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The Seduction of the Commonplace

The Seduction of the Commonplace December 20, 2008

In a review of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Miles Bethany noted:

But the “last temptation” of the title is nothing overtly naughty–rather, it’s the seduction of the commonplace; the desire to forgo following a “calling” in exchange for domestic security.

I had not read the review, nor heard the phrase “the seduction of the commonplace” (so far as I can remember) when the words seemed to roll forth into my mind like the singing of a Tibetan bowl when the mallet is swept around its curved surface. Softly, softly, softly, gently growing the words arose.

Bethany’s description fit perfectly with my mood for myself at the moment. “Domestic security” – a nice routine, wine, women, song, good food. In a word: comfort. In a world plagued by dukkha, this is what I find my mind most preoccupied with of late: comfort. One can see where it could get intoxicating, the simple life of a nine-to-five, plugging in to social values and expectations, watching football and debating the latest political minutia.

Not that any of those things are bad, and it’s not that one must forgo them as one follows a “calling” (whatever that might be).

But in my own case I can see clearly that my simple, monkey mind is easily overwhelmed: seduced and intoxicated with the quest for comfort. A couple months ago I planned to write a piece for wildmind about solitude. I even talked about it with a few people. But then I was too busy to write, too busy doing things – with people. It was all good stuff, enjoyable, pleasant, even –dare I say– comfortable.

Is a life of domestic security in some way unBuddhist? It certainly seems to be unChristian by some standards (though protestantism turned it all on its head by making worldly success the very sign of salvation!).

Life is good. I cannot complain. But I can worry. I can worry that I might be lavishing in the ripening of past good karma and failing to diligently plant the seeds of new good karma. This is puñña, the acts of worldly virtue and its rewards. As stated in the dictionray (click the word for the link) “The opp[osite] of puñña is either apuñña or pāpa. The true Arahant is above both (Pv ii.615).”

For the Arahant (literally worthy one; an awakened disciple of the Buddha) the correct path is not one of puñña but of kusala. I’m afraid that the time and space of a blog post keep me from giving a greater exposition on these important Buddhist ethical terms at the moment. Suffice to say that puñña is the kind of good deed (and its result) that is still “for me” – still based on the ego-idea. We can do much good as egotistical beings, but Buddhism points out that we can do better yet. To act without self, whether it is in a cave on a mountain or while walking through the grociery store is where we find kusala action.

Scholar Lance Cousins provides a detailed exposition of puñña and (moreso) kusala in this article (JBE 1996). As he states:

What is clear, if one examines the canonical use of the word puñña,
is that it occurs both much less frequently than kusala and, on the whole,
in a more restricted context. Especially in the earlier texts, it is found
mainly in connection with dāna and other activities of the lay life. Indeed
it is quite commonly used in an expression which describes a motive
for a monk to backslide: he can enjoy life’s pleasures and still perform
acts which bring good fortune (puññāni). (p.154)

Perhaps Christ’s last temptation is truly everyone’s: the temptation to slide into a joyful, pleasant, comfortable life; to slide away from one’s calling.

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