Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Christmas in a Buddhist context

with 3 comments

Most Buddhists of my generation who were born to parents of European descent in Europe or the Americas had either a Jewish or a Christian upbringing. This is true even of those whose upbringing was essentially secular in nature. A secular Jewish upbringing is not, from what I gather talking to friends, quite the same as a secular Christian upbringing. December is a month of holiday celebrations that invariably awaken all kinds of memories and evoke all kinds of emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. For some Western Buddhists I have known, December is a confusing month. It is not always clear where all the Jewish or Christian vāsanās (the lingering aromas of previous experience) fit into the Buddhist frame of reference.

Some years ago I recall hearing about an English-born Buddhist teacher who encouraged Western Buddhists to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment on December 25. I do not know how successful that experiment was, but I know it would not have worked for me. December 25 for me is a time to recall the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Having grown up in what could be called a secular post-Christian family, I had a positive view of Jesus of Nazareth. He was, in my family’s perception, a great man who set a positive example that it would be good for people to follow. He cared for the poor, the sick, the weary, the downtrodden and the marginalized; the world would be far better off if we all did that. Christmas time is a time to be reminded of all that. Putting that in the background and celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment instead seems to subdue an opportunity to pay adequate attention to the special characteristics of Jesus and what he had to offer the world. December is a time when many Mahāyāna Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also important. Why not celebrate both Jesus and Śākyamuni in the same month, setting aside a time for each? There is no good reason I can see to let the celebration of one of these men diminish the celebration of the other.

Some Buddhists I have known accommodate Jesus into their frame of reference by regarding him as a bodhisattva. That is another tactic that has never worked for me. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi whose teachings and example have universal appeal. One needn’t be Jewish to appreciate his teachings, but there is no need to let one’s appreciation change his job description. He was a rabbi whose virtues overlapped with the virtues of a bodhisattva as understood by Buddhists, but he was still for all that a rabbi. That he had some bodhisattvalike virtues no more makes him a bodhisattva than having some rabbinical virtues makes Mañjuśrī a rabbi. Judaism and Buddhism are both wonderfully positive traditions, but they are distinct, and there is no need to try to meld them into a single tradition or to meld their spiritual models into a single model of excellence. So for myself I am quite content to be a gentile who loves Jesus as a rabbi and to be a Buddhist who strives to emulate the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. Doing both does not confuse me, nor does my doing both in any way diminish my doing either one in the proper season.

I sometimes wonder what people think when they visit my home. As they come down the driveway, they’ll see an image of Amitābha Buddha fashioned in the style of the Kamakura era in Japan. Proceeding a little farther, they’ll see a figure of the Hindu god Ganesh, which is very meaningful to me and my wife. As they walk around the house, they’ll see a figure of Saint Francis. Inside the house they’ll see images of the virgin of Guadalupe, some Tibetan votive paintings, some Navajo and Pueblo religious symbols, some photographs of saints from India and some sumi-e renderings of Bodhidharma. At this time of year they will also see a traditional crèche scene. It is, after all, Christmas. Every one of these images and symbols has a religious significance to the residents of this house. They are all votive, not decorative, in nature. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that each of these votive symbols has a slightly different significance to each of the residents of the house. That has never seemed important to discuss. Some—perhaps most, and maybe even all—matters of devotion, worship, contemplation and reflection are best left private and personal.

A few minutes ago, as I was writing this, the winter solstice took place. 16:03 MST. It is now winter. Winter solstice is an excellent time to reflect on the dependency that everything here on Earth has on the sun. In my way of seeing things, there is exactly one way in which we are all one: we are all made of star stuff. In all other ways—culturally, religiously, linguistically, genetically, temperamentally—we are many. At this time of year more than any other I celebrate both our oneness in stardust and our plurality in human conditioning and our unique and irreducible individuality.

Happy solstice, everyone! And may you have joyous celebration of whatever else moves you and inspires you.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 14:37

Posted in Buddhism

3 Responses

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  1. With all due respect, this seems rather confused to me. There is no contemporary evidence that Jesus ever existed, whereas the Buddha was a well-attested historical figure. That’s a bit like comparing an invisible friend in the sky with an actual person. And whipping money changers doesn’t sound much like normal bodhisattva behaviour to me! I know all the arguments about symbolic and archetypal figures, but don’t think they really detract from my basic point.

    Rud Ward

    Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 16:03

  2. I am not sure there is more evidence that the Buddha existed than that Jesus existed. I’m inclined to believe that both men probably existed but that neither was quite like the stories that eventually were told about them. The signs of pious embellishment abound in both narratives. As for the story about the young Jesus upsetting the tables of the money changers, I’m not sure that is any less bodhisattvic than the story of the young Gautama leaving his wife and son on the very evening his son was born so that he could pursue enlightenment.

    Richard Hayes

    Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 23:07

  3. I’m happy to read your thoughts on this matter. The fact that I don’t celebrate my own birthday alleviates other birthdays to be celebrated, whether they are wise men or wise women, or neither. I just can’t become cheerful on demand, which does not mean, however, that I am grumpy or irritable. It may mean that I don’t care enough about myself to celebrate my birth, which I don’t even recall. As in Gaudapada and with the Buddha himself, birth and death are denied. As I said before to Richard, Jesus is born in December and dies in April each year, and by some mass hallucination it seems to attract people–even though the newspaper is full of advice on how to get along with your relatives, avoid depression and disappointment, and try not to drink too much during these cheerful or sorrowful seasons. Granted, if you leave your house you may be greeted by a busy festive atmosphere made up of bright lights and red and white stars and snowflakes (all made in China, not Santa’s workshop) and it is interesting to note that the Chinese who make 60% of our cheerful items have no clue why they are wanted or needed.

    Nancy Snyder

    Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 00:54

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