On the night he was enlightened, the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and sat in meditation, vowing to stay seated until he reached some understanding about the nature of reality. While he sat in deep meditation entering the four jhana states, he was visited by Mara, a demon celestial king who came to tempt him. Mara brought his three daughters, Greed, Hatred, and Delusion, and dazzled the Buddha with temptations of beauty and pleasure if he would only just give in and take it. I’ve heard it say in some places, The Buddha stated, “I see you, Mara!” And with that Mara retreated. The Buddha had overcome this demon. He was now the enlightened one.
Similarly 500 years later or so, Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert after his baptism and was visited by Satan. Like Mara before the Buddha, Satan attempted to tempt Jesus with three requests, including tempting to make bread out of stones to satisfy his hunger, to jump off a cliff to be caught by the angels, and bow before Satan to have all the kingdoms of the world, which are similar to the Buddha’s temptation by Mara. But Jesus resisted as well and left the desert to begin his ministry.
The similarities between the two stories are undeniable. Two of the greatest religious figures of our time are visited by demons or devils and are tempted by them to give up their path and indulge in the ego. Both of them resist and afterward become historical figures of the highest magnitude, as both men changed the course of history. But what to make of these temptations for our lives today?
Seeing Religious Texts as Metaphor
I would suggest the key to interpreting the temptations of the Buddha and Jesus lie not in the literal but the metaphorical. I, of course, am not the first person to think of religious texts as metaphors. Two of my favorite thinkers, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, both saw religion as useful as metaphors for our own lives not as literal examples. So many of the problems that arise out of religion or any belief system are because of literal readings of the text. Suddenly everything is a law, a way to sin or be judged. Suddenly the Genesis creation myth has to be believed quite literally, as a story of the beginning of mankind.
To put it bluntly, this is fucking ridiculous. The arrogance to believe that your religion’s creation myth, for example, is the one true creation myth strikes me as not only deluded and hubristic but gives short shrift to the many creation myths told by many different cultures that have so much wisdom about mankind’s mythical nature. That’s not even getting to the scientific explanations about the origins of humans… but I digress.
I would suggest everything about the Bible, Koran or the Buddhist Pali texts change once we see them as metaphors for our plights and the struggles of living in the world. So much of human existence is absurd, a shadow of vanity and pain until it ends in an untimely death. Because of this, we are always looking for outside authorities to guide us in a direction. We all need a belief system or ideology to move us forward. But maybe outside authorities for direction in our lives is the wrong idea? Maybe the answers are within? Maybe everything we have been taught about religion is wrong.
I think about two phrases from Buddhist and Christian texts that resonate with me but aren’t always acknowledged. One is a Zen koan that states, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” The other comes from Luke 14:26, which states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”
There are two ways these phrases can be interpreted. One is that you should literally go murder Buddhas on the street or hate your whole family to follow Jesus. The other is as a metaphor. Perhaps these phrases are suggesting that the road to religious enlightenment is not through anyone else, not your family or friends, not even the Buddha, but within from your own internal authority. Perhaps a truly religious person is also a solitary person. Not necessarily solitary outwardly, but solitary inwardly.
Using this perspective let us return to the temptations of the Buddha and Jesus. I would suggest that neither of them was tempted by actual demons or devils but by the demons of the soul. We are sentient beings cursed with these fallible bodies designed to survive and procreate but that come with all sorts of emotional demons to face as a result. This will to survive transforms human beings into insatiable desiring beings. As the Buddha saw long ago with the four noble truths, however, the irony is that it is our desire that causes us to suffer. This insatiable hunger and desire cause all sorts of problems in us, desires that build our egos, make us greedy, and make us angry toward those who try to interject.
First and foremost, the Buddha and Jesus were men too just like us, but their stories and their temptations are examples of what is possible. The Buddha and Jesus staved off temptation and became great spiritual men. We are capable of seeing our demons too. Most people will not or will not have the desire to. But there are few out there, the bodhisattvas of the world, who decide to wrestle with all their internal ugliness and temptations for the betterment of the world. Jesus and The Buddha were two of those people. In the face of temptation and pleasure and desire, they chose a different path, a path of the spirit, a path of teaching. We can admire that not as creators of law or a way to judge others, but as seekers on the path who may light a way for us who live in the darkness.