I’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks, “Now that you’re a Buddhist are you going to have Christmas?” I love discussions about spirit, meaning, and faith (so if you want to have one – hit me up!) but I have found this question a little odd. It’s like asking someone, “Now that you’re vegan are you going to have Thanksgiving?” Of course they are – it just won’t be turkey based. Of course I’m having Christmas! The center of my holiday won’t be the birth of Christ but the meaning of Christ, and the Miracle of Lights, and the guidance of Kwanzaa, and the silly grievances of Festivus will all be with me. I’m going to have the three things this season encompasses best – light, magic, and peace. Plus fudge. I plan to have lots of fudge.
A Season of Light
Light, like seasons, doesn’t need to have a reason, or even permission, to shine. No one owns light (sorry, Dominion Power). Light is precious and life-giving. It maintains its own being. You can shutter out the light, but the sun isn’t going away. Light is something celebrated in almost every spiritual tradition. The Menorah represents the miracle of light, the star over Bethlehem – the arrival of light, Kwanzaa the representation of the qualities of light. My non-religious friends put candles in the window when someone is out in a storm as a sign of hope that the person will find their way home. Light guides, light heals, light inspires, light saves.
In Buddhism, we believe the light is not an external thing, simply shining around us, but an internal flame – glowing within us. We meditate and connect with the light inside that shows us the reality of the present moment and our place in it. What better time than the darkest season to celebrate the fact that even when I’m in darkness, there is a light in there somewhere.
A Season of Magic
One of the core messages of Shambhala Buddhism (the lineage Cathy and I have taken refuge vows in) is that “there is magic in every moment.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the Christmas season.
- The way the whole world smells like gingerbread and spiced apple cinnamon is magic.
- The desire to give as a way of showing love to others is magic.
- The food your mom makes because your grandma made it because her grandma brought the recipe over from the Old Country is time travel (hence, magic).
- The colors, lights, and music everywhere you turn is magic. (For you people who complain about Christmas music in stores coming too early – can’t you just admit hearing that first chorus of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” is a lot more magical than yet another replay of Hall and Oates, “Your Kiss is on my List.”)
A Season of Peace
Above all, this season is one of the few times we vocalize our desire for, and recognition of, peace. As a Buddhist, one of my main desires is remember we are all connected to one another and for all of us to be liberated from the suffering our world, each of us needs to be able to visualize and desire peace.
As more and more people seem to be finding ways to use the holiday season in its many incarnations as a way to divide us, I find this holiday to have great potential for us to remember we are in this together.
The truth is – seasons don’t need reasons. They come as they are with their unique weather patterns, foods, and frolic. They don’t come with rules, requirements, shame or expectations. They just show up. We, humans, are the ones who need reasons. It may just be the seasons’ view that we are welcome to any reason we can find. SO:
To my Christian friends for whom Jesus is the only reason: I hope you have an abundance of Jesus is your world this Christmas. May it be full of grace, mercy, sacrifice, and love.
To my Jewish friends who celebrate the festival of lights: I wish you glorious miracles and as many of those chocolate coins as you can handle.
To my friends who celebrate every other tradition I don’t know or understand well – I wish all the good things that come with them – and I wish you would teach me about them.
To my atheist/agnostic/apathetic friends who just want to have a party, eat good food, and sing loudly – Dude – What time should I show up? What can I bring? Do you have enough Chex Mix?
To my Buddhist friends and dear Sanghas – both the Open Heart Sangha and The Buddha Center (second life) – metta, love, and kindness – You’ll see me sitting with you. I’ll be the one in the Santa hat.
“And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to All, and to ALL a good night.”
It is a lazy, rainy December 24th here in my Virginia woods. My Jewish friends are lighting the last light of Hanukkah tonight, and my Christian pals are planning to read the story of Jesus, a baby in a manger who is the reason for their celebration. Buddhist mentors are meditating the gratitude of this day, like every day, and atheists are eagerly anticipating family, friends, presents, candy and laughs. Even those grouchy folks who mutter “I hate Christmas” are starting to soften a bit. By this time of the year we’ve figured out that we are not as different as we are the same in mid-winter – we all celebrate the light.
The message in this season – whatever season it may be – is one of definite clarity. In the midst of darkness light still shines. The miraculous light in the temple, the light of the Christ, the lightness of being or the light of loved ones. Light shines. This year I know of no better message for all of us.
For my two dear friends who each lost a spouse to death this year – the light of their love is still with you.
For my friends who grieve loved ones long lost who still haunt and call their name – the light of your love is still with them.
For artists and writers looking for doors to open, work to do, people to reach – the light inspiration beckons you to keep going.
For prisoners and captives, slaves and sufferers who are chained to dark situations – we remember you; we are seeking ways to free you – in body or in mind. Keep hope. Keep light. It’s shining. I promise.
For happy people who embrace their blessings and love their lives – you are the beneficiary and also a source. Keep sharing the light.
For New York, Ferguson, Florida, Wisconsin and every place struggling with injustice, malice, racism, anger and loss – there IS light – we must work together, we must find it – because it’s there, and we all need it.
For a world ravaged with hunger and disease, violence that dares to call itself “religion”, economic fear, and military presence – There are people in every one of those places who have the potential to be helpers, healers, and hopeful carriers of light. Let’s support them; let’s empower them. Let’s rekindle their light.
For a world filled with the most wonderful things, scientific discovery, amazing cuisine, beautiful lands, lovers, poets, dreamers and children – shine, shine, shine, shine. We call on you to shine.
This spring we will experience another group of celebrations all competing in the same space – Passover, Easter, Spring Rebirth, Ohigan (a Buddhist ceremony celebrating the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana), and Bahai New Year – and they all have one message too. The death angel passing over, the resurrection of Christ, the rebirth of the earth, spirits receiving bliss or a new start – it all tells us – “Death is NOT an end.”
But that is for another time – for now – let us look to the light.
One of the lesser known villains in the DC Comic Universe is Calendar Man. Traditionally a Batman villain, he was created in 1958 (Detective Comics #289) by Batman co-creator Bill Finger. His traditional costume is a garish red and white suit with calendar dates as shoulder pads. In later incarnations he is shown as a bald man with the months of the year tattooed on his head.
His thing? Committing crimes based on the holidays or special days on a calendar. His name? Julian Day. He’s not a well-known nemesis of the Bat Family because his crimes all happen around holidays so it’s easy to figure him out, and he doesn’t really have any super powers or connections so Batman puts him away pretty quickly. Besides – look at him!
The moral of sad Calendar Man’s story is always the same – when you are trapped by the calendar and expectations of certain holidays, there’s little room for anything but misfortune. That’s as true for us as it is for Gotham.
Holidays are supposed to be a time for fun, remembrance, celebrating, spirit and food (oh, the food). But every year as social media shares our season of discontent with everyone around us, holidays are becoming big sloppy slices of complaining topped with judgment.
- Christmas music before Thanksgiving? WRONG! Stores are greedy!
- Retail stores opening on Thanksgiving day? CRISIS! American family is falling apart!
- People choosing to shop on Thanksgiving or wait for Black Friday! MATERIALISTS! Putting a flat screen TV ahead of their family!
- People saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? HEATHEN ATHEIST WAR-MONGERS! There is a war on Christmas and these people take it away from JESUS!
I’ve seen so many posts about Target and Kmart being open on Thanksgiving I’m thinking of building a bomb shelter because it clearly must be one of the horses of the apocalypse. While everyone is moaning and gnashing their cranberry-stained teeth, the innocence, fun and fellowship we are supposed to be feeling disappears before our very eyes. All because – like Calendar Man – we are addicted to a date on a page. Here’s my 3 tips to enjoy this time of year without the drama.
- BE HERE NOW
In meditation and mindfulness we are taught to focus on the now. We are encouraged to learn from and let go of the past, and move toward but not expect the future. We don’t measure our heart on the calendar – a man-made time-line placed atop our lives like a waffle iron – we measure it in the moment – what we feel, who we love, how we move.
The truth is Thanksgiving is not the only day people have to eat, laugh and love with their family. You can (and should try to) experience that ANY day.
Cultivate thankfulness as a daily practice. Eat more meals around your dinner table or pick a day in the week to make a special meal with special food. If you have to work Thanksgiving day – no one is going to take your family away from you – find a time when you are off and tell them how thankful you are. We don’t need Thanksgiving to feel gratitude, we don’t need Christmas Day to give presents and tell people we love them, and we don’t need New Year’s to start over.
Free yourself from the calendar. Be in the now.
2. STOP JUDGING
I mentioned on a facebook post that my wife is a nurse and she is working Thanksgiving and Friday so our Thanksgiving is Saturday. I said the point of the holiday is gratitude, not the worship of Thursday. A few who worked in retail also wrote that they LIKED working the holiday because of time and a half, and the energy of goodwill in the stores. What did I get back?
- Doctors, nurses and police are ESSENTIAL. Target employees are not. We can live without Target for a day.
- Target doesn’t NEED to be open Thanksgiving. They are just greedy!
- People who go shopping put material things ahead of their family!
They seem like sound arguments – until you see them for the bucket of judgment they represent.
It’s unfair to suggest what one person does is more essential or important than what someone else does. I’m a writer. It’s at the top of the list of “non-essential careers” – but it means the world to me. Is a nurse worth more? Does a doctor’s work make mine meaningless? No. It makes it different. Someone who works at Target may not be essential to you – but that salary, and the good work that person does at their job, is essential to them. Get off your high horse – airport workers, retail clerks, people who fix broken heaters are just as essential as doctors and EMTs – to someone.
Retail runs this country. YOU might not think Target needs to be open Thanksgiving, but the accountant for Target might. They call is “black Friday” because it helps retail stores move from Red (financial loss) to Black (profit) for the year. Maybe it’s more important than you think. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. And, really, unless you are a retail accountant – neither do you.
Newsflash: Not everyone has a family. Or a nice family. Or thinks spending all afternoon eating is the best way to be with their family. Or can make memories laughing while shopping instead of silently sitting in front of the Cowboys football game. Truth is, not every family looks like this:
Sometimes they look like this:
So getting out of the house and doing a little shopping or going to a movie until things cool down might just be the better option. When you assume the reason everyone shops is materialism – then it is likely YOU who is the materialist.
3. BE A GOOD GUEST
Let’s face it. As living beings –we are all guests on this planet. We don’t own the ocean, nature, sky or weather. We are all blessed to be guests on our mother Earth’s surface. So as we get into December – a place where a lot of religions, people, and ideas are all trying to experience joy, birth, goodness, and light in the midst of winter – let people do what they do without correction or criticism.
If you were a guest at a party, and you saw some people eating the meat out of soup with chopsticks – would you walk over and say, “You people are WRONG! Beef stew is eaten with a spoon! YOU HATE SILVERWARE!”? No – probably not. You might say, “wow, that’s different from how I do it,” then pick up your spoon and eat.
So – since we are all guests at December’s spiritual party – some people are going to say Merry Christmas, and some people are going to say Happy Hanukah, and some people are going to talk about Kwanza, and others are going to talk about “Happy Holidays.” Get over that. Say what you say and let people say what they say.
Jesus might be the reason for YOUR season, but other people have other reasons and celebrate other seasons. Accept a happy greeting in the spirit it’s given, and move along. Every time you complain about this kind of stuff at Christmas an angel sets its wings on fire.
What was Calendar Man’s ultimate capture? In the mini-series Dark Victory, Calendar Man tries to capture another villain called “Holiday” who is stealing his thunder by killing on holidays. What happens to him? Holiday’s sister catches Calendar Man and nearly beats him to death, leaving his tied up body for Batman to find. Holiday territoriality is clearly a bad idea.
Don’t be trapped by the lines on a page or the fantasy about “how it is supposed to be.” Be in your present. Be in the now. Just be, and let the world be too.
Christmas from Advent to Zen
Growing up in a family that didn’t’t go to church or celebrate Christianity in any overt fashion (“There is a God, but that’s not really for us” was my mother’s view), Christmas meant one word: books. Well, I suppose when I was very small it also meant Santa – but mostly by the time I was able to plop down in a chair and start reading – Santa was just a means to an end – books. In fact, even now there is a book under the tree with my name on it every year. When I was seventeen I went to church with a friend, walked the aisle, and “asked Jesus into my heart” which made me a new creation and brought about a new winter focus: Advent.
Advent is the season of expectation. Traditionally it is the four weeks before Christmas where we anticipate and imagine the gifts the Christ child will bring us. The weeks are marked by candles and set up to reflect the beauty the holiday celebrates:
Advent is what we focus on while we attempt to ignore the hardcore shopping (“I will cut you for that Leap Frog Tablet!”), wild partying (“Open bar at the office today!”), and general outrage (“Your ad says “Holidays” not “Christmas” – I’m never shopping here again after I buy these things and get my discount!”) of the season. When I am tired of the hustle, bustle, dining or whining – I light a purple candle and call it a star-filled night – when love come into our world wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.
I love Advent but I have also gained sanity and balance by ridding myself of its main component – expectation. For the most part, our culture has transformed expectation from being a holy waiting filled with gratitude to a laundry list of requirements that must be met. Ancients regarded unmet expectations as a sign or a challenge. Modern families regard them as disappointment – always to be avoided.
We are fed expectation (along with a diet of competition, conformity, and confusion) in every corner of our life. Goal directed behavior is our drug of choice, and “meets (or exceeds) expectations” is the Holy Grail. Church leaders buy books, attend seminars and gnash their teeth at meetings attempting to define and evaluate the congregation’s expectations for growth, leadership, social impact and whether there is enough church buy-in to go for that new hymnal. We have raised up a model and voted that the surprising, not-what-you-expect, catch-me-if-you-can Holy Spirit must work within it. Expectation has made us fat on promises, and thin on perseverance. It is time for it to go.
But, how can I have Advent without expectation? First by realizing the three wise magi probably started life looking like this:
My Christian heart, cultivated in the west is buoyed each day by my Zen practice – founded in the east. In meditation we are taught to let go of expectation and embrace acceptance. It is what it is. It will be what it will be. And, we accept it as its nature without judgment. A life without judging one another – sounds kinda like something I heard about once, from a guy – on a hill – found by these three wise folks after he became more than expectation.
The magi were following a star. Looking for a king. Did you see the gifts they brought? No rattles, no cool crib mobiles, and no booties. I’m pretty sure a teen couple in a barn with a baby was NOT what they expected. It was what they accepted. No one threw up a magi hand, stomped back to his camel or shouted at the star, “A baby? Really? REALLY?!”
They accepted something they never expected.
So this Advent – I will not expect. I will accept.
I will accept Peace – the gift of perspective, forgiveness and rest.
I will accept Hope – the gift of a future, assurance, and trust.
I will accept Joy – laughter and cookies, giggles and jokes.
I will accept Love – all around me, within me, abundantly.
And I will accept that the Holy Spirit whom I have never been able to catch will do something unexpected – and leave a baby unto us – and his name shall be called …“Wonderful.”
(And, if there is a book under the tree with my name on it – I’ll accept that too.)
For everyone complaining about stores putting up Christmas decorations too early, writing less-than-merry notes to retail outlets, judging people who are camping in front of Best Buy already and boycotting stores – This post is for us.
Recently I went to an exhibition of Hollywood Costumes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. It was a grand affair showcasing everything from a sequined dress in Broadway Melody of 1929 to Kate Winslet’s monstrously large hat featured in Titanic. The exhibit started in an open room with Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra costume beside Elizabeth Taylor’s Nile niceties (not very fair to Claudette, actually – Liz was amazing). There was a group of people looking at the dresses and the rest of us bunched up behind them waiting our turn. When the security guards changed shifts I overheard the following statement.
“About every 15 minutes or so you have to remind them there isn’t a line. People tend to line up naturally and it blocks the flow.”
People tend to line up naturally.
Isn’t that the truth? Being finite and craving order, we humans love us a good line. We spend gallons of time in pre-school learning how to stand in line. We play games in Junior Camp where we ask people to line up by height, birth month, or age. We walk across the various graduation stages of our life in well-dressed lines. Most of us get job that involve putting, keeping, or designing things to stay in line. Heck, at Christmas time we all set out scenes celebrating the caravan of magi finding the baby Jesus. What’s a caravan? A walking line – with camels.
There is one line we are addicted to more than any other: Time.
What time is it? (It’s adventure time!)
What time do you want me to be there? (personal time)
What time is my appointment? (a time with a time!)
What time does church start? (worship has a time)
Church ran late today. (worship has a finite time?)
Why are the magi getting here so early? The baby is still fussy! (Rotten time-less camels).
We are allllll about time. Which, when you think about it, is a little narcissistic because we are the makers of time. One of the things we struggle with in our faith journey more than any other is the fact that God doesn’t own a watch. We use words with God like: past, future, soon, and now. God just nods at our perception of lined existence and accepts it like a parent taking a hand-print turkey and placing it on the fridge. “Yes, yes, children. Very good.”
The problem isn’t that we made time or that we love time. The problem is that we have trapped ourselves in time and it steals from us the gift God made – abundant joy. We spend so many moments fussing, worrying, complaining, counting and howling about things that seem out of our time perception we miss out on the real message and real joy we were trying to promote in the first place. When you walk into the store on November first and see tinsel, trees and silver bells – you have a CHOICE over how you respond. You can get mad and rail about the “too-darn-early-ness’ of it all and have a grouchy day OR you can say “wow – such bright colors” and have a fun afternoon. You choose.
Here’s my thoughts on the rants I encounter.
“It’s too early for Christmas stuff. It’s not even Advent!” – Since we made up time – you should probably know we made up Christmas and Advent too. In fact some biblical scholarly type folks dare to say Jesus wasn’t even born in December – let alone the 25th. So, there really isn’t a “too early” when it comes to being spiritual. In fact, there is nowhere that God says, “Only celebrate the birth of love in the world after Thanksgiving and before the New Year.” – I’m pretty sure the watchless God likes us to celebrate that at any time, and probably more than we do.
“It demeans Thanksgiving.” – Really? A jingle bell song on the radio and some candy canes on a shelf and you are no longer thankful? I would suggest your hold on gratefulness might be a little shallow if you aren’t going to celebrate Thanksgiving because retailers get their wares out a little earlier than you would like. Thanksgiving is in the soul – not the supermarket.
“People end up having to work on a family day!” Well, yes. Ask anyone who is or who loves a policeman, nurse, 911 dispatcher, military personnel, tow-truck driver, plumber, heater repair person (we love it when they work on a holiday because our heater burns out, we’ll even pay them extra to do it) – and they will tell you that sometimes you have to work on a holiday. But, they will also tell you that you still manage to have a family day – some other day. Because the truth is – you can be thankful and celebrate your family, faith and friends ANY DAY and should do it more than one day a year anyhow. Word on the street is – you can even buy turkeys all year long if you want.
“Stores encourage people to camp out in line and miss Thanksgiving just for $200 off on a flat screen TV. The stores and the people are wrong!” It has been my experience that someone willing to spend three days in a tent for a sale needs little encouragement. Maybe camping in front of Best Buy IS a way they celebrate Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s a ritual for them that is more than just a cheap TV. And, maybe getting that much off a flat screen makes them thankful. It’s not my place to judge them. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not yours either.
“People pushing, shoving, grabbing material things shows the worst of humanity and defies the meaning of the season.” Well, people constantly complaining, judging others, agonizing, boycotting stores that don’t use the word Christmas, and claiming to be more spiritual than others pretty much does the same.
So – here’s the deal: If you choose to camp in front of Walmart and have spam on crackers for Thanksgiving – be thankful. If you choose to sit in your house with turkey and watch football with loved ones – be thankful. If you choose to block out the decorations, radio stations, and Santa commercials until December – be at peace and let others be that way too. If you’re already up on egg nog and have a candy cane scarf around your neck – be at peace and let others be that way too.
God has no watch. Love has no season. Thankfulness should be daily anyway.
Live your love
Love your neighbor
Get out of line.