Story of a nun's encounter with a māra?


Does anyone know where I can find that story that goes something like this: there’s a nun that’s visitted by a māra, the demon says that she’ll never become awakened as a woman, and the nun replies that she doesn’t see male or female. Something like that. Can’t seem to find it.


I believe you are thinking of the Bhikkhuni Soma, whose verses are in the Therigatha.


Also recounted with background narrative in SN 5.2.




As it happens, I just translated this yesterday. Here it is!

##SN 5.2 With Somā

At Sāvatthī.

Then the nun Somā got dressed in the morning and, taking her bowl and robes, entered Sāvatthī for alms. She wandered for alms in Sāvatthī. After the meal, on her return from alms-round, she entered the Blind Man’s Wood and sat at the root of a tree for the day’s meditation.

Then Māra the Wicked, wanting to make the nun Somā feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make her fall away from convergence, went up to her and addressed her in verse:

“That state’s very difficult to achieve;
it’s for the sages to attain.
It isn’t possible for a woman,
with her two-fingered wisdom.”

Then the nun Somā thought: “Who’s speaking this verse, a human or a non-human?”

Then she thought: “This is Māra the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from convergence!”

Then Somā, knowing that this was Māra the Wicked, replied to him in verse:

“What difference does womanhood make
when your mind is well converged,
and knowledge flows
as you rightly discern the Dhamma.
Surely someone who might think
‘I am woman’, or ‘I am man’,
or ‘I am’ anything at all,
is fit for Māra to address.”

Then Māra the Wicked, thinking, “The nun Somā knows me!” miserable and sad, vanished right there.

Feedback on translation of excerpt from Soma Sutta

At times māra is the personified defilements. But sometimes Māra is representing the role of satan. And it is said that the " Satan like" Māra is ruling the realm of devas who lord over other’s creations. So, can anyone of you explain this? How are we suppose to identify Māra ? As a living celestial being? or a just as a personification?


Here’s a link to a pretty substantial discussion of the matter by G. P. Malalasekera. Now, mind you, Mr. Malalsekera was a highly educated Singhalese person who grew up in the colonial age. i.e. despite hix obvious learnedness and extensive knowledge of the Dhamma, he may have exhibited a common tendency of the day by over-rationalizing things and explaining gods, miracles and magic away. So, I can’t really see how you can say Mara almost always stands for defilements when you read the Mara Samyutta where Mara is speaking to the Buddha. If Mara = kilesa, does it mean the Buddha had kilesas after His Enlightenmens, albeit noit even in a dormant but rather ‘utterly defeated’ state? That would be a pretty huge doctrinal issue.

Hope, this article will help you anyway :anjal:


Well translated!
“fear, terror, and goosebumps”
“Māra the Wicked”
"miserable and sad"
These choices in words read much more like a sacred tale or story that could capture the audience’s emotion to be more impactful.


I think V’s source covers most of the usages.

Another more speculative perspective might be to relate some aspects of the cosmology to a specific psychological theory. Julian Jaynes, a psychologist famous for his theory of the “bicameral mind”, might provide such a perspective.

Basically, afaiu it the bicameral mind idea is that a long time ago, the brain was functionally split in half in such a way that one side was experienced as “external” and non-conscious. In other words, one wouldn’t have any sort of metacognition/metaconsciousness over what was happening in the other side of the brain. Something like that anyway.

Very interesting idea, and it could be used to explain the wide prevalence of magical, mystical, and religious experience so many years ago. Basically, what we would call schizophrenia today would have been very commonplace. One would hear a voice in their head, and not knowing where it came from take it for an external god.

As time went on, according to the theory at least, we became more aware of where these mental activities were coming from, we developed metaconsciousness. According to Jaynes, this may have been because of exposure to metaphorical language used in narrative practice — myth.

(As a quick aside, I think if we look at the history and evolution of religious thought we see a general psychologizing, a movement from external to internal. The vedic ritual, externally magical at first was eventually acceptably done internally. Karma moved from an external ritual to an internal ethic. Gods moved from being conceptualized as external to being internal qualities especially in later tantric literature.)

If we try on this perspective, I think there might still be some traces of that mode of thinking in the present day. Obviously, schizophrenia might be an extreme case, but what about so-called “normal” people? I think most would admit they talk to themselves internally, weigh options, point and counterpoint. What is that process? Some people say that when standing near an edge there’s a part of them that imagines jumping or falling. Who is it that imagines that? If we take a normal healthy person into extreme conditions like sleep deprivation, fasting, etc. they would start to develop hallucinations. So at least the potential for schizo-like experience might be there latent, lurking below the surface experience.

So if we relate this to the Buddhist cosmology. Voices heard could be the better angels of our nature, benevolent or at least not-harmful — brahmas, devas. Or they could be destructive, mocking, tricksters — māras. Becoming aware, becoming metaconscious, of these voices or influences is to gain some power over them, to see them for what they are. It’s interesting that what usually happens is upon being seen for what it is, Māra vanishes.

Then Māra the Wicked, thinking, “The nun Somā knows me!” miserable and sad, vanished right there.


And special halloween present for mentioning James! :jack_o_lantern:

But to give another perspective on this, one thing I learned from my study of mythology is that myth is the opposite of reductionist. It’s a holistic form of knowledge. (It goes without saying that my use of “myth” builds on my recent essay on the topic.)

Forgive the cliche, but myth is like life itself. And like life, we can investigate it from all kinds of different angles, without ever running out of new approaches. It’s not the kind of thing that has a single, definitive meaning; it’s meant to evoke a response.

In the case of the Mara myth, considering it in terms of psychology, the reality of rebirth, the bicameral mind, or ancient Indian cosmology all reveal aspects of the stories. But one aspect that is usually omitted is, perhaps, the most obvious one: whatever else it may be, it is a story. And like any other story—true or false, good or bad, simple or complex—it serves to delight, amaze, puzzle, frighten, and to evoke a sense of wonder. Why is why reading what Matt said:

makes me very happy! that’s what i’m aiming for, but as always there is the doubt and uncertainty about whether it works or not.


One thing I find interesting about the many Mara stories in the suttas is that Mara often seems portrayed as having a sort of “job” or vocation. He’s the Lord of Death, but since birth is the cause of death, he could just as well be the Lord of Birth, and his vocation is to keep the sense realm running by keeping beings bound to it. Perhaps he is lonely for company? The Buddha keeps depriving his realm of visitors by enlightening them, or at least guiding them to higher non-sensory realms.

The Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana suttas seems to have both an adversarial but mirthful and cordial relationship with Mara. Some of the other Mara stories are also humorous, in part.


For me, this kind of reasoning, similar to SN 5.2, infers there is an inherent trait in ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘westerner’, ‘Asian’, etc. This would also infer that the Westerners, such as yourself, who make this ‘Western colonialism materialism’ argument are making arguments contrary to your inherent nature. It also infers Western colonialists did not believe in unknowable things, such as ‘God’. I think skeptics, atheists, nihilists, etc, have always existed in both Western & Asian culture.

The above said, I agree with your general reply about how Mara must, in certain contexts, be an angel that is adverse to the Buddha-Dhamma. If that was not so, then the Buddha would not have extinguished the mental defilements thus there would be no Nibbana.

What is “two-fingered wisdom” supposed to mean?

Yes, in SN 22.63, SN 22.64, etc, Mara seems to be internal defilements. I suppose you can only know the nature of the manifestations of your own mind to discern between inner generated mental formations and something external; just as you know the sound of your own voice in comparison to the voice of another person.

The suttas seem to report both the Buddha & non-Buddhist meditators had psychic powers, which seem to include the power of thought transmission (eg. AN 6.55). Therefore I would guess the external Mara, similar to Devadatta, had psychic power but was not an enthusiast of Buddhism.

The Bible, for example, seems to report Jesus had psychic powers however, it seems obvious, if Jesus truly honored Buddhism he would have taught Buddhism rather than create his new religious hybrid. I imagine many deva would think theism is more beneficial for the world than Buddhism.

While I am not inferring Jesus was Mara, I am suggesting there may be spiritual beings or spiritual powers (devas) who do not honor Buddhism therefore may occasionally harass &/or test a Buddha or Buddha-To-Be.



I never claimed Mr. Malalasekera did indeed do this. I observed he may have done it because it just happens to be so that educated Singhalese people born in that age generally tend to exhibit specific rationalist views, just as many Russians born around that time tended to be Communists and Germans tended to be Nazis. It doesn’t mean Russians, Germans or Singhalese have a specific rationalist, Communict or Nazi trait. I never talked about inherent traits and think this particular case is all about nurture and not nature, so please don’t let us set up strawmen.

Women tend to love chocolate more than men and men tend to eat more meat but it doesn’t mean all women or men or any particular woman or man loves chocolate or meat. Heck, there was no chocolate in Europe until at least the 16th century, it can’t be just ‘human nature’. Anyway, it is only fair to infer that it is possible a female author loves chocolate as many women do after reading her text that you think seem to imply that chocolate is delicious.

This would also infer that the Westerners, such as yourself, who make this ‘Western colonialism materialism’ argument are making arguments contrary to your inherent nature.

Since it is not about nature, as I just explained, but rather about the cultural and political context, it seems only fair that a Westerner born in the late 20th century is different from one born in the late 19th century, just as modern Singhalese intellectuals should be at least somewhat different in their world outlook from Mr. Malalasekara.

Well, there is a rather unsubtle difference between believing in rebirth and Nibbana or God and Christ and believing in the corporeal divine Mara and creation of the world in literally seven days. I don’t doubt Mr. Malalasekara was sure devas exist. I just think he was as acutely aware of the perceived inadequacy of the ancient magical elements in the Buddhist writings as the educated Christians are sometimes ashamed of the Tower of Babel and the creation story in the Bible. I don’t claim, the writings are inadequate or their elements ar enot true, I merely say that Mr. Malalasekara as a person educated in a certain tradition may have perceived. The European influenced ‘Protestant’ - for lack of a better term - rationalizing movement in the Sri-Lankan Buddhism (to an extent in Thailand, leading to creation of the Dhammayut Nikaya) is a seldom disputed fact that can be found in almost every book on the history of the Southern Buddhist tradition.


I think most empirical individuals would not believe in Maras, Devas or psychic powers unless they experienced them. If that occurred, they would rationlize them as a natural phenomena or mental capacity (rather than akin to the Tower of Babel and the creation story in the Bible) . Also, the empirical point of view is not something exactly alien to Buddhism.


This is exactly the point I made about Mr. Malalasekara.


So what exactly would you have us believe Mara to be? Thanks


I think this is supposed to indicate a small amount, like a pinch, that can be grabbed between two fingers, like so :ok_hand: haha, I hope that makes sense! Anyway this is how someone explained it to me :smile:


I think there are sufficient reasons to believe that Mara is regarded by Suttas as death, conditioned existence, unwholeseome states of the mind and a diving being enimical to Dhamma. If one finds it hard to believe in ‘personal’ Mara, this is no big deal, since I do not think that the overwhelming majority of the Buddhist practitioners will ever have to do anything with him if he, in fact, does exist.

In short, the Canon seems to think there is a personal Mara but it is just one of those matters that don’t really matter.

Oh, I would suggest a short excursion into the apologetical literature of rationalist Christians. Any non-literalist author interpeting the Bible will do. Rationalizing along the lines of ‘symbolical reading’, ‘cultural context’, etc. all over the place :slight_smile:

It’s also quite popular with Muslim apologists as they like to claim the Koran is full of scientifically correct information.


Yes, I agree, I think it is a playful contrast with the expression of “grasping” or “apprehending” an idea, which is found in Pali as in English. Women, in Māra’s view, can’t really grasp things fully, they just pick up little things, like a lady holding a teacup.

As opposed to


However, if we think about the dung simile by the Buddha, Mara’s criticism of women becomes a praise. We men tend to fully embrace and forcefully squeeze the… erm… dung-like nature of conditioned existence, while the ladies, frequently being a bit cleanlier than us, pick it up with just two fingers :mudra: