New Year’s Day is of course preceded by New Year’s Eve. The evening before is usually when friends get together to celebrate the coming of the new year. Sometimes Kadampas become a social cynic, looking down on parties like this, finding them meaningless and inherently samsaric. They mistakenly think it is somehow a fault to enjoy life and enjoy cultural traditions. This is wrong.
If we are invited to a New Year’s party, we should go without thinking it is inherently meaningless. Geshe-la wants us to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life. New Year’s Eve parties are part of modern life, so our job is to bring the Dharma into them. Venerable Tharchin said that our ability to help others depends upon two things: the depth of our Dharma realizations and the strength of our karmic connections with living beings. Doing things with friends as friends helps build those karmic bonds. Even if we are unable to discuss any Dharma, at the very least, we can view such evenings as the time to cultivate our close karmic bonds with people. Later, in dependence upon these bonds, we will be able to help them.
One question that often comes up at most New Year’s Eve parties is what to do about the fact that most everyone else is drinking or consuming other intoxicants. Most of us have Pratimoksha vows, so this can create a problem or some awkward moments for ourself or for the person who is throwing the party. Best, of course, is if you have an open and accepting relationship with your friends where you can say, “you can do whatever you want, but I am not going to.” It’s important that we don’t adopt a judgmental attitude towards others who might drink, etc. We each make our own choices and it is not up to us to judge anyone else. We might even make ourselves the annual “designated driver.” Somebody has to be, so it might as well be the Buddhist!
If we are at a party where we can’t be open about being a Buddhist, which can happen depending upon our karmic circumstance, what I usually do is drink orange juice or coke for most of the night, but then at midnight when they pass around the glasses of Champagne I just take one, and without a fuss when it comes time, I just put it to my lips like I am drinking but I am not actually doing so. If we don’t make an issue out of it, nobody will notice. Why is this important? Because when we say we don’t drink, they will ask why. Then we say because we are a Buddhist. Implicitly, others can take our answer to mean we are saying we think it is immoral to drink, so others might feel judged. When they do, they then reject Buddhism, and create the karma of doing so. We may feel “right,” but we have in fact harmed those around us. What is the most moral thing to do depends largely upon our circumstance. It goes without saying that others are far more likely to feel judged by us if in fact we are judging everyone around us! We all need to get off our high horse and just love others with an accepting attitude.
Fortunately, most Kadampa centers now host a New Year’s Eve party. This is ideal. If our center doesn’t, then ask to host one yourself at the center. This gives our Sangha friends an alternative to the usual New Year’s parties. We can get together at the center, have a meal together, do a puja together and just hang out together as friends. We are people too, not just Dharma practitioners, so it is important to be “exactly as normal.” If our New Year’s party is a lot of fun, then people will want to come again and again; and perhaps even invite their friends along. It is not uncommon to do either a Tara practice or an Amitayus practice. Sometimes centers organize a retreat weekend course over New Year’s weekend. For several years in Geneva, we would do Tara practice in six sessions at the house of a Sangha member. The point is, try make it time together with your Sangha family. Christmas is often with our regular family, New Year’s can be with our spiritual family.
But it is equally worth pointing out there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a quiet evening at home alone, or with a few friends or members of your family. Just because everybody else is making a big deal out of it and going to parties doesn’t mean we should feel any pressure to do the same. I personally have never enjoyed them party scene, even when others are not getting drunk, etc. I much prefer a quiet evening or a solitary retreat. There is nothing wrong with this, and if that is how we prefer to bring in the New Year, we should do so without guilt or hesitation.
What I used to do (and really should start doing again), is around New Years I would take the time to go through all the 250+ vows and commitments of Kadampa Buddhism and reflect upon how I was doing. I would try look back on the past year and identify the different ways I broke each vow, and I would try make plans for doing better next year. If you are really enthusiastic about this, you can make a chart in Excel where you rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how well you did on each vow, and then keep track of this over the years. Geshe-la advises that we work gradually with our vows over a long period of time, slowly improving the quality with which we keep them. Keeping track with a self-graded score is a very effective way of doing this. New Years is a perfect time for reflecting on this.
Ultimately, New Year’s Day itself is no different than any other. It is very easy to see how its meaning is merely imputed by mind. But that doesn’t mean it is not meaningful, ultimately everything is imputed by mind. The good thing about New Year’s Day is everyone agrees it marks the possibility for a new beginning. It is customary for people to make New Year’s Resolutions, things they plan on doing differently in the coming year. Unfortunately, it is also quite common for people’s New Year’s Resolutions to not last very long.
But at Kadampas, we can be different. The teachings on impermanence remind us that “nothing remains for even a moment” and that the entire world is completely recreated anew every moment. New Year’s Day is a good day for recalling impermanence. Everything that happened in the previous year, we can just let it go and realize we are moving into a new year and a new beginning. We should make our New Year’s resolutions spiritual ones. It is best, though, to make small changes that you make a real effort to keep than large ones that you know won’t last long. Pick one or two things you are going to do differently this year. Make it concrete and make sure it is doable. A former student of mine would pick one thing that she said she was going to make her priority for the coming year, and then throughout the year she would focus on that practice. I think this is perfect. Another Sangha friend of mine would every year ask for special advice about what they should work on in the coming year. This is also perfect.
When you make a determination, make sure you know why you are doing it and the wisdom reasons in favor of the change are solid in your mind. On that basis, you will be able to keep them. Making promises that you later break creates terrible karma for ourselves which makes it harder and harder to make promises in the future. We create the habit of never following through, and that makes the practice of moral discipline harder and harder.
Just because we are a Kadampa does not mean we can’t have fun like everyone else on New Year’s Eve. It is an opportunity to build close karmic bonds with others, especially our spiritual family. We can reflect upon our behavior over the previous year and make determinations about how we will do better in the year to come.
I pray that all of your pure wishes in the coming year be fulfilled, and that all of the suffering you experience become a powerful cause of your enlightenment. I pray that all beings may find a qualified spiritual path and thereby find meaning in their life. I also pray that nobody die tonight from drunk driving, but everyone makes it home safe. Since that is unlikely to come true, I pray that Avalokiteshvara swiftly take all those who die to the pure land where they may enjoy everlasting joy.