The four maras (Skt. catvāri māra; Tib. བདུད་བཞི་, dü shyi; Wyl. bdud bzhi) are the four types of obstructive, 'demonic' forces (sometimes also translated as 'demons') which create obstacles to practitioners on the spiritual path. It is important to understand that they have no inherent existence and are only created by the mind.
There are two categorizations of the four maras:
- one according to the Sutrayana, and
- one according to the Vajrayana, which is especially related to the teachings on the practice of chö.
According to Sutrayana
- the mara of the aggregates (Skt. skhandamāra; Tib. ཕུང་པོའི་བདུད་, Wyl. phung po'i bdud), which symbolizes our clinging to forms, perceptions, and mental states as ‘real’;
- the mara of the destructive emotions (Skt. kleśamāra; Tib. ཉོན་མོངས་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. nyon mongs kyi bdud), which symbolizes our addiction to habitual patterns of negative emotion;
- the mara of the Lord of Death (Skt. mṛtyumāra; Tib. འཆི་བདག་གི་བདུད་, Wyl. 'chi bdag gi bdud), which symbolizes both death itself, which cuts short our precious human birth, and also our fear of change, impermanence, and death; and
- the mara of the sons of the gods (Skt. devaputramāra; Tib. ལྷའི་བུའི་བདུད་, Wyl. lha'i bu'i bdud), which symbolizes our craving for pleasure, convenience, and ‘peace’.
The Great Tibetan Dictionary gives the following descriptions:
- The mara of the aggregates prevents one from accomplishing virtue, since if one possesses the aggregates (created by karma and destructive emotions), then one falls under the sway of sickness, aging and decay; the conditions preventing one from accomplishing virtue.
- The mara of the destructive emotions prevents one from accomplishing virtue, since one is under the power of destructive emotions such as desire and anger. The coarse mara of the destructive emotions are the root and subsidiary detructive emotions. The subtle mara of the destructive emotions are for example the emotional habitual tendencies in the mind of an arhat.
- The mara of the Lord of Death causes one to be powerless regarding the ceasing of the life-force faculty.
- The mara of the sons of the gods prevent one from accomplishing virtue through the jealousy of the desire realm's sons of the gods. The coarse mara of the sons of the gods is Garab Wangchuk (kāmadeva), the lord of the realm Controlling Others' Emanations. The subtle mara of the sons of the gods is for example distraction which makes one unable to overcome any of the first three maras.
According to Vajrayana
- the tangible mara (Tib. ཐོགས་བཅས་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. thogs bcas kyi bdud)
- the intangible mara (Tib. ཐོགས་མེད་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. thogs med kyi bdud)
- the mara of exultation (Tib. དགའ་བྲོད་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. dga' brod kyi bdud)
- the mara of conceit (Tib. སྙེམས་བྱེད་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. snyems byed kyi bdud)
- Khenpo Ngawang Palzang, A Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher, pages 245-247.
- Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, VOL II (Hong Kong, Boudhanath & Esby: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2000), page 161.