As I am sure you all know, this Monday, people the world over celebrate a 're-birth' of sorts; one that is, in some ways, more literal than Buddhist understandings of the concept. Around this time, we hear stories of the birth of Jesus, a man who spread messages of love throughout the earth and sincerely asked others to do the same. Building on this, it is not that crazy to assume that the Christian festival of Christmas has no real spiritual relevance for the majority of Buddhists. Sure, you may go visit family, eat way too much food (and that is before the chocolate), get some gifts and give some too and get a lovely extended period off, potentially stretching to the new year. Not bad right? But not critical to one's path either.
That is a perfectly sane, sensible and reasonable view of this event that occurs every year. In fact, many people who identify as being Christian (in the broadest sense of the term) may hold very similar views! Family, food, gifts. Like a group birthday! But nothing overly moving. However, celebrating Christmas may be more spiritually significant than we may first think.
How Does Buddhism View Other Religions?
To understand what other's religion's festivities can mean for our path, we must first understand that we are surrounded by a faith that is extremely open to absorbing cultures around it. For a Buddhist, Shakyamuni Buddha is the supreme teacher. He figured it all out for us, and his compassion got him there. One thing he knew was that no 'one' idea could fulfil all people's spiritual needs, just as no one food would please every person. Even though Buddhists have their teachers, it also has a remarkable elasticity and adaptability: "Wherever Buddhism goes it manifests this elastic characteristic, to a unique degree. I do not think there is another religion that possesses so much [flexibility]'.
This is so easy to see: Tibetan Buddhism is different to Chinese Buddhism, which is different again to Japanese Buddhist schools, like Zen. And these are just the Mahayana Buddhist regions! Buddha knew that even his teachings needed to take different forms. We must apply this understanding out to other faiths. Therefore, Buddhism itself, or simply being a Buddhist, does not preclude or invalidate Christianity or any other beliefs. Quite the opposite, being Buddhist enables us to absorb the cultures and traditions around us and infuse them with meaning. In a textbook example of wisdom holding compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama tells us it is wonderful that this one planet has so many different faiths, and has hosted and been invited to countless interfaith and ecumenical services promoting peace, harmony and inclusivity.
For those of you armed with the Dharma, I firmly believe we must all avoid the sporting team mentality with religion: "This is my sporting team and the other religions are opposing sporting teams!" With such an attitude, we mentally, if not physically compete and fight, trying to claim supremacy. This is very antithetical to the purpose of religious expression. I think it is extremely unwise: no part of it can align with the eightfold path.
Avoiding 'Buddhist First' Thinking
Why would we engage in religious one up's and competition? Perhaps the Second Noble Truth: 'The origin of suffering is attachment', has some answers for us. If you are attaching to the importance of your religion, its rituals, customs and holidays, and do so whilst ignoring others, are you attaching to an idea of wanting to be a 'proper' lay Buddhist? If you are critical of this time of year, are you attaching to the idea that Buddha's way works for you so should work for others too? Doing so, are we attaching to the illusion of a unified community under Buddhism, all chanting peacefully from the same prayer book?
Perhaps only placing importance on our own rituals is not so wise. I believe we must eradicate any religious 'superiority complex' or any 'spiritual materialism' our ego has. Suspicion, prejudices and selfish motives of being the 'correct' way all impede the common good which all religions possess.
There is no need for religious people to compete and belittle one another. If this is what holding onto a religion is about, people outside will walk away. Those who are sceptical of religion will see it only fuelling division between people. This is surely not the goal of religion, and this is not the religion I want in the world.
So if we see the Buddha's teaching as a boat, we use the boat to cross the river. Once we have crossed, we do not carry the boat on our back. The boat has served its purpose. The worst thing would be to start fighting with others about whose boat is better. And, for these purposes, celebrating Christmas does not put a hole in your boat.
In this spirit of being open to other religions, why not show at least show some tolerance towards; or even enjoy the broad and likeable themes of this auspicious Christian day? It will not make you any less Buddhist, or any less anything: it will not detract from the four noble truths, six perfections, or noble eightfold path. There will still be karma, impermanence, suffering. These will exist even if you wear a silly red hat and eat candy canes. Instead of building a wall: 'I am Buddhist, Christmas is not for me", we can be open and elastic in the way we practice our path.
What Can We Gain From Christmas?
We all know that Christmas can be a time to share with others by giving gifts, and it is an easy time to be grateful for what we have, because it is a day we celebrate surrounding with affluence: we are in peace, we have family and friends, and many other material things, boundless food, safe roads, the list truly goes on. These are important to remember. For many, counting your blessings is easiest at a time like Christmas.
For all those who are not Christian, and may not have an abundance or family to share this time with, Christmas can be a time to practice patience and tolerance. Very fundamental skills on our path. Any hostility, even held in the mind, because of this time of year is like poison. What would you do if you sipped poison from a cup? You would spit it out! Likewise, you must be vigilant with negative thoughts about this potentially joyous time. Annoyed at the large lines and traffic jam? Practice patience. Annoyed or disgusted that your family have to cut up a pig's leg and a whole turkey for their odd tradition? Practice tolerance. Sick of old family laundry being brought up? Patience. Fed up with consumerism? Tolerance. Intoxicated uncle's and aunty's, little children screaming with noisy toys? Patience and tolerance.
If nothing else, there is no lack of causes for tolerance over this holiday period! Just like a heavier weight will build muscles quicker, more chance to practice patience and tolerance will make your skilfulness with difficult situations increase, Buddhist or not
How To Do Christmas:
After thinking about, writing and researching, I have decided it is not hard to like Christmas. Not only because of time to relax around family but reflecting on the meaning of the holiday reminds me of some universal truths that sit well with Buddhist practice. Perhaps Buddhists should see Christmas as a time to reinvent ourselves, recommit ourselves, renew ourselves, and renew our practice. Any excuse to remind me to sit down, practice some meditation in order to be more present sounds like a great holiday to me. If this is so, Buddhists may start to look forward to Christmas! Use the time away from the desk to get onto the cushion!
But if getting excited for Christmas doesn't sound like you (which is legitimate) It is vital to remember that Buddhism honours the beliefs of others that too walk a middle path; the path that is non-extremist, compassionate, and that works to relieve the suffering around them. That includes, importantly, those who have less than us in our community. The best thing to do to get into the Christmas spirit it to give to others who have the least. But, at the very minimum, know that you can do better than ignoring or being adverse to this time of year: On a day like Christmas, it is easy to get swept up in the chaos, materialism and old family laundry. But turn your mind to patience and tolerance, and the day becomes ample fuel for your spiritual fire.
So, I will take this final opportunity to wish everyone who celebrates Christmas (which now should be more of you!) to have a really happy one and to enjoy and revel in whatever ways you choose to celebrate. It's a time to be reborn, leave the 'old things' behind and to start anew. It is also a perfect time to practice religious tolerance and sow the seeds of harmony, not division.