Can Buddhists celebrate Christmas – especially those of us living in the West?
Of course we can!
What is un-Buddhist about peace and goodwill to all men? About practising generosity and showing kindness to family, friends and strangers? All of these are in perfect accord with Buddhism, and it is wonderful to have a culturally-agreed season during which special emphasis is placed on these activities.
For Christians, the birth of Jesus holds a particular religious significance, and even here Buddhists can offer our support. In Buddhism we have many different lineages. There are the major Zen, Theravadan, Chinese, and Nishiren Shoshu traditions, to name only a few, and then within Tibetan Buddhism each of the four branches – Gelugpa, Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma – have many lineages, which we can regard as being like many different branches of family trees. We may know very little about what goes on even within closely-related branches of our own family tree, let alone others. We may engage in different practices and rituals. But what unites us is far greater than what divides us. When we meet a fellow practitioner, even from a different part of the tree, we feel a sense of kinship.
The same with Christianity. When we read what Jesus actually said, according to the Bible, we find nothing that contradicts the teachings of Buddha. The essence of his message – love and compassion, focus on inner development not material trappings, lift your sights beyond this life alone – are the same foundational teachings that we have in Buddhism. In fact there are those who say that Jesus was a lama, and that the three wise men from the East who appeared at his birth, were Buddhists from India travelling to check up on where he had been reincarnated. (Those interested in exploring this subject further may like to read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten – an intriguing book).
Of course we will always have fundamentalists among us who, for whatever reason, like to claim that there is only one, valid spiritual path – which happens to be the one they follow. However much we may value our own tradition, spiritual chauvinism goes against the advice of all the great spiritual teachers who emphasise the importance of humility: we really don’t know, what we don’t know. In matters of ultimate reality, which all traditions agree goes beyond concept, what matters is not the characteristics of the finger pointing at the moon, but the moon itself.
So, as Buddhists in the West, let’s celebrate Christmas in the proper way. Not as an orgy of consumerism but, in the stillness of meditation, to encounter afresh the love and compassion which is our own deepest nature – and to share this reality with all the beings in our lives.
I’d like to express heartfelt thanks to all my blog and book readers, and all my Mindful Safari travellers, for your support and encouragement. May you have a really wonderful festive season and here’s wishing each one of you, all good things for the New Year!
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