Thursday, 12 December 2013

Buddha is the Reason for the Season

Irish Christmas card, ca. 1880
Know any Scrooge-sans? You know, Zenners who pout all December because it's Christmas and they're not Christian. If so, you might point out that Christmas is a secular holiday thousands of years old, bent to religious ends by the Druids and their contemporaries, long before Christians got their prideful hands on it. But some sangha just have a giant chip on their shoulder about the Church, and so become the jutting jaw we hear about every year in the carol. You know: "Four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a big honkin' juttin' Zen jaw." In so doing, they surrender all Yule to a fanatical fringe that speciously demands ownership of it, and their own religious convictions to crass competition.

We Boreals have a deep physiological need to confront the terrifying cold and black of Dark Solstice, and so the symbols of light and fire, of evergreen, ever-living, winter-fruiting vegetation, and general contempt of death and fear, crop up repeatedly throughout our hemisphere. It's perfectly logical to find religious significance in natural phenomena, the only indisputable scripture there is. That's why Rohatsu – marking the time the Buddha sat under a symbol of the cosmos for eight days straight and was reborn in the laser light of the morning star – is in December. The Jews commemorate a lamp that burned for eight days without oil; Greeks and Romans sacrificed to the Harvest God, who dies every year and is reborn the next. And Christians celebrate the birth of their Saviour – bringer of light, defeater of death – though he was actually born in March.

In other words, they celebrate the effect of Christ's coming, not its fact, but sadly that's more insight than many contemporary Christians can muster. And so they've made the Season of Peace a battleground. "Jesus is the reason for the season!" is not a cry of gratitude; it's a rebuke to people who take their kids to see Santa Claus.

So it's game, point, and match to hatred. But wait, here's Team Zen, taking the ice! Will they make this a game?


Some Zenners campaign to remove Christmas trees from airports; razor Christ-themed carols from school "Winter" concerts; even ban Santa from the mall. (I don't even know where to start with those.) Others just wall themselves up in their little cells and chant loudly in fake Chinese to fend off any errant strains of Bing Crosby that might filtre through their double-glazing.

This in spite of the fact that Christmas is the most Buddhist of holidays; arguably more, actually, than it ever was Christian. It's Sekito Kisen all over again:

Darkness is a word for merging upper and lower,
light is an expression for distinguishing pure and defiled.
The four gross elements return to their own natures like a baby taking to its mother:
fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid;
eye and form, ear and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste—
thus in all things the leaves spread from the root.
The whole process must return to the source.
Noble and base are only manners of speaking;
right in light there is darkness but don’t confront it as darkness,
right in darkness there is light but don’t see it as light.
Light and dark are relative to one another like forward and backward steps.

Read this chant – possibly for a first honest time – and tell me it ain't a fair-dinkum Zen Christmas carol.

The only reasonable Zen response to the ancient rite of Jul is acceptance. Acceptance of its universal origin; of its truth; and crucially, of the Dharma, which clearly passes right down the middle of it.

We are in the delusion-slashing business. I respectfully suggest we apply those skills, now they are more vital than usual, to restoring the true meaning of – and demilitarising – Christmas.

May we look deeply, every one.

(Photo of Irish Christmas card courtesy of Shirley Wynne and Wikimedia Commons, from an album of Christmas cards collected by Georgina Pim of Crosthwaite Park, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, between 1881 and 1893.)

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