Christmas Dharma

“Merry Christmas.”

A simple greeting, filled with joy and good wishes. However, in the last few years as more of my friends, associates and relatives learn that I am a Buddhist this greeting has caused confusion for them. I have had people wish me, “Merry Christmas,” and then apologize, hoping that they had not offended me. I jokingly reply that I celebrate all holidays and accept all blessings. This often leads to the question, “Do Buddhists celebrate Christmas?”

Shakyamuni Buddha was born five hundred years before Christ so his teachings do not deal with Christianity. In most Asian Buddhist countries, the first exposure to Christianity came with Marco Polo and later with the missionaries. In America the situation is reversed. Here, Christianity was well established as the dominant belief before the introduction of Buddhism. As such, American Buddhism has developed in a culture that places a great emphasis, both religious and commercial, upon Christmas. I cannot speak for all Buddhists, therefore, I will relate personal experiences.

Buddhists do not celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas. Many modern Buddhists relate to Christ as a historical example of an enlightened being. In his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” the Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hahn explores some of the teachings of Christ from a Buddhist perspective. Buddha and Christ presented ways of living to overcome suffering. Buddha taught the liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death. Christ spoke of attaining eternal salvation. Both recognized that greed, anger and desire were the root causes of our suffering. Our ego driven ignorance blinds us to the universal oneness of all existence.

Christ, like Buddha, taught compassion for all living things. One should live in a way that lessens not only your suffering but also the suffering of the lives around you. Peace on Earth, good will towards men.

During the last sixteen years I have tried to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the Buddhist teachings. Interestingly, this has also made me more aware of the spirit of Christmas. At this time of year, more people become focused on giving. Some give gifts. Others give of their time. Even more give the gift of good wishes. Christmas is a time of giving on all levels.

A few years ago, Christmas fell on a Sunday. At our service the minister opened by saying, “Merry Christmas.” This minister, the son of our founding minister, explained how as a child his family always had a Christmas tree and presents. His father loved the idea of giving and oneness that Christmas represents. We should try to sustain this feeling throughout the year, not just at Christmas.

To people of all faiths I wish you joy. May your spiritual path help you overcome suffering. Have a very, merry Christmas.

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