Should Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

Should Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

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Our immediate response to the question of whether Buddhists should celebrate Christmas is: ‘if they feel like it’. However, we suspect that some readers might be looking for a fuller account of our view on this matter. Therefore, here are five reasons why we feel it is appropriate for Buddhists to celebrate Christmas if they feel like doing so:

  1. Christ was an enlightened being: We think there is a lot of synergy between the teachings of Christ and those of the Buddha. For example, one of Christ’s core messages (which don’t necessarily always coincide with the teachings of the Church) was that of unconditional love. Unconditional love and compassion for all beings are also important parts of Buddhist practice. It’s our view that all authentic paths of spiritual practice ultimately extend from, and lead back to, the same source. Therefore, we like to think that just like the Buddha, Christ was an enlightened being. We like to see the Buddha in Christ and Christ in the Buddha. Therefore, why not celebrate the life of Christ?
  2. Christmas is an opportunity to give: Undoubtedly, some individuals see Christmas as nothing more than an opportunity to make money, spend money, party, and/or go on holiday. However, although there are some who only engage with Christmas on a superficial level, this doesn’t mean that we have to follow suit. The idea at Christmas of exchanging gifts and spending quality time with friends and loved ones is wholesome. That said, in our opinion, we don’t need to wait until Christmas to give to others because each day provides an opportunity to be generous. Giving to others is really a means of giving to ourselves. When we give without expecting anything in return, we receive. We receive the psychological and spiritual benefits that arise from caring about others rather than only caring about ourselves. In a sense, giving is a means of letting go of ourselves and when we give with the right intention, it generally makes us feel lighter and happier. It’s good to give on a daily basis but designated periods for giving – such as Christmas – can also be a good idea. Christmas day provides us with an opportunity to practice generosity without the distraction of work and other obligations that are suspended due to the public holiday.
  3. ‘Buddhism’ is just a label: In our view, an individual that is truly in touch with their own path of spiritual practice is completely comfortable with experiencing, and learning from, other spiritual traditions. An important objective of Buddhist practice is arguably to not be attached to labelling oneself as ‘Buddhist’. When we stop labelling ourselves and others, it’s easier to transcend concepts. Labels have their uses but they can limit the mind. As we discussed in our post on ‘Being too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue’, in our opinion, true Buddhists are those that have let go of the idea of being a Buddhist. They are people that embrace the practice of being a ‘non-Buddhist Buddhist’!
  4. An opportunity for inter-faith dialogue: We’ve touched on this point already but it is worth specifically highlighting the benefits of inter-faith dialogue. Learning about other faiths helps us to learn about our own faith. Interfaith dialogue broadens our perspective and helps us to understand that although the core tenets and beliefs of the world’s various religions sometimes seem incongruous, there exist individuals within these different religions who appear to be treading the same path. For example, Saint Francis of Assisi was a 12th Century Catholic monk who practiced contemplative living and spent time living in a cave. There are lots of Buddhist saints who have done precisely the same thing. According to the version of Saint Francis’ prayer that appears on Wikipedia, Saint Francis is reported to have said “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy … For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” Assuming they did not have prior knowledge of who uttered these words, we suspect that many Buddhists would not have difficulty in believing that they are the teachings of a Buddhist saint.
  5. Christmas pudding is scrumptious: We (but especially Ven William who is basically a dessert addict and has a penchant for chocolate and cakes) think that Christmas pudding is delicious. Not partaking in Christmas celebrations is likely to reduce one’s overall intake of Christmas pudding during the festive period. This approach would be unadvisable for somebody who’s taste buds are particularly stimulated by Christmas pudding as well as other popular seasonal deserts (e.g., mince pies)!

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon