Buddhism Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
by
Gail Hinich Sutherland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0171

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

Buddhist moral systems grow out of a realization of the truth of the interdependence of all beings and all phenomena. While that realization gives rise to a strong commitment to virtue and compassion (since we are all deeply connected), the understanding that supports it is that there can be no absolute good or evil, precisely because of the interdependence and impermanence of all. Still, the construction of cosmologies that reflect different kinds of karma has occupied Buddhist writers for centuries. Matsunaga and Matsunaga 1972 broadly divide these cosmological writings into “two streams,” Abhidharma (drawn principally from Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa) and Mahayana (based primarily on the Flower Garland Sutra and the Larger Sukhāvati-vyūha). They summarily state that Mahayana views “changed Buddhism from a philosophy to a religion” by constructing a distinct mythology and pantheon that give expression to abstract discussions of karma. In this context, different hells entail different punishments and demons who administer them. Sadakata 1997 provides a clear analysis of the metaphysical context of these mythological elaborations. And, as Southwold 1985 points out, Western scholars of religion who see images of unqualified evil in the various demonologies of Buddhism are misguided, because such moral absolutes are probably only truly applicable to monotheistic religions.

  • Matsunaga, Daigan, and Alicia Matsunaga. The Buddhist Concept of Hell. New York: Philosophical Library, 1972.

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    Traces the development of the concept of the hell regions within Buddhist literature from both Pali and Sanskrit (Mahayana) sources, with special attention to the Lotus Sutra.

  • Sadakata, Akira. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Translated by Gaynor Sekimori. Tokyo: Kōsei, 1997.

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    Clear and detailed description of the Indian origins and historical transformations of Buddhist cosmological concepts, including descriptions of demons in the hell realms. Numerous drawings, illustrations, photographs, and graphs. Originally published in 1997.

  • Southwold, Martin. “Buddhism and Evil.” In The Anthropology of Evil. Edited by David Parkin, 128–141. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

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    Discusses the dimensions of the concept of evil and how the term may not apply to Buddhism, despite the fact that there are many sources and discussions which analyze “evil” within Buddhism.

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