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.