Someone asked me last week what Buddhists do for Christmas.
My answer was “Whatever they bloody well like!”
But to expand on that a little…
Some Buddhists go on retreat for Christmas. They avoid all the shopping madness, the excesses of food and alcohol, and all the dramas of visiting family, and spend the holidays in mindful silence.
For me, I like to join in with Christmas.
Christmas carols and the baby Jesus
Last night I went to a chapel in London where they were doing carols by candlelight. It’s a beautiful old church. A member of my family was in the choir.
There were a bunch of prayers and readings from the Bible too. I wasn’t so much into that bit, but I liked the carols. And the candle light. And it was nice to hang out with my clan for a while.
Is it possible to be both Christian and intelligent?
Years ago, all the Christian stuff used to really wind me up. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t connect with it, it was that I found it utterly nonsensical and irritating. I couldn’t imagine how any intelligent person could be a Christian.
Heaven and hell, baby Jesus, virgin birth? Are you serious?
I was a judgemental little sod.
I do, in fact, know some very intelligent, educated, wise people who are also devout Christians.
And after studying Buddhism for so many years (and the whole world of myth and archetypes first articulated for the west by Carl Jung) I get Christianity a whole lot better.
Have you read the life of the Buddha? It makes the virgin birth idea seem positively tame!
Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus
For me personally, Christmas isn’t about Christianity at all.
It’s about Santa Claus, bringing trees into your house and covering them with baubles and lights, mince pies, and songs from years ago that plug me into the communal jubilation that was no doubt constructed by big business in order to sell us more tat.
And of course the solstice – the birth of the new year. You can stick a baby Jesus in there if you like, but the significance of this time of year is way older than that.
Buddhist in a non-Buddhist scene
As Buddhists in the west we have grown up in and are part of a non-Buddhist culture. To try to side-step all that and consciously import an entirely new set of customs, traditions and practices into your life cuts you off – both from your community and your formative years.
I don’t think that’s what Buddhism is meant to be about. And I don’t think you can do it very successfully even if you want to.
Any way of living that you force on yourself based on a bunch of ideas you have is likely to be somewhat two dimensional. A bit flat. Lacking depth.
This will make it a bit dry. Missing some energy.
Of course if you keep it going for decades, provided you don’t end up like an incredibly thinly sliced piece of toast (without butter or jam) you’ll probably build the depth back up. A new set of norms, customs, memories and so on will become your reality. Kind of like when you become an ex-pat and spend years in a new country.
But I don’t see the need for this really. Buddhist practice is fundamentally non-cultural and timeless. When you understand it properly, you can use your own culture and your own time as the context for your practice without fear of watering down or half-practising the Dhamma.
This is something I think many Buddhists worry about – particularly in the early years of practice.
We want to do it properly. We want to be real Buddhists. We don’t want to waste these precious years of life in the human realm on distractions.
Study, meditate, practice ethics, look after yourself and your fellow beings – both human and non-human. Neither hurrying nor tarrying. You’ll surely get where you’re going.
And maxing out on (preferably vegan) mince pies once a year won’t do you any harm. You might even enjoy it.
Wishing you a merry Christmas and a stupendous solstice!