By Sensei Alex Kakuyo
On Christmas morning, Buddhists find themselves in a tricky situation.
They may wonder if celebrating Christmas is in-keeping with the Dharma, or if they should abstain from the celebrations all together. However, a brief survey of Buddhist devotional practices shows that Christmas celebrations are not only in-keeping with Buddha’s wisdom, they also help us end suffering for ourselves and others.
In Buddhism, we’re taught that ignorance is the root cause of suffering. This ignorance comes in two forms.
There is ignorance of the absolute, which results in clinging to the illusion of a separate, permanently abiding self. And there is ignorance of the conventional, which results in clinging to sense-pleasures.
These two types of ignorance are interpenetrated and mutually supporting. When we chase after sense-pleasures (drugs, money, status, etc.) they reinforce the illusion that we are separate from the world around us, and when we feel separation from others, we desire sense-pleasures to numb the pain.
Thus ignorance leads to desire, and desire leads to greed and anger. This is how we arrive at the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, which keep us trapped in the cycle of suffering
Over 2,600 years Buddhist teachers have developed numerous ways to free people from ignorance; to break the cycle suffering. One simple practice is devotion, which is practiced in Buddhist temples all over the world.
The concept is straightforward, if our suffering comes from a feeling of separation, we can counteract it by building relationships, which increase feelings of belonging and interconnectedness. Buddhist devotional practices take many forms, but the most well-known is that of gift-giving and making offerings.
We see this when practitioners make offerings of food and water at their altars.
Lighting candles and burning incense are also traditional parts of Buddhist liturgies. These actions build a sense of community in the sangha as everyone worships together.
They also generate feelings of compassion and generosity in our minds as we learn that devotion, and the vulnerability that comes with it, is safe. This is important because ignorance may convince us that kindness is weakness, that its dangerous to share affection with others. This reinforces feelings of isolation, and results in increased suffering.
Of course, this begs the question, “Who are we showing devotion too?” In the context of Buddhist training, we start by showing devotion to Buddha and the bodhisattvas that came after him. Often times, its easier to show respect for a historical figure or celestial beings because we know the feeling is mutual.
Every time we bow to Buddha, he bows back to us.
However, as we learn to honor the Buddha on our altar, we also learn to honor the Buddha in our hearts. This in turn leads to us seeing and caring for the Buddha in others until the our object of devotion is whoever and whatever is in front of us at the moment.
That’s why when a student asked Zen master Tozan, “What is Buddha,” he responded, “Three pounds of flax.” If a bag of seeds is Buddha, worthy of praise, what does that say about human beings?
Ironically, one of the best opportunities to pay homage to the Buddha is found on a Christian holiday. Christmas with its focus on decorations, gift-giving, and communal meals allows us to recognize the divinity of all things. We can do this in a number of ways.
First, we can put up a Christmas tree in our home, and decorate it with lights and other adornments.
For a Buddhist, the tree is representative of the trees that live in Amida Buddha’s pure land.
The trees in the pure land, are brightly colored, and their branches possess seven types of jewels. In this way, the trees that decorate our homes are a reminder of Amida’s grace, and a physical representation of our own enlightened nature.
Next, we can exchange gifts with family members and friends. It’s easy to forget that we and everyone around us possess Buddha-nature. While its a powerful practice to make offerings at our altar, it’s even more power to make offering to the people/ Buddhas in our lives.
When we give gifts with a mind of gratitude and faith; when we practice devotion to other people, we build relationships that destroy the illusion of separateness. We honor the interdependent nature of our communities, and we reduce suffering for everyone involved.
Finally, we can share meals with our loved ones. Food is precious, but it’s especially valuable in the context of spiritual practice. The first food offering that was ever given to the Buddha was a bowl of rice milk. It was given to him by a young girl named Sujata, and the Buddha would have starved to death without her help.
Think about that for a moment. The Buddha Dharma would have disappeared from this earth if not for a single offering of food.
We can replicate the wisdom of Buddha and the compassion of Sujata by making food offerings to our families and friends. When we break bread with them during the holidays, our devotion is a show of respect both to them and to Sujata who set an example for us to follow 2,600 years ago.
As Buddhists, it can be challenging to blend our own spiritual traditions with the dominant culture of America.
We may feel as if we need to exclude ourselves from celebrations or give up part of ourselves to keep the peace. But if we practice skillful means and approach life with creativity, we can find the Buddha Dharma in every aspect of life.
Namu Amida Butsu
Editor: Dana Gornall
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