The Last Temptation of Gautama?

Many years ago, a grad school acquaintance of mine committed suicide. In a memorial to him, one of the professors told a story about Mara’s tempting the Buddha to abandon saving others since no one will understand his teaching. I’ve been trying without success to trace the origin of the tale. Is it a “Buddhist urban legend,” attributed falsely to the Buddha, or have I just overlooked the source?

After Mara details the arduousness of Buddha’s quest, the story has Mara saying something like, “Grasp nirvana and escape this wheel of suffering, for no one, absent your wisdom and insight, will understand.” It concludes, “Then the Buddha, blessed be he, said, Some will understand.”

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In the story as it is told in the EBTs, no Mara is involved, the Buddha by himself reflects on not teaching the Dhamma; and then the Brahmā Sahampati who is reading his mind comes to convince him otherwise.

SN6.1:5.2: “Alas! The world will be lost, the world will perish! For the mind of the Realized One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha, inclines to remaining passive, not to teaching the Dhamma.”

SN6.1:5.5: “Sir, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the Holy One teach the Dhamma!
SN6.1:5.6: There are beings with little dust in their eyes. They’re in decline because they haven’t heard the teaching.
SN6.1:5.7: There will be those who understand the teaching!”

The thought occurred, but it was not inspired by Mara… it was the Buddha’s own thought.

SN6.1
At one time, when he was first awakened, the Buddha was staying in Uruvelā at the root of the goatherd’s banyan tree on the bank of the Nerañjarā River.

Then as he was in private retreat this thought came to his mind,
“This principle I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of logic, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.
But people like clinging, they love it and enjoy it.
It’s hard for them to see this topic; that is, specific conditionality, dependent origination.
It’s also hard for them to see this topic; that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment.
And if I were to teach this principle, others might not understand me, which would be wearying and troublesome for me.”

But yes, Mara had tried to tempt the Buddha to become extinguished without teaching to which the Buddha had replied in the negative.

DN16
And then, not long after Ānanda had left, Māra the Wicked went up to the Buddha, stood to one side, and said to him:

Sir, you once made this statement:
‘Wicked One, I shall not become fully extinguished until I have monk disciples who are competent, educated, assured, learned, have memorized the teachings, and practice in line with the teachings. Not until they practice properly, living in line with the teaching. Not until they’ve learned their tradition, and explain, teach, assert, establish, disclose, analyze, and make it clear. Not until they can legitimately and completely refute the doctrines of others that come up, and teach with a demonstrable basis.’

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Thanks, both of you, for the pointers. I’m studying them.

I’ve heard that story as part of the larger myth of the “Buddhas earth touching gesture”. That would be a good place to look into.

I also recall reading a translation of a sutra by @cdpatton where the story of Buddha defeating Mara’s army is told. I’m not sure which it is maybe it’s in the Madhyama agama.

You may be thinking of how Mara visited Buddha before his death. Mara encouraged Buddha to give up the life force, since he had reached enlightenment and taught his sangha so well. The Buddha rebukes Mara and tells him that he’ll get his wish soon, but that he still has work to do before giving up the life force. The Buddha then goes on to give a final exhortation to the monks. Here’s the sutta reference.

Mara’s Appeal

  1. And when the Venerable Ananda had gone away, Mara, the Evil One, approached the Blessed One. And standing at one side he spoke to the Blessed One, saying: "Now, O Lord, let the Blessed One come to his final passing away; let the Happy One utterly pass away! The time has come for the Parinibbana of the Lord.

"For the Blessed One, O Lord, spoke these words to me: ‘I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One, until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples — wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dhamma, living according to the Dhamma, abiding by the appropriate conduct, and having learned the Master’s word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dhamma.’ [23]

  1. "And now, O Lord, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have become the Blessed One’s disciples in just this way. So, O Lord, let the Blessed One come to his final passing away! The time has come for the Parinibbana of the Lord.

“For the Blessed One, O Lord, spoke these words to me: ‘I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One, until this holy life taught by me has become successful, prosperous, far-renowned, popular, and widespread, until it is well proclaimed among gods and men.’ And this too has come to pass in just this way. So, O Lord, let the Blessed One come to his final passing away, let the Happy One utterly pass away! The time has come for the Parinibbana of the Lord.”

The Blessed One Relinquishes His Will to Live

  1. When this was said, the Blessed One spoke to Mara, the Evil One, saying: “Do not trouble yourself, Evil One. Before long the Parinibbana of the Tathagata will come about. Three months hence the Tathagata will utterly pass away.”

DN16

It’s part of the traditional collection of stories about the Buddha and his disciples that apparently was drawn from early Vinaya sources. The Mahavastu and Abhiniskramanas are examples. Apparently, many early schools of Buddhism had similar collections that are lost now. The Lalitavistara and Buddhacarita are later adaptations of the same literature.