How to be a *good* Buddhist during Christmas.

Via on Dec 19, 2010

There is a complex love/hate relationship with Buddhists during the  Christmas season.

On one hand many of us grew up in Christian families and attach many emotions and memories to the Holiday season (both positive and negative).  On the other hand, some practitioners just want to fit in culturally during the holiday season so they either meld traditions or superficially celebrate.  (I was even told recently that by not celebrating Christmas I put my children at greater risk for bullying and exclusion…but that is a different post altogether…)

Many, as children, waited anxiously to open presents under the tree or traveled to visit rarely seen relatives that lived a distance away.  Some loved (and still do) the opportunity to find gifts for others that helped express their joy and thankfulness for those  in their lives, sometimes but all too briefly.  Others just see the time as a moment to celebrate and reflect or to celebrate and reflect the following morning.  Not me, of course, I save all my drinking for Diwali.

Then, of course, there is the rampant consumerism, the thinly-veiled capitalism and blaring commercialism of the holidays.  There is a deep and crusty strata of greed, envy and ignorance that builds a fairly strong wall against the usual Buddhist foci of metta (good will), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy for others) and upekkha (equanimity).  The Buddha expressed the importance of these elements (the four immeasurables)  in the Kalama Sutta. (note:  not being a Bible guy, I left out the Christian elements.  I will leave it to the reader to find appropriate passages and leave in the comments if they desire to…)

“Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert & resolute — keeps pervading the first direction [the east] — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with good will. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.

“He keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.

“He keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with appreciation. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with appreciation: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.

“He keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with equanimity. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with equanimity: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will. [via Access to Insight]

For some time, I looked on the Christmas Holiday as something outside of and irrelevant to my practice (I’m Buddhist and you are Christian. End of story.  Black and White.  Night and Day).  My own actions during the holiday season, with my riotous Buddhist foot-stamping were exceedingly outside the realm of good will (metta); not manifesting, in the least, a bit of compassion (karuna); completely without joy (mudiata) and frankly there was not a lick of equanimity (upekkha).  I was moving further away from my practice by being outspokenly “Buddhist.”  I was becoming less of a practitioner and more of a label.  An ironic, rough caricature of a Bodhisattva in blue jeans.

In the West there is basically a dominant Christian culture, so Christmas has serious religious and spiritual meaning for many and a at least celebratory one for others. But even moving past the rituals, past the religion and past the commercialism there exists an undercurrent of simple kindness. Pagan images meld with Christian beliefs and are colored by a branded iconic images (Coca-Cola Santa vs. Eastern Orthodox St. Nikolos) but still present a moment to express universal as well as Buddhist ideals.  It is a simple time to practice. To feel, engage and undertake “an awareness imbued with appreciation: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will…” is what I consider Christmas Spirit.

Before you think me sentimental and bogus, this is a difficult practice.  This can be a practice riddled with subdued anxiousness and uncomfortable vulnerability; one can be swept away by currents of ire and hostility; or we run in panic and withdraw.  But when we engage each of these things in turn we see a reason to celebrate similarities rather than differences – uniqueness rather than conformity.  No week-long retreat is anything compared to an extended household in the throes of the Holiday saeason .  Every emotion will be expressed and every button pushed but just like a Zen sesshin – this shit ain’t for the light-hearted – it requires a grounded and rugged earthiness to roll up our sleeves and go a round with the moment.

It may just be a time to arm yourself with a sledge-hammer of metta and prepare to actually enjoy the holidays.  Meditative practice in a bustling shopping mall is the zazen under the waterfall for suburban Buddhists.  Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is a lesson in impermanence and karma as well as renunciation and joy.  Christmas Dinner is a chance to exhibit just a little smidgen of moderation (growing up in a Greek/Italian household, moderation is in short supply).  A Christmas Mass is a time of equanimity and bonding (it is amazing how much I expect others to embrace my practice while I completely ignore theirs).

Bottom Line:  Christmas is the perfect time to drop the Buddhism and pick up a Buddha.

About John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won't admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt

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15 Responses to “How to be a *good* Buddhist during Christmas.”

  1. espritrelax says:

    Enjoyed your post.
    Best: "…celebrate similarities rather than differences – uniqueness rather than conformity." So much "gold" in there!
    And: "No week-long retreat is anything compared to an extended household in the throes of the holiday season." So true. Much to share (and to learn!) from the ones we love and feel closest to. Have packed "a sledge-hammer of metta" into my suitcase. Am now ready for the Holiday season. ;-) Thx John.

    • A friend was discussing the retreat she went to and I was shocked at the similarties between the rigors of substained practice and the experience of staying at my in-laws for a week….or with my family for that matter. Many challenges but I don\’t mean that in a negative way. As with the end of a long retreat; you feel drained but renewed.

  2. Kenley Neufeld says:

    Embracing Chrstmas this year. Hard to be ba humbugwith a 7-year old

    • Yes, indeed. With my 2 and a half year old daughter, it is hard not to get caught up in the wonder of the season. She has been walking around the house with my Buddha statue in one hand and her stocking in the other.

  3. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    Beautiful stuff, John. I especially like "roll up your sleeves and go a round with the moment."

    Re, other peoples' practices: one of the reasons I began composing kirtan is that I found the kirtan crowd much more receptive to Bible words among the Sanskrit than I found the Bible crowd receptive to sanskrit words mixed with the Bible!

    • That is about as engaged as I get. Whatever the moment has for me I try to deal with. I try not to mix it up. For example, I was asked for a Buddhist prayer once I recited the Lord\’s Prayer. I was in a Christian home and am willing to do their tradition some honor while there. It is simple respect. No need to make a show of one\’s buddhist practice.

      Cheers!

  4. Lois Kubota says:

    Hi John. I have gone thru the same thing. I drive by the Catholic church in my neighborhood with their sign up saying "Jesus is the only reason for the season". They put this up every year and I have been irritated by it every year, but this year I just wish every one well. Wishing every one well makes me feel better too.

    • See, I am fine for it being the reason for their season. Wonderful! For me though, I see many reasons for the season – Bodhi Day, Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas…whatever. It is what that those holidays represent that is what i focus on and not the minutia of who got enlightened this day or was born that day or what miracle happened next.

      Basically I don't equate Christmas with just Christ. It is larger than that, in the States at least. Actually come Christmas morning I am surrounded by mostly pagans, atheists and hindus. Well, a Quaker couple pops in from time to time. so it is all good.

      I *am* surprised that your local Catholic Church has those signs up as the Catholic Churches around here are the most welcoming IMHO. The smaller, fundamentalist churches tend to put up the signs and such.

  5. Growing up in a Jewish family, the Christmas season was an uncomfortable and unhappy time as a child and a "one more way I don't fit in" time as I grew older. I didn't realize until I read your post that embracing the heart of Buddhism has softened all that for me. Anyone who wants to wish peace and joy receives my happy wish in return.

  6. [...] This is a topic I’ve often stuggled with myself I like John’s take on it. Read the rest at Elephant Journal [...]

  7. tmewph That’s a good post. tmewph

  8. mamansita says:

    i like to think of jesus and santa as two of many many saints that have been and will be. santa is like an old exiled jesus! i am not religious, i can see the similarities in many religions. i think the word for god- is just a typo – and should be spelled good. we all have this inside of us and we know what to do.

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