When, in the early fourth century BCE, Shakyamuni Buddha meditated under the spreading branches of the Bodhi Tree [the tree (ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha attained enlightenment (Skt. bodhi)] at the site of the present town of Bodh Gaya, he suffered in the months before his enlightenment the violent assaults of four maras or demons.
The demons that Buddhist practitioners are warned about are not ghosts or external evil spirits, but inner forces caused by our erroneous perception of the world that are powerful enough to cause serious obstacles to our practice.
The texts mention four demons:
(1) The demon of the aggregates (the physical and mental legacy of karma that temporarily constitutes our person and forms the support of suffering),
(2) The demon of the self,
(3) The demon of death, and
(4) The demon of afflictive emotions.
When these four demons launched their final assault on the Buddha and manifested in various apparently external forms, the Buddha, through his understanding of the ultimate nature of phenomena and his boundless compassion, remained unruffled and attained enlightenment.
The demon of negative emotions generally becomes apparent to us that when it reaches a certain intensity: our anger explodes, jealousy eats away at us, or ignorance blinds us.
But in reality it is an old enemy that we have unconsciously befriended and learned to foster.
It can even appear to be virtuous, reasonable, and logical, as in the case of hatred based on sectarian arguments.
When we start to progress on the spiritual path, and profound changes take place in us, those demon-obstacles manifest with greater force.
As a teacher quipped, “The demons do not bother with those who neglect their practice.”
In any kind of business, great profit is accompanied by great risk. So it is unsurprising that, in our inner journey, we will come up against all kinds of forces that oppose our progress.
Properly managed, these obstacles can be catalysts of realization, but they can also interrupt our practice or make us deviate from our goal.
Only the lucidity of wisdom, impartial altruism, trust in an authentic spiritual master, and the unwavering intention to attain enlightenment can overcome these obstacles, whether they be subtle or gross.
Source: Ricard, Matthieu. On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2013.