Waking Up on Christmas

If people know you’re a Buddhist, they sometimes wonder if you celebrate Christmas. In my case, the answer is yes. If that makes me a shabby sort of Buddhist, well, that was the case anyway. It’s necessary to describe Christmas as a Christian holiday, but that may not be sufficient. It’s position in the calendar is pagan for one thing. For another, Christmas is a communal and family holiday as well as a religious one. I’m a member of a community and a family. Ergo, I celebrate Christmas with them. Food, cards, presents, the usual. I’ve even been to a Christmas Eve service or two, and it’s pretty hard, any time and any place, not to be awed by the music which Christianity has inspired.

As far as spiritual questions go: no, I don’t believe in the literal, historical truth of the Christmas story. I’m not positive, in fact, what people who say they believe in that actually believe. I don’t even think they’re all believing the same thing, if that makes any sense.

That an idea like the Virgin Birth may have more than a surface meaning, that’s easy enough to admit. Of course, really understanding that idea at an allegorical, symbolic, or esoteric level, that’s another matter. To say that God became man, or that the Word became flesh, aren’t these statements which equal the most challenging pronouncements of Mahayana Buddhism? Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Nirvana and samsara are the same. These are elusive concepts and, frankly, I don’t trust many people to comment on them with authority. Certainly I’m not one of those people myself.

Asked if he was a god, the Buddha replied: no. Asked what he was, he replied: awake. That, rather than faith or salvation, is seen as the goal of Buddhist life. To wake up. And Christmas morning, it seems to me, is as propitious a time as any to give it another try.

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2 responses to “Waking Up on Christmas

  1. Christmas has become mass-consumption hysteria and has been so for many years. It is a sad commentary that 25% of our entire economy depends upon it. You are correct that the best part of the holiday are the hymns and songs of faith. As a hospital worker married to a cop, I have seen much more of the dark-side of the Christmas holidays and have never trusted the holiday or had any expectations. The AA meetings are filled during the holidays because of the stress that it creates and because most people believe life is circular instead of linear and long for holidays of the past. Most of their memories of Christmas past are clouded anyway. You listen to the Christmas carols played on the radio 24 hours a day and realize that most of the singers are dead. Is the person who wrote “Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” dead? Should be.
    Anyway, glad it’s over, sorry that some stores are going into bankruptcy. Being a Republican, got my last Christmas card from the White House (at least for four years).
    Also, what about the next celebration: New Year. Who had the concept of celebrating the new year in the dead of winter? Why not in September when the kids go back to school? That seems more like when the new year should be.
    Hope this gets to you-I never blog. This is my first.

  2. So much of our own history gets woven into our personal vision of Christmas. Some instances of lonliness aside, I’ve pretty much been spared “the dark side.” Lately I’ve just been struck by two things: 1) the koan of “the Word become flesh,” and 2)the curious verbal conjunction between that charged anticipation that children feel at waking up on Christmas (often a very straightforward form of greed)and the Buddhist aspiration for awakening (which can be a more subtle form of greed). Haven’t got either one of them figured out.

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