Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism

Gail Hinich Sutherland

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism

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It may come as a surprise to those who equate Buddhism solely with its intellectual and mystical traditions to learn that demons are a central aspect of its history. In contrast to Western representations of the demonic, the “demons” of Asia are primarily the powerful, ancient spirits of nature, who require recognition and appeasement. Buddhism was more successful than any of the other missionary religions in making peace with the indigenous spirits it confronted in its progress through Asia. Monastics either turned a blind eye to existent demon-deity cults (as in Southeast Asia), allowing them to flourish in tandem with Buddhism, or (as in Tibet) Buddhist miracle workers like Padmasambhava forcefully tamed the demons and turned them into dharma protectors and fierce guardians of the new faith of Buddhism. In fact, we might say that in Buddhist understanding, there really are no such things as “demons.” There are only powers, energies, and deities to be worked with; the skillfulness, compassion, and attainment of the practitioner determine the outcome of the encounter. Those who are found lacking in these attributes have far more to fear from demons than those who, like the Buddha in his triumph over the ultimate demon Māra, have pacified their own inner demons of greed, aversion, and ignorance. Since there is no notion of absolute evil in Buddhism (or indeed in any Asian religion), and all classes of beings, including beings of the lower realms such as demons, animals, and ghosts, may improve their karmic lot by attaining a higher birth in the human or divine realms, demons are not always and forever demons. They are troublesome but not catastrophic. They are obstacles to be overcome through ritual action, offerings of appeasement, and meditative detachment. Nevertheless, in normative Buddhist texts, the suffering of demons in the hell realms is invoked negatively to warn practitioners to be more diligent in their spiritual efforts—in part to avoid rebirth among these unfortunate beings. As representations of natural bounty, mystery, and fertility, demons threaten to exceed and overturn the human order. They must be controlled, and yet they must be respected, since they are an inevitable feature of that oscillating order.

Article.  10269 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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