I’d frequently retreat for a day into the mountains. There the tempter would sometimes come with me. The typical approach of the tempter was to list my various failings. The list was sometimes extensive and at least partly true. However, the major one was the attack on my sense of call: To be of some use to the holy and the world. The temptation was to give up because one could not, with one’s limitations, be of any earthly use.
At root, all temptation is to forget who one is. Now I’m not talking about self-image, although that’s a place to start, it’s about the continual re-discovery of our connectedness with all things and how our unique being has a place in that universe. For Christians, it would be their relationship with Jesus and as the Christ and for Buddhists, their relation to Siddhartha and as the Buddha. For an atheist, it could be a deep knowing of who they are called to be and what they are called to do. It may be harder for the atheist and still it is just as valid a way toward the discovery of one’s authentic humanity as it is for the spiritual ones. For both Jesus and Siddartha, the temptations took the form of a seduction or an attack on who they were called to be; to be of some use to the holy as well as to the world. At root, I suspect, all temptation is to get us to forget who we are. That we are here for a purpose and remembering that purpose, our vocation and acting on it is our greatest challenge and noblest task.
Two years ago I traveled through North India to Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened. The town was adorned with Temples painted with murals of the life of the Buddha. The temptations of the Buddha are prominently displayed in colorful murals in many of the temples. It is of interest to me that there are few churches I know that display the temptations of Jesus. What if we named a church the Church of the Temptations of Jesus? I bet it would get a lot of visitors.
All kidding aside, the temptations of Jesus who would become the Christ and those of Siddhartha who would become the Buddha were strikingly similar.
Each had a tempter or demon. Satan for Jesus, Mara for the Buddha. Both were tempted by appetites, the hunger and desires of the flesh. Jesus who was hungry after his fast was tempted by bread. Siddhartha was tempted by the three beautiful daughters of Mara.
For Jesus, the temptation of the loaves of bread was more than a sign that he would have to control his appetites if he was to fulfill his call and mission. It was a temptation that he probably could taste, to feed the hungering world. Later he would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. However, at that time, he freely chose to feed those numbers of people not as a response to the tempter, but because of their need and hunger. Indeed the hungry w0uld be fed but not in a bargain with the tempter.
The second temptation was, for Jesus, the pinnacle of the temple where Satan challenged him to prove he was the Son of God. It was also the temptation to self- harm, even to commit physical and spiritual suicide. For Siddhartha, Mara sent an army that threw spears and arrows at the master as he practiced meditation. The weapons turned into Lotus flowers before they struck the young man.
One has to be able to control one’s fears, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or conversely pride and hubris. Both overcame their fear by knowing the truth that the real self cannot be harmed. Jesus realized that the desire to prove the truth is a temptation itself. Both refused to give life to the apparent evil and by doing so denied its existence. Jesus would face his real fears as he turns to go up to Jerusalem where he understands his life is in danger. And yet he goes. Not denying his fears, Jesus refuses to let his fear control him.
The Final temptation of Jesus and Siddhartha is to become earthly rulers. It is the urge to make the world conform to our ideas of how it should be. Who better to rule the kingdoms of the world than a spiritual master and the son of God? Both turn their tempters away.
Probably the ultimate temptation is to keep spiritual awareness to oneself. Both Jesus and Siddhartha realize that what they experienced has to be shared, taught and modeled.
Jesus very next act is to leave the mountain of temptation and call Peter, James, and John. Buddha also draws a circle of five disciples around him. The truth of the inner life is that one is not only an individual being, one is also connected to all living things. That at the heart of the world for Christians is a God of Compassion who calls each of us to be a beloved child who is called to prayer and action on behalf of a God who “loves mercy and justice and honors humility”.At the heart of the Buddha is to teach a way to inner peace and the end of suffering.
On the mountains where I’d retreat, I’d frequently encounter visitors who’d comfort me. Once a butterfly alit on my salty knee and stayed there while I remained still and watched, or a chipmunk begged a peanut. There were long vistas from mountain tops and the tiny alpine flowers that in summer covered the ground; the melodies of songbirds and the flight of red hawks that soared in updrafts of air and the music of the mountain stream that sang, and I would stop to play my flute and sing with her. All these visitations and many more were as reassuring as the ministry of angels was to Jesus at the end of his temptations.
Most of us who also have a longing for the spiritual life have given into a myriad of temptations. We probably have learned that not only do we need to ask for forgiveness, we also need to recommit to our call and our mission. I sense the call for me these frigid Northern winter days is to live simply and with gratitude and to be present. As I sit in meditation with Jesus and Siddartha that’s what I’m working on.