Do Buddhists Believe in Demons?

Early Buddhist art contains a pantheon of devas, deities and demons.
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Demons, crept up from the hell realms and out of the imagination, represent everything a Buddhist wishes to transcend.You see them clustered in the background of exquisite painted thangkas from Tibet and Nepal, vivid and ominous looming in the murals of long abandoned caves in the Himalayas and along the Silk Road, popping up in the sutras and the most well-known and beloved stories of Gautama Buddha's life.

1 Inner and Outer Demons

Buddhist sutras teach that there are four types of demons -- three internal demons and a demon of outside influence. The internal demons are afflictions, illnesses and death. The external demons are "heavenly" demons or demons from the spiritual world. Yama, lord of death, is a demon as is Mara, the evil king of demons who directly confronts Buddha. Psychologically, demons represent negative states of mind and harmful actions, such as jealousy, hatred, environmental exploitation, and greed. Physically, the demons are given names and personas in scripture so there are teachings and stories about yakshas and rakshasas, who devour people whole and eat human flesh, and khumbhandas, who sustain themselves by consuming a person's spirit.

2 Mara and Siddhartha

When Siddhartha, the Buddha, struggled in the final stages of achieving enlightenment, the hideous demon Mara, lord of desire, brought legions of his demon followers to tempt him. This is a real Buddhist teaching with a strong allegorical character. Mara gets right in Buddha's face and tempts him with monstrous armed warriors whose arrows turn to flowers; fierce, frightening storms and floods which fail to shake Buddha's serenity; erotic maidens who are finally revealed in their decrepit aged state. Nothing deters Buddha from his goal of liberation and so Mara can be seen as a lesson to resist being swayed by the temptations and threats of the world when meditating on the true nature of being. Mara was as much an illusion in Buddha's mind as a demon attacking him with an arsenal of distractions.

3 Wrathful Deities

The demons of indigenous religions were "converted" to forces for good when Buddhism replaced local beliefs. Hayagriva, a demon protector of Tibetan horse dealers, became a horse-headed demon-chasing avatar of Avalokiteshvara, deity of compassion. The hideous Mahakala wears a tiara of skulls and tramples obstacles. The wrathful demons still require offerings and appeasement in their new roles as fierce upholders of the dharma and scourges of the forces of evil. Those ferocious, demon-like images are seen clustered around the entrances to temples and caves painted with Tibetan murals and appear as forbidding as they are meant to -- creatures to give pause to any but the devout. Wrathful Tantric deities, a demonic army of them, may be depicted with bloody fangs and multiple heads and arms to indicate their tremendous and varied powers.

4 Demons and Dharma

Parables of demons in the Buddhist sutras tell engaging stories with a strong moral message. The story of Alavaka the demon gave Buddha the vehicle to teach important lessons about how to live. Alavaka was a cannibal demon who decimated the population of an entire kingdom before Buddha intervened. When Buddha arrived at his cave of bones, Alavaka challenged him to answer riddles. But Buddha was unfazed, instead discoursing on a virtuous existence as he converted the demon's wives. Buddha calmly told the monster that the greatest wealth is confidence, the sweetest taste is truth, and moral behavior, real courage and generosity would ease the grief of loss and death. Alavaka tried to exhaust, intimidate and kill the Buddha but, in the end, his mind and heart were opened and he embraced the dharma --and probably became a vegetarian as he never again ate flesh.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .