The Last Temptation of the Buddha

I’m going to relate to you what was my favorite Bible story when I was a kid. Bare with me for a moment and I’ll relate it to Buddhism, I promise.

There’s a part in the Jesus story where Satan tempts him in the wilderness. Jesus has just spent 40 days alone and Satan expresses doubt that Jesus is anyone special. Satan challenges him in a few different ways and Jesus essentially outsmarts him at every turn. Satan says things like, “IF you’re the son of God, turn these stones to bread.”

This all culminates in Satan saying, “Follow me and I can give you the world.”

I’m writing about this because, like I said,  it was my favorite Bible story when I was a kid. It reminds me a lot of Darth Vader trying to convince Luke Skywalker to join the Dark Side and rule the universe at his side.

I’m also writing about this because the Buddha also has a temptation story.

This is the story of Mara.

Mara was a spirit who approached Siddhartha (the one who would become the Buddha) several times during his spiritual journey. Mara made efforts to stop him repeatedly.

Some believe Mara was an actual being that existed, in the same way that people usually think of Satan. But most people believe Mara is an allegory, a scary personification of Siddhartha’s own doubts, insecurities, and fears.

At this point in the story, Siddhartha has been on this quest for six years. He’s studied with numerous spiritual teachers, he’s spent a lot of time fasting, meditating, and doing all sorts of other practices. And then he came up with a plan to just sit under a tree and try to figure out Enlightenment. At some level he realized that the truth was within him already, I think.

He sat under this tree in silence for a long time, just turning his perception inward and paying attention.

Then Mara took action.

First Mara sends his daughters. Beautiful women appear and try to distract the Buddha from his sitting. It doesn’t work and the women go away. The daughters represent our attachment, our yearning for things to be different than they are. They represent all the things that make us suffer when life doesn’t fit into the boxes we try to put it in.

Then Mara sends an army of monsters. These monsters try to scare him into running away and giving up. It doesn’t work and the monsters go away. The monsters represent our aversion, our yearning to avoid the things we don’t like. They represent our wish to avoid things like old age and death.

Then Mara appears. He says to Siddhartha, “Who are you to undertake this quest? You’re not worthy!”

But Siddhartha does not waver. He reaches out and touches the ground. Mara disappears. Touching something real caused the false spirit to disappear. He grounded himself in the world as it is, rather than getting distracted by all the crazy stuff his mind was doing.

Siddhartha realized he was worthy.

We’re all worthy too.

Mara represents our ignorance. When we think we aren’t good enough, when we think the path is for other, special, more balanced people…that’s Mara. When we think we just can’t handle sitting, that’s Mara.

It reminds me a lot of what Satan said to Jesus.

“Who do you think you are? You’re not good enough.”

We all think that way sometimes. These stories are relatable because it can be said that they’re about us. Self doubt is so powerful and at times overwhelming.

But you are good enough.

The night that he touched the earth Siddhartha attained Enlightenment.

 

You can too.

 

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Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. Find out more about Daniel on his website and connect with him on Facebook.

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