In the Simpsons episode ‘She of Little Faith’, Lisa converts to Buddhism. Reverend Lovejoy tries to dissuade her by saying she can’t celebrate Christmas because “Santa doesn’t leave presents under the Bodhi tree”. Richard Gere puts things right, explaining Buddhists believe all religions founded on love and compassion are valid spiritual paths.
So you can eat your Christmas cake and still be Buddhist, although excessive consumption of said cake may highlight the idea of attachment and aversion and their lack of difference (“You just love this cake – your third piece… What’s the matter, aren’t you feeling well?”)
Many religions celebrate in November/December. Deepavali (Hindi), Niiname (Shinto) Festival, Birth of Baha’u’llah and Ascension of Abdu’l-Bah (bahai) Hannukah (Jewish), Bodhi Day (Buddhism).
In Singapore this year, the Christmas lights went up on Orchard Road, while Deepavali was still being celebrated. No one thought that was unusual, such is its multicultural ethos.
As a Buddhist, although this time of year is not my spiritual celebration, I still have a Xmas gift list. Like Richard Gere, I value any spiritual tradition that celebrates love and compassion.
The gifts to give or receive if you are Buddhist are not so different from other spiritual paths. The difference is most of them don’t involve spending large amounts of money.
Here are some of the gifts I (and if I may be humble enough to suggest, other Buddhists, too) would like to receive this year:
‘Thoughtful’ Gifts: Buddhists strive for non-attachment to material things, so stocking stuffers are out. Gifts that have meaning for the other are ‘thoughtful’. For me, that is someone who might come and do meditation with me. Do you have a deeply religious Christian friend? Go with them to church to show you respect their faith. Do you have a friend that seems to be down? Give them a call, take them out for tea, talk or no talk.
Helpful gifts for those with less: Jesus’ birth was enabled by a family showing kindness to his mother and father, providing simple lodgings. Help someone, a close friend, family, or a stranger, without judgment (a young couple on a donkey turning up on your back step in the middle of the night wanting lodgings? Really?). Buy some grocery gift cards from a supermarket and give them to people in need. I would love someone to donate to a good cause on my behalf as a Xmas gift.
Plant Seeds of Kindness: Hold the door open for a person with their hands full, pay for the coffee of the next five people in line behind you, give a spontaneous hug to someone who looks like they need it. Expect no reciprocation. The ripple effect of being kind is truly remarkable (guess that is why they call it karma). I like these kinds of gifts most of all.
“Be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it” – Prophet Muhammed from the Book of Manners.
Help an Animal: Buddhists believe that kindness must be practiced with all living beings (if we do not wish to be eaten, we should probably not eat others). Animals feel cold, pain, hunger, and fear, love and joy just like us. Donate animal food to a charity like SOSD, or offer to foster an abandoned or sick dog or cat. Buy a little toy for your own furry companion.
“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men” – Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, who preached sermons to animals.
Give the gift of Loving-Kindness: Sometimes the gift is to be kind to and love ourselves. One such loving kindness gift is mindful meditation. It creates lasting positive change in you, your family and community. For the 12 days of Christmas, sing the song, and then spend 5 minutes each day sending loving thoughts to a respected person (such as a teacher, many Buddhists include Buddha), a loved one (such as a family member or close friend), a person you don’t know (that ‘faceless’ cashier at your supermarket), and a hostile person (someone you are having difficulty with).
“You become that which you believe you can become” ― Bhagavad Gita
We are lucky in Singapore. So many calendar reminders about the practice of compassionate gift-giving and conscious living. Wishing Happy Deepavali, Joyful Vesak to others reinforces the common values of peace, loving-kindness, and even and universal love. As does Merry Xmas.
So for this time of year, for all my Christian friends around the world, I wish you a ‘Merry Christmas’.