hence Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as “I have experienced extreme pain”. But it would be wise to not insist on this point, for the Mahāvastu has the supreme “state” (padaṁ), a term for Nibbāna, while the Saṅghabhedavastu has supreme “intention” (cetanā), which would refer to his avowed dedication to Awakening. These are not merely variant readings, but three quite different interpretations of the narrative, each of which finds support in the text.
- Vedanā: Verses 9 and 10 speak of the drying up of blood and flesh, reaching the extremes of painful “feeling” through self-mortification.
- Cetanā: Verses 16 through 19 express a vivid and undaunted “intention” to triumph against all odds and vanquish his demons.
- Pada: Verses 7 and 8 says he has no need for merit and possesses wisdom, while in verse 11 he claims to be pure, and in verse 5 he is referred to as the “Buddha”, all of which suggest this episode happened after he was enlightened. Note too that the verb “attained” (patta)—which is found in all three versions—is normally used of reaching a spiritual achievement, not of experiencing a feeling.
If we see this episode through the lens of the prose accounts, which emphasize the distinct break between the periods of self-torment and the undertaking of jhāna, this Sutta uneasily straddles the divide. Perhaps, then, the mistake is ours, and we should not try to impose that framework on the text, ignoring the prose accounts and simply taking the Padhānasutta as-is.
It depicts the Bodhisatta undertaking a strenuous program of meditation. He is practicing a rigorous self-denial in respect of food and rest, but not the full range of austerities. It was while practicing in this way that he purified his mind of obstacles, not because of pain, but because of energy and determination. There was no abrupt shift from the path of austerities to that of jhāna.
In this light, we can propose a fourth explanation for the difficult phrase, “attained the supreme feeling” (pattassuttamavedanaṁ). This occurs immediately after the Bodhisatta has said that his mind has become clear, with strong mindfulness, wisdom, and immersion. The next line speaks of disinterest in sensuality, and the purity of a being. Throughout the Suttas, jhāna is is an “attainment” regarded as the highest feeling, one that is realized through immersion, which rejects sensual pleasure, which is a state of purity, and which was a pivotal realization on the Bodhisatta’s journey.
There is no doubt that the division between self-torment and meditation, which was a fundamental feature of the Dhamma starting with the very first sermon, was never observed quite so clearly in Buddhist culture, as is attested by the popularity of images of the “fasting Bodhisattva”. The practice of austerities was always a troubling episode for later hagiographers. If such austerities were really such a waste of time, why did the Bodhisatta do them in the first place, given that he had already been developing the pāramīs for many lifetimes? Of course, the pāramīs are not part of early Buddhism, and in the Suttas he undertook austerities because he did not know what he was doing.
This Sutta suggests that this ambiguity with regards to austerity was present from an early time. It would be wrong to revise the whole history of Buddhism based on a single, rather ambiguous, text, but it does suggest that the clear division between austerities and jhāna became emphasized in the prose accounts, probably to distinguish the Buddha from the Jains. Reality is rarely so clear-cut.
There is a curious shift in narrative voice. The opening verse has the Buddha speaking in first person (maṁ), but after Māra’s verses the text refers to the Buddha in the third person. Jayawickrama suggests we correct to naṁ or taṁ (i)maṁ, but Norman rejects these emendations on the basis of the commentary, and regards the phrase as an accusative version of the common idiom so’haṁ; the same idiom occurs in dative in verse 11: tassa me. Here the commentary must be right, for the reading in the Mahāvastu doesn’t admit of such ambiguity (mayā). The Lalitavistara rephrases this line, perhaps because its more refined literary sensibilities did not admit such a lapse. Given that the opening verses are quite different in the three versions, it’s likely they were added later to introduce the story, but the shift in voice remains unexplained. Perhaps it is simply a sign of a slightly raw and unedited original.
Less inexplicable is the text’s occasional flirtation with a literal depiction of Māra’s armies. When Siddhattha says that he sees Māra on his mount, surrounded by his forces in full battle-array ([snp3.2:18.1]), it sounds decidedly un-psychological and more like the flamboyant representations of Māra and his armies that became so popular in later legend and art. But this is one of the several verses of the Pali that have no parallel in the Mahāvastu or the Lalitavistara, and which seem to have been added to give extra dramatic flair.
Both of the Sanskritic versions have a much briefer final section, so this was probably expanded in the Pali. One point of agreement, however, is that even in its few verses the Mahāvastu, like the Pali, mentions that he will lead many disciples to freedom from Māra. This is one of the aspects of Māra’s mythology that is often overlooked. Yes, Māra is a psychological metaphor for defilements. But he is also something larger: a personalized representation of the darkness that afflicts the world. If Māra is defeated once, he can be defeated again, which is why he was so determined to ensure the Bodhisatta could not succeed in his quest. Myth exalts the personal to the universal. This is a story of a man sitting under a tree on the bank of the Nerañjara river 2,500 years ago, battling his personal demons. But it is also all of us, now, wherever we are, battling our own personal demons. And no matter how many times we are defeated, we are inspired to get up once more, for we know that victory is possible: it has happened once, so it can happen again.