Christmas for a Kadampa

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 by generating faith in him, believing he did so to save us, our mind is opened up 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?  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 within our own mind, 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 perfectly 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, and I quickly get upset when my father once again ignores my kids just to spite me.  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 habits.

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 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.

Many of us are what we can call “Culturally 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.

How to attend a festival even if you can’t physically go

It’s festival time.  Perhaps in the past we were able to go to the festivals, but for whatever reason this year we are not able to make it.  Fortunately, even if we can’t physically make it to the festival, we can still attend it.

First, we need to dispel the guilt of not being able to go.  In the past (perhaps even sometimes now), our Resident Teachers and fellow Sangha would sometimes apply a good deal of pressure to try get people to go to festivals, and then make people feel guilty if they were not able to do so.  Such hard-pressure tactics are ultimately counter-productive in the long-run, and slowly people are abandoning them.  But even when they do happen, the person using them is usually well-intended.  Our teachers and Sangha friends know the value of going to the festival and they want us to experience the same thing.  They just sometimes use less than skillful means to try encourage us to do so.  That’s OK, nobody is perfect.

But ultimately, we each have different karma.  For some, it is money problems.  For others, it is inability to get off of work or family obligations.  It could be due to sickness or old age.  It could be due to inner obstructions.  If somebody else misunderstands our karma and makes us feel guilty about not being able to go, that is their problem, not ours.  Guilt closes our mind to be able to receive blessings.  It ignorantly grasps at the view that just because we can’t physically make it to the festival we can’t still participate in the Summer Festival.  We then feel bad about ourselves, give up and don’t even try connect.  This is completely wrong.  Sometimes we really want to go, but for whatever karmic reason we are not able to do so.  We need to accept that this will happen.  Mentally, we should always maintain the wish to go, never thinking it is unimportant.  If we have a sincere wish, but karmicly it is not possible, then we can accept not going with a clear conscience even if all of our Sangha friends and teachers misunderstand.

If we are unable to go, we have to keep in mind “being at a festival,” like all things, depends upon our mind.  It is perfectly possible to be physically at the festival, but mentally not; likewise it is possible to mentally be there while physically not being able to go.  Attending a festival is a state of mind, it is a mental recognition.  If we adopt the state of mind of “being at the festival” then we will experience whatever happens to us during festival time as “our festival.”  Anybody who has been to a festival knows that everyone’s experience is highly personalized.  If we adopt the mental recognition of being at a festival, then our daily life during this time will become our festival.  The only difference between those who are physically there and those who are not will be what appears.  They will see Manjushri, we will see wherever we are at, but both will be receiving constant teachings through whatever is appearing.  Different things will happen to us during festival time, and these will be our special, personalized teachings.  Different delusions will arise, different lessons will be learned.  This is the content of our teachings.  Dakas and Dakinis can enter into the bodies of all those around us, and we can find ourselves surrounded by Sangha.  Each thing everyone does will become part of our teachings.  Buddhas can teach through anything.  If we view everything as our teachings, everything will teach us.  In this way, we can all attend festival teachings no matter where we are in the world.

To help strengthen this recognition, every day we should do our Heart Jewel practice and make special requests and dedications that Dorje Shugden arrange everything that happens to us during festival time, transforming whatever does happen to us into our personal festival.  His job is to arrange all the outer and inner conditions for our practice; of these two, inner conditions are by far the most important.  He can help protect our inner “festival mind,” and enter into whatever appears so that it becomes our powerful teachings.  I like to imagine vast protection circles around me and everywhere I go, strongly believing that everything that happens inside the protection circle is part of my festival.

Ultimately, the festival is not happening in England, rather it is happening in the pure land.  Venerable Tharchin explains that the location of the mind is at the object of cognition.  If we think of the moon, our mind goes to the moon.  In the same way, if we think of the pure land, our mind actually goes there.  Since the festival is happening in the pure land anyways, we can mentally imagine (both in and out of meditation) that we are in the pure land with all of our vajra brothers and sisters.  If we maintain this recognition, we will go there and be with them.  Why are festivals spiritually powerful?  If each one of us is a candle, we each have a little bit of light.  But if we all put our candles together, then we make a blazing sun that we all benefit from.  When we come together at festival time, it is like the entire Kadampa family bringing their candles together into a single light.  We don’t have to physically be in England to add our candle.  Since the festival is actually taking place in the pure land, we can join them all there.  Quite simply:  mentally believe and it will be true.

In particular, Geshe-la once explained that during the empowerment time we can “tune in” regardless of where we find ourselves in the world.  If we do the practice of the empowerment (for example, we do Tara practice during a Tara empowerment) at the same time as the empowerment, then we can correctly believe that we too are receiving the empowerment directly from the guru.  When we are physically at the empowerment, the teacher always encourages us to develop the recognitions that we are in the pure land receiving the empowerment directly from the guru deity.  We can do this from anywhere, including in our imagination.  The same is true during the teachings.  We can “tune in” from anywhere in the world.  We can do our practice, dissolve the guru into our heart, and request him to reveal to us what we need to learn as personal advice.  If we have faith and a good motivation, it is definite our mind will be blessed with special understandings.

Sometimes, though, we might forget the recognition that we are “at a festival.”  When this happens, we can recall all the thousands of people who are there, and rejoice in their incredible good fortune for being able to be there.  Sometimes if we can’t go to the festival we try rationalize it by saying it is not that important.  We should never think like this because it functions to destroy the karma to have the opportunity to go in the future.  Instead, we should recall how incredibly important it is to go (without generating attachment of being able to go) and rejoice for those who are there.  This rejoicing will not only create a vast amount of merit, it will also help create the karmic causes for us to be able to go ourselves again in the future.  At a practical level, this rejoicing will remind us to maintain the “mind of being at a festival,” thus bringing us back to this important recognition.

At a more conventional level, there are many different ways we can participate in the festival while it is going on.  First, we can ask a friend to dissolve us into their heart and bring us into the temple with them.  Part of us will actually be there.  When they maintain this recognition, there will be points in the teaching where they think, “ah, this is for my friend back home.”  This is your special advice.  We can also ask them to write us, telling us what is happening and what they are learning, and what messages, if any, they are specifically receiving for us.  Even if they are not able to do so each day during the festival, we can take them to lunch or coffee upon their return and ask them about what they learned.

The NKT now is also posting videos each day during the festival on their YouTube channel.  You can subscribe to their channel and watch the videos as they are released.  Take the time to meditate and reflect on what is said.  If possible, you can even do preparatory practices before watching the video just like you would if you were there.  If there are other Sangha friends who are unable to go, you can organize a “viewing” at your local center.  Everyone can get together, do preparatory practices, watch the video, meditate on its meaning, and then discuss it afterwards – just like you would if you were at the festival itself.  Every year the Mormons have a “General Council,” which is like their Summer Festival.  There are tens of millions of Mormons around the world now, and obviously not all of them are able to make the pilgrimage to Salt Lake City.  As a result, in Mormon temples and prayer halls around the world, they organize “viewing parties” where they watch the videos of the spiritual gathering.  There is no reason why we can’t do the same.  The NKT now has hundreds of videos in their library.  We can watch several of them.  There is also no reason why we can’t watch the same videos more than once.  I would suspect in the future, as we grow in number, we will increasingly do things as the Mormons do.  Another thing we can do is listen to our old audio recordings of when we were able to attend past festivals.  If we can, take a few days off work during festival time and do a special meditation retreat.  If you can’t take off work, make the weekends or your days off special retreat time.

Attending festivals is one of the most important things we can do for our spiritual life.  The benefits of being at a festival are truly limitless.  But the karma is not always there for us to physically go.  We need to accept this and make the most of it.  By making the most of it, while always maintaining the wish to be able to go again in the future, we create the karmic causes to be able to attend later.  Karma is not complicated:  if we take full advantage of the opportunities we have, we create the cause for better opportunities in the future; if we fail to take full advantage of our opportunities, we burn up the karma which gave rise to them and it will be even more difficult in the future.  Festival time is a special time regardless of whether we can physically make it to England.  Fortunately, through the power of faith and emptiness, no matter where we may find ourselves in the world, we can all attend the festival with our vajra brothers and sisters every year – just in a different way.