For those of us who live in the West, or come from Western families, Christmas is often considered the biggest holiday of the year. Ostensibly, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and for some it is. For most, however, it is about exchanging gifts, spending time with family and watching football. Or it’s just about out of control consumerism, depending on your view. Kadampas can sometimes feel a bit confused during Christmas time. It used to be our favorite holiday as kids, but now we are Buddhists, so how are we supposed to relate to it?
It’s true, Christmas time has degenerated into a frenzy of buying things we don’t need. It is easy to criticize Christmas on such grounds. Of course, as Kadampas, we can be aware of this and realize its meaninglessness. We can correctly identify the attachment and realize it’s wrong. But certainly being a Kadampa means more than being a cynic and a scrooge. Instead, we should rejoice in all the acts of giving. Giving is a virtue, even if what people are giving is not very meaningful. There is more giving that occurs in the Christmas season than any other time of the year. Yes, the motivations for giving might be mixed with worldly concerns, but we can still rejoice in the giving part. Rejoice in all of it, don’t be a cynic.
Likewise, I think we should celebrate with all our heart the birth of Christ into this world. Why not? Our heart commitment is to follow one tradition purely while appreciating and respecting all other traditions. Instead of getting on our arrogant high horse mocking those who believe in an inherently existent God, why don’t we celebrate the birth of arguably the greatest practitioner of taking and giving to have ever walked the face of the earth? The entire basis of Christianity is Christ took on all of the sins of all living beings, and generating faith in him, believing he did so to save us, functions to open our mind to receive his special blessings which function to take our sins upon him. He is, in this respect, quite similar to a Buddha of purification. By generating faith in him, his followers can purify all of their negative karma.
Further, he is a doorway to heaven (his pure land). If his followers remember him with faith at the time of their death, they will receive his powerful blessings and be transported to the pure land. In this sense, he is very similar to Avalokiteshvara. Christ taught extensively on being humble, working for the sake of the poor, and reaching out to those in the greatest of need. Think of all the people he has inspired with his example. Sure, there are some people who distort his teachings for political purposes, but that doesn’t make his original intent and meaning wrong. In many ways, one can say he gave tantric teachings on maintaining pure view, and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into this world. Who can read the Sermon on the Mount and not be moved? Who can read the prayers of his later followers, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, and not be inspired? Think of Pope Francis. You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate his positive effect on this world and the church. All of these things we can rejoice in and be inspired by. A Bodhisattva seeks to practice all virtue, and there is much in Jesus’ example worth emulating. Trying to be more “Christ-like” in our behavior is not mixing. If we can see somebody in our daily lives engaging in virtue and be inspired to be more like them, then why can we not also do so for one of the greatest Saints in the history of the world? Rejoicing in and copying virtue is an essential component of the Kadampa path.
Geshe-la has said on many occasions that Buddhas appear in this world in Buddhist and non-Buddhist form. Is it that hard to imagine that Christ too was a Buddha who appeared in a particular form in a particular place in human history for the sake of billions? Surely all the holy beings get along just fine with one another, since they are ultimately of one nature. It is only humans who create divisions and problems. Geshe-la said we do believe in “God,” it is just different people have a different understanding of what that means. Christians have their understanding, we have ours, but we can all respect and appreciate one another.
Besides celebrating Christ, Christmas is an excellent time for ourself to practice virtue. Not just giving, but also patience with our loved ones, cherishing others, training in love and so forth. It is not always easy to spend time with our families. The members of our family have their fair share of delusions, and it is easy to develop judgmental attitudes towards them for it. It is not uncommon for some of the worst family fights to happen during the holiday season. Christmas time gives us an opportunity to counter all of these delusions and bad attitudes, and learn to accept and love everyone just as they are.
When I was a boy, Christmas was both my favorite time of year and my worst time of year. My favorite time of year because I loved the lights, the songs and of course the presents. It was the worst time of the year because my mother had an unrealistic expectation that just because it was Christmas, everything was supposed to work out and nothing was supposed to go wrong. This created tremendous pressure on everyone in the house, and when the slightest thing would go wrong, she would become very upset and ruin the day for everyone. This is not uncommon at all. People’s expectations shoot through the roof during the Christmas season, and especially on Christmas day. These higher expectations then cause us to be more judgmental, to more easily feel slighted, and to be quicker to anger. We can view this time as an excellent opportunity to understand the nature of samsara is for things to go wrong, and the best answer to that fact is patient acceptance and a good laugh.
As I have grown older, Christmas has given rise to new delusions for me to overcome. When I was little, I used to get lots of presents. Now, I get a tie. Not the same, and it always leaves me feeling a bit let down. I give presents to everyone, yet nobody seems to give me any. As a parent, I cannot help but have hopes and expectations that my kids will like their presents, but then when they don’t I realize my attachment to gratitude and recognition. During Christmas, even though I am supposed to be giving, I find myself worrying about money and feeling miserly. I find myself quick to judge my in-laws or other members of my family if they don’t act in the way I want them to. Since I live abroad, far away from any family, I start to feel jealous of the pictures I see on Facebook of my other family members all together and seeming to have a good time while we are alone and forgotten on the other side of the planet. When kids open presents, they are often like rabid dogs, going from one thing to the next without appreciating anything and I can’t help but feel I have failed as a parent. Trying to get good pictures is always a nightmare, and getting the kids to express gratitude to the aunts and grandmas is always a struggle. The more time we spend with our family, the more we become frustrated with them and secretly we can’t wait until school starts again and we can go back to work. None of these are uncommon reactions, and these sorts of situations give rise to a pantheon of delusions. But all of them give us a chance to practice training our mind and cultivating new, more virtuous, habits of mind.
Christmas is also a time in which we can reach out to those who are alone. Suicide and depression rates are the highest during the holiday season. People see everyone else happy, but they find themselves alone and unloved. Why can we not invite these people to our home and let them know we care? Make them feel part of our family. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer to help out the poor and the needy, such as giving our time at or clothes to homeless shelters. People in hospitals, especially the old and dying, suffer from great loneliness and sadness during the Christmas season. We can go spend time with them, hear their stories, and give them our love.
Culturally, many of us are Christian. People in the West, by and large, live in a Christian culture. Geshe-la has gone to great lengths to present the Dharma in such a way that we do not have to abandon our culture to understand the Dharma. Externally, culturally, we can remain Christian; while internally, spiritually we are 100% Kadampa. There is no contradiction between these two. On the whole, Christmas time gives us ample opportunities to create virtue, rejoice in goodness and battle our delusions. For a Kadampa, this is perfect.