Understanding a Buddhist During Christmas: By Alan Peto
As Christmas approaches we are delighted to wonderful decorations, beautiful lights, great presents, and, for Buddhists in America and other western countries, the inevitable question “So, do you celebrate Christmas?”. The question always brings a smile to my face as I answer “of course!”. But how can a non-Christian celebrate Christmas?
Like most American Buddhists, I wasn’t born into a Buddhist household. My family was of the Christian/Catholic background, so we always had a Christmas tree, and knew of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The smells of freshly cut pine trees, alluring multi-colored lights, decorations, and (oh!) those presents, were just icing on the cake.
So do I celebrate Christmas? As a Buddhist, I celebrate Christmas in a non-Christian way.
Christ, the Bodhisattva
If you ask most Buddhists what they think of Jesus Christ, you may be surprised to hear some very positive and supportive opinions.
Without speaking to the spiritual context, we believe Jesus was what those in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition call a “Bodhisattva”. A Bodhisattva is one that forgoes their own benefit to help others and has compassion, kindness and love for all beings. Jesus definitely helped others in ways we still experience today by showing the world immense compassion, love, kindness, and beauty and how to incorporate that into their lives and help others. So for Buddhists, we can see Jesus as a blessing to this Earth.
The very popular and well known Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote an extremely popular book titled “Living Buddha, Living Christ” (this book is on Oprah’s nightstand) which helps explain how both traditions can understand each other, and share similar beliefs (such as compassion).
For Mahayana Buddhists, the aim of their practice is to become a Bodhisattva, which is an expression of bodhichitta (which is the desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of others). If there is a slogan, it would be:
May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Many Buddhists, both lay practitioners and monks, take the Bodhisattva vow to reinforce this commitment:
Beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unobtainable; I vow to obtain it.
Becoming a Bodhisattva in Buddhism is not like becoming a god; a Bodhisattva lives in the here and now working to help all living beings.
An interesting part of the story of Jesus is that he was very much like a Bodhisattva (in his own faith, of course, and not Buddhism). In summary, Jesus descended into hell to free anyone who wanted salvation. The point being, Jesus didn’t abandon anyone…even those already in hell. That’s kind of cool. That story always strikes me as how we view Bodhisattva’s in Buddhism…we are actively living in “hell” in our world (not the hell you’ll read about in the Bible, but one of our own doing) and actively work to help and free those in this world from delusion.
Do Buddhist’s have a Christmas Tree? Well, we may have decorated pine trees in our homes, but it may or may not have anything to do with Christmas.
Most people are not aware that things such as the ‘Christmas Tree’, was actually a pagan tradition during the winter solstice, which no Christian wanted to adopt at first (in-fact it was banned by Christians, the Church, etc.). It was only after it was promoted in a magazine that Queen Victoria had one that it was popularized, and then only in the late 1800’s did Americans adopt it. Even Christmas Day (December 25th) was actually during the very popular pagan winter solstice (the 25th was the ‘return of the sun’). It’s still unknown when Christ was actually born, and this date was decided since there was already established celebration that the church could switch from a pagan celebration, to a Christian celebration.
A popular Buddhist holiday, Bodhi Day, is celebrated in December as well (and goes on for 30 days) to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment. Those multi-colored lights you use for your Christmas tree, are also used during this celebration on ficus trees. Although many Western Buddhist’s may have an artificial pine (Christmas) tree they can use for the same purpose.
So having a “Christmas Tree” is quite acceptable with Western Buddhist’s to have, and some may even have one because some of their family members may be Christians, Catholics, etc. Buddhism is accepting of other religions, so this wouldn’t bother us at all. My Christmas tree still has my mom’s angel (from the 1960’s) at the top every year.
When it comes to gift giving, Buddhists look to Saint Nicolas (Santa Claus) for someone who resembles our values.
The selflessness and compassion Saint Nicholas brought to children is something that is very much a part of Buddhism, which is the selfless act of charity and caring without expecting anything in return. We are very mindful of what gifts we give to others, and want them to be meaningful and not harmful. For example, we would not give a gun (even a toy one) to a child as a present on a day that we want to express peace for all mankind.
The love, sacrifice, teachings of love, and kindness of Jesus Christ is the kind of things that Buddhists go all teary eyed about. We are all about how we are all connected, and helping one another. Just like the Buddha, Jesus (500 years later) also took in all sorts of people with various backgrounds into his flock. Jesus didn’t care about your past, but where you are going. The Buddha and Jesus would have a lot to talk about if they were walking together.
When it comes to presents, Jesus and Buddha had different gifts, of course. While Jesus promoted salvation and heaven after death, the Buddha promoted inner salvation and heaven in the here and now. The Buddha gave us the gift of his teachings, which were his explanation of how “life” works (to sum it up in a single sentence). Part of that gift is a present you make. You ARE the present…all nicely wrapped up (with a bow even). What is inside is the most beautiful gift in the world, known as enlightenment. Do you know how you feel as you rip away the wrapping paper of a present (that is the same in Buddhism as ripping away the false concept of “self”). As you start ripping away, you become more excited, but also can see the ‘box’ of your present…which makes you more excited, because now you know what you are getting. As you open the box (what we call awakening in Buddhism), you hold in your hands the actual present. This is enlightenment. Sorry if you were looking for a new game console instead 😉
“But Wait. Don’t You Worship to Your ‘God’, Buddha?”
Not at all. The historical Buddha that everyone knows (Siddhārtha Gautama) is not a “God” in Buddhism, but instead our respected teacher and above all…a human being.
The Buddha told everyone that he was just a man who had found the meaning of life and end to suffering (enlightenment). He never claimed to be any god, diety, or spiritual being.
You may see Buddhists bow to a statue of the Buddha, but that is out of respect for him as our teacher, not as idol worship. In Asian countries, students everywhere bow to their teachers out of respect and humility, and the Buddha is no different. Some Buddhists even give offerings of food, water, etc., to a statue of the Buddha not as an offering to a god, but to bring about selflessness and compassion in themselves. This is similar to “repetition in learning something”, and in Buddhism this helps us to awaken and bring out the kindness in ourselves so we can share this selflessness and compassion with everyone.
Huge thanks to Alan Peto “The Organized Buddhist” for this! Check Alan’s work out HERE.