Tonight’s story talks about a maō. This word is made up of two kanji: 魔 (ma; demon, devil, evil spirit) and 王 (ō; king). It’s a generic term that doesn’t refer to a specific yōkai, but is reserved for only the strongest and worst of supernatural forces. The ones so powerful that they rule as kings and are served by legions of lesser spirits.
In this story, our maō is mentioned as being one of the demon kings of the sixth heaven. This part of Buddhist cosmology is often called the deva realm in English. It is the highest heaven and the most pleasurable realm in the cosmos. The residents of this realm are the most powerful beings in the cosmos, and they are ruled by their passions and desires. Anything they want, they can have. They want for nothing. Drinking and feasting, sex, music, slaughter; every pleasure known and unknown to man is at their fingertips.
But all that pleasure comes with a price. They are not immortal and must eventually die after aeons of living in utmost pleasure. When they finally die, because their lives were governed by desires (and not just any desires—the strongest desires in the cosmos!), they have wracked up so much bad karma that they plunge into the deepest hells for their next life or several lifetimes.
So where do maō fit in all of this? And why would a god from heavenly want to bother a monk to prevent him from passing on peacefully?
Well, just because a being lives in heaven doesn’t make them automatically good. The inhabitants of this “heaven” could individually be called gods, demons, devils, angels, and so on. Some are benevolent and righteous, while others simply revel in murdering, killing, raping, torturing, slaughtering, and making war. (Ashura are a good example of this, although technically they live in the fifth realm, not the sixth). They make friends and enemies just as humans do, only on a much more passionate scale. They hold grudges like no other, and they have all the power of the cosmos to enact their revenge, so they like to get creatively vindictive.
Hopefully that provides a bit of context for tonight’s tale.
The Maō Who Turned into a Woman to Hinder a Monk’s Passing
Near the temple of Katsuoji in Settsu Province lived a noble monk. Now the path of sexual desire is hard for even birds and beasts to resist, so this monk kept a woman as a secret lover for many years. However, one day the monk began to consider how terrible it would be for one who follows the path of Buddha to become tainted by mundane pleasures and fall into hell in the next life. He consulted with a fellow monk, repented his actions, and once again dedicated himself to following Buddha’s path with a pure body and mind. However, the woman could not let go of him, and from time to time she came to see him.
The monk was annoyed by this, and he fell ill with anxiety. The only thing he could think of was to ask a friend: “If that woman comes to see me, make up some lie and send her away.”
Sure enough, she came and inquired about the monk. His friend told her, “That monk left last night on an ascetic pilgrimage.” The woman was disheartened and left.
After that, the monk’s illness grew more and more severe, and he finally died.
Because she had been so close to him, the monk’s friends called the woman and explained the circumstances of the monk’s death to her. However, she did not seem the least bit grieved.
“This monk has been my enemy for five hundred lifetimes. When he became a monk and tried to attain Buddhahood, I prevented him from doing so by transforming into many things. If I were here at his time of death, I would not have let him go so peacefully!”
Overflowing with rage, she transformed into a 20-foot tall kijin. Her eyes shone like the sun and moon, and flames shot out from her mouth. She screamed in a loud voice and ascended up into the sky. For a while the clouds flashed, and then she disappeared.
This is what Buddha was talking about when he said that the demon kings of the sixth heaven try to trick sentient beings away from the proper path.