Growing up as a Christian, Christmas was always more than gifts and decorations and sugar cookies. There was a deeply spiritual aspect of it as well, one that grew in importance as I matured. The season of Advent led me steadily toward a solemn contemplation of the extraordinariness of God being born as a defenseless infant, in a stinky hay-filled stall no less.
The activities of church competed with the activities of the “season”—the joyous camaraderie of the “greening” of the sanctuary and polishing of the brass; the celebratory hubbub of the packed pews at midnight mass on Christmas Eve; the quiet contemplative air of the sparsely populated pews on Christmas morning. These continued to be cherished memories and colored my experience of the month of December after I stopped attending church a couple of years ago.
It was one year ago that I realized I had become a Buddhist, shortly after Christmas. Perhaps then I was unwittingly feeling what I am quite aware of now, and what is making me wonder what this holiday is all about for someone who is not Christian.
When the Christmas displays began popping up in stores and the carols started playing on the radio, something felt off. It took me a couple of weeks of puzzling over why I wasn’t being caught up in the Christmas spirit before I realized that the something missing was that deep spiritual aspect of Christmas. Feelings related to beliefs and a faith no longer central to my spiritual life were gone, and I keenly felt the loss. And the feeling was heightened by a greater awareness of what was left—the singularly spirit-devoid secular aspects of the holiday season.
Don’t get me wrong: the holidays are certainly spirited. But the mass consumerism of the season seems soulless to me and leaves me sad at feeling divided from the majority of those around me who are bright and bubbly and full of Christmas cheer. I’m not being judgmental. This is not about the behavior of other persons, it’s about feeling unanchored in a maelstrom of materialism.
What is left for me in the December holidays? Putting up a tree and decorations feels…weird, for lack of a more precise word. Why are we exchanging gifts? Why are schools and businesses closing? What’s the point? It all seems empty and meaningless to me now. I am going through the motions without independent thought as to why.
I haven’t yet resolved this quandary to any great extent, and welcome anyone’s thoughts. In the meantime, I am focusing on making this an occasion to act on compassion, to seek out opportunities to support causes and activities devoted to helping the needy and disadvantaged. It seems like a good time to invigorate what should be a daily practice as a new year fast approaches. Hit the compassion ground running (giving?), so to speak.
I consider myself both a Christian and a Buddhist. I don’t know how many others are like me. I also find the materialism of the season difficult to witness. What I do find meaningful, though, is the remarkable similarity of Jesus’ and Buddha’s teachings. Both came to teach us the power of compassion, to practice loving-kindness, to live in peace.
Sandy, you are not alone! May I recommend “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, which explores some similarities between early Christianity and the teachings of the Buddha.
Excellent recommendation, Kevin! I loved that book, and it helped to form my belief that all religions are essentially focused on the same treasured beliefs–love, compassion–but have developed differently to serve many different people. Thank you for reading and commenting!
I hear what you’re saying, Sandy. The most spiritual of my years as a Christian came after I was exposed to Eastern practice and philosopy through Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Basil Pennington, and others. The melding of the two was natural, and though I consider myself a Buddhist now (as if labels were even necessary), much of what I came to hold most dear as a Christian is still a part of my spiritual core–love, compassion, giving of oneself.
i feel the same as you. I will always will believe in Jesus and the Spirit of the church he created, but I ca no longer be lieve the travesty that a few power hungry an empty moral man have turn our Church into.
God is in all of us and all arrround us,
I also follow both philosophies, I study both and think Jesus could be a good buddist, but Buddha would not be a christian. I believe in reincarnation and good deeds or karma. Compassion is the common factor in both philosophies.
I like the idea of Jesus as a Buddha. I certainly believe they would have gotten along famously. Thank you, Beth.
Thank you for your essay on the Blues. I have had the Christmas Blues for years, long before I realized I was becoming a Buddhist. (don’t tell my family). I really struggle with the materialism and mindless spending this time of the year. So many people that don’t have the money going into debt because the commercialism of the season says we must.
Without judging what others are doing, I wonder where my place is at this time. In the interest of full disclosure, I still love to lavish gifts on people, both loved ones and strangers, and must admit to enjoying receiving gifts, too. I’m only human. So one of my objectives this year is to spread the cheer and good fortune as broadly as I can. Thanks for reading and responding, Cindy.
I agree with you. Feel the same way. The hardest thing for me is seeing people praying for peace around a table where the centerpiece is a dead and tortured sentient being.
Yes, Thanksgiving Day was very odd for me this year. I really had no issue with my family eating turkey, but it is so central to that meal traditionally that my meal almost felt…invalid. 😉
I could suggest that Buddhism’s focus on experience rather than belief turned everything on its head for me, but I realize now that that has been my focus for a long time, even if kept “under wraps” and unarticulated. I don’t deny the Christian story, but neither have I experienced proof of it–yes, nature and the galactic nebulae are awesome and wondrous in themselves, but that’s all I can say or know. I regard the Bible as an amazing collection of accounts and moral teachings, but I don’t consider it self-authenticating (“How do I know that what’s in the Bible is true?” “Because it’s in the Bible.” Sorry, no, I don’t go there anymore.) But neither do I have to go so far as to say the accounts are not factually true–I simply don’t know from my experience. And so the question I have at this time of year (and at Easter) is: if I don’t just “go along” with this storyline and mouth the words and genuflect on cue, how will my life change? What will happen? Will I feel bad about it? Will I feel left out, or even ostracized? You would think that something would immediately go terribly amiss, but my experience has been otherwise. Life went on pretty much as expected. Pleasant and unpleasant and neutral things came up. It is no comfort to me to avoid saying “I don’t know” by instead telling a story, one that I’m then supposed to “believe” in (upon penalty of dire consequences or damnation for any denial or apostasy.) The truth is, I wish I COULD say that my experience leads me to the reality of the Christian Christmas and Easter accounts. But belief has to amount to something more than hedging one’s bets. /// As for the much-discussed commercialism, a great deal about the holiday season isn’t about religion, and I say celebrate that any way you want to. Send cards, give gifts, throw parties. I still do all those things. But pay attention to your intentions and be aware of the attachments and cravings and aversions come with the expectations (ours and others’.)
That is marvelous advice, Steven. Thank you.
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I think you have noted some very interesting points , thankyou for the post.
I think most of us who were raised Christian have gone through what you’re going through. Even though most Buddhists seem to recognize Christianity and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive, it’s an entirely different matter for almost every Christian I know. I am both a Christian and a Buddhist and I believe both Jesus and Buddha walked the same path. I never had a crisis of faith, but I had a huge crisis of church and haven’t attended much for many years. The turning point for me was when I kept attending prayer classes that were only about how to ask for things and when I’d comment about the silence and listening that connects to that beyond ourselves, nobody would know what I was talking about. Christianity teaches us how to pray with petition, Buddhism teaches us how to meditate and listen.
When I first decided that I was in the wrong place for my spiritual growth, I continued my practice of contemplative prayer on my own, not realizing that what I was doing was meditation, and started looking for a place where I could feel at home.
I found it through studying Buddhism, first by reading everything I could get my hands on, and then through classes online with rigpa.org. I don’t see myself ever renouncing the teachings of Jesus, though as Christianity becomes more and more conservative, it seems Christians are renouncing me.
When required to label myself I usually say Christian with the help of Buddhism or Christian/Buddhist . I would prefer just to say “I am”, but people and governments are very attached to their labels and, lol, I have an attachment to not making unnecessarily high waves.
I know it’s difficult when people we love and care about are appalled at our desertion and are terrified that we’re going to hell for eternity so they’ll never see us again when they die and go to heaven. Sometimes it seems easier and less painful to let go of our private attachments than to let go of our attachment to our loved ones attachments 😉 but from your blog it is obvious you are loving and strong.
May you find peace, love, and equanimity in all that is, all that was, and all that will be.
Wonderful thoughts, Janis. Thank you so much for sharing them. I learned to meditate as a Christian, and learned contemplative prayer as well from the writings of Thomas Merton and Basil Pennington. Of course, both of them were drawing on what they had learned from the East. 🙂
It is interesting how religion is engulfed in tradition and culture. Certainly there are plenty of people out there asking that Christ be kept in Christmas, so I don’t think you are alone in being repulsed by the consumerism attached too all the holidays. I was disgusted by the stores staying open on Thanksgiving. My guess is it keeps our economy going. I for one feel free from all of that, my family and most friends don’t exchange gifts any more. When you take a step back from the madness you really can see the madness from your new vantage point. I was raised Christian and see so many similarities between it and Buddhism. I’m not quite sure what I am at this point (leaning heavily towards Buddhism I suppose). What I’ve done is taken what I enjoy about the season and dropped what I don’t. I put up my Christmas Tree because I like my Christmas Tree. I visited with my family because I like my family. I didn’t shop because it wasn’t necessary and I can’t afford it. Plain and simple. After moving to South Jersey a few years ago, I have escaped the madness of North New Jersey, the difference is stark. Christmas time up north is a hassle to say the least and most people are exhausted by the end of it. Did they truly enjoy it? I suppose to a point, would they have still enjoyed it if they had just sat down to a dinner, I’m sure they would have. Unfortunately we are trained to cook, and shop and keep up with the Jones’. Its a shame really. As the winter solstice approaches I reflect on the wonder of the universe and how nice it really is at Christmas time, I think it brings out the best in people and sometimes the worst. If only we could all carry the Christmas cheer with us throughout the year. But I think that is what being a Buddhist and a Christian is all about. Love and compassion, every second of every day! Without the Bling!
Such terrific thoughts! Thank you so much for sharing them, Linda.