When Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) left his childhood palace to find wisdom in the forest he was desperate and willing to try anything. Like many spiritual seekers, Siddhartha had grown convinced that his liberation lay in finding the right teacher, the right practice, and the right theory-of-everything to sooth his addled mind. He studied with every guru in the forest and they helped a little, but each time, their teachings collapsed under the weight of their own beautifully ornamented contradictions.
In his deepening despair Siddhartha fell into an extreme form of asceticism that nearly killed him. None of it worked so he quit searching. He let it all drop. He found his way back to the middle path, sat down in the forest, and began to meditate.
According to legend, a demon named Mara came to see him, for it is the job of demons to interfere with the progress of spiritual aspirants. To this end, Mara offered Siddhartha three temptations.
The first temptation was lust. Mara ordered his two daughters to perform an elicit dance, sure that this would divert the young man from his meditation. But instead of arousal, Siddhartha felt only compassion for these young women so clearly caught in a hell of their own, trapped by their father into a rather, shall we say, disreputable profession.
The second temptation was power. Mara offered to make Siddhartha king of the world—the same temptation, incidentally, that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness 500 years later. The stories are essentially the same: demons attempting to lure our heroes off their respective paths toward transcendent illumination. But worldly power held no allure for Siddhartha (as it also would not for Jesus).
The third temptation was one of personal paradise—to leave the embodied realm and vanish into Nirvana, a celestial realm of bliss far above this world of woe. But Siddhartha said no. It was never his own liberation he was after, but the liberation of the world. With the defeat of Mara, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, the Awakened One.
Thus the bodhisattva ideal was born. In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva (bodhi: illumined, sattva: being) is the spiritual ideal—an illumined being with one foot in Nirvana and one foot in the world. In a significant way, Jesus plays this role for many Christians—the presence of the eternal formless sacred source here in the world of temporal forms.
In both of these figures—Jesus and Buddha—we see the polarities of divine and secular, formless and formed, sacred and profane unified in a living mystery. And in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions we are likewise called to be the presence of this unified paradox by manifesting our inner Christ and embodying the bodhisattva vow—working for the alleviation of the suffering of all sentient beings. As Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Pedagogical parables, legends, and metaphors like the three temptations story appear throughout the world’s wisdom literature. When we take these evocative tales into our contemplation what do they mean for us? These stories lead us into an increasingly nuanced, skillful, and disciplined mastery of the always delicate task of self-actualization. They help us give birth to the sacred potential locked inside us since the universe was born. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and only a few ways to get it right.
[This piece was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]