The Urban Dharma Newsletter - December, 2009

In This Issue: Buddhism and Christmas

1. Buddhists Have a Santa Claus and a December Holiday
2. Buddhism at Christmastime
3. Christmas, Buddhist-style
4. A Very Buddhist Christmas
5. Eluding Happiness / A Buddhist problem with Christmas.
6. A Christmas Story from the Lotus Sutra
7. Oranges for a Buddhist's Christmas Present


Happy Holidays,

A Newsletter on Christmas and Buddhism, enjoy.

Peace… Kusala

1. Buddhists Have a Santa Claus and a December Holiday – December 20, 2009 by
Michael Segers


In all the Christmas rush and in what some perceive to be a "war against Christmas," America's growing Buddhist community seem to be missing in action. There are two reasons that many Buddhists typically do not have a problem wishing "Merry Christmas" or participating in other aspects of the holiday season.

A Buddhist holiday in December

First, there is a Buddhist holiday on December 8th, known as Bodhi Day, which can be absorbed into the Christmas/Hanukkah season. Unlike most Buddhist holidays, based on a lunar calendar like the Jewish festival of Hanukkah (more) or the Christian festival of Easter (more), Bodhi Day does not move around the solar calendar from year to year.

Bodhi Day commemorates the attainment of Enlightenment (Bodhi in the original languages) by Siddhartha Gautama, who thereafter would be called the Buddha, the Enlightened. A good review of the events in the life of the Buddha is A Young People's Life of the Buddha, available here.

A Buddhist Santa Claus

Second, there is Hotei. Traditions about the identity of this fat man in a monk's robes carrying a sack get confused, but does that sound familiar? A fat man with a sack, a Buddhist Santa Claus? Hotei is based on a historical figure, a Chinese monk. Although he is known in Western countries especially as the "laughing Buddha" or the "fat Buddha," he is not technically a Buddha, an enlightened one, but a bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be (more).

He is identified with Maitreya, who, it is taught, is the next Buddha yet to be. Some traditions say that Hotei gave children sweets from his sack, while other traditions say that he simply carried all his worldly goods in that sack.

Those are easy, fairly superficial Buddhist connections to Christmas, reasons why Buddhists do not have a war against Christmas. But, the one recurring Buddhist objection to Christmas in several blogs and websites is one that many Christians would share, that Christmas has become too commercialized and hectic, that its spiritual values have been diminished, by those who celebrate it.

Happy Bodhi Day! Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas!

2. Buddhism at Christmastime / An Essay by George Boeree


When people find out that I'm a Buddhist, they always have these cute little questions like, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Well, I've always loved Christmas a lot, so the question kinda throws me every time.

First, they make the mistake of assuming that Christmas is a purely Christian holiday, and of course it's not: It has roots in the winter solstice celebration common to northern people, and many other roots. Christmas trees, holly branches, mistletoe, candles, feasts, gift-giving -- all are older than Christmas "proper."

Some will point out "it IS called Christmas, you know!" I (playfully!) point out that Easter is named after Eostre, goddess of the dawn (the east)! I do get some pretty dirty looks.

Santa Claus is a particular favorite of mine. He derives from the Christian Saint Nicholas, of course, but he's slowly become a more archetypal creature. It strikes me that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Pu Tai (Hotei in Japanese), the cheerful fat monk with the big hemp sack full of gifts for children. He is considered to be an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha.

I have a little statue of him on a table next to my favorite chair, and he smiles at the various Santas on my Christmas tree -- and they smile back!

Some people ask me why I let my kids believe in Santa, only to disillusion them later. But I think Santa is actually for the adults, teaching us unselfish, anonymous generosity!

Even the nativity is a wonderful story. I see it more as myth than reality (the same way I view most Buddhist stories) but it touches me anyway. Beyond all the centuries of accumulated superstition, Jesus seems to have been another enlightened being, serving a different people in a different time.

The nativity story is like a parable that illustrates the wisdom of such expressions as "the meek shall inherit the earth." That's always sounded so "Buddhist" to me -- I wonder if there is a parallel in the sutras?

Mary particularly touches me (though, raised a Protestant, I was taught not to "over-value" her like Catholics do!). She has a nice counterpoint in Kuan Yin (Kwannon, or Avalokiteshwara) in his/her feminine aspect: She, too, hears the sorrows of the world. Buddhism, like Christianity, comes out of a male-dominated culture, and both need that feminine touch!

Really, what could be more "Buddhist" than a holiday that celebrates giving, compassion, and human warmth! Here's a little "present" for you, a quote from a 16th century Italian monk:

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.

Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

--Fra Giovanni, 1513

Quoted in Tasha Tudor's "Take Joy! The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book" (Cleveland: Collins World, 1966).

Have a Merry Christmas, all of you, and a Happy New Year!

3. Christmas, Buddhist-style – by Sharon Saw / Spirituality 18 Dec 2009


This holiday season, Sharon Saw presents some tips and principles behind gifting for Buddhists, and everyone else!

Many may wonder what do Buddhists have to do with Christmas. Well, Buddhists can celebrate any occasion, and many Buddhists I know exchange gifts during Christmas, amongst themselves or with Christian friends. In fact, I personally think that Christmas is a lovely time for appreciating friends and loved ones. Some think that Christmas, together with Valentines’ Day, Mothers’ Day etc. have become totally commercial and refuse to celebrate at all. Yes I agree that some restaurants increase prices during the festive season and on Valentines’ day, roses triple in price. So to avoid commercialism, we buy different flowers on Valentines’ Day and dine at different restaurants.

Are we being stingy or merely prudent? Someone asked me – how can we be generous if we ourselves don’t have enough? Generosity is always relative. It depends on how you define it too.

How do we define generosity? Generosity is one of the six perfections in Buddhism, and is even highlighted in one of the aspirational prayers which states: “In the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, until I am enlightened, I seek refuge. Through giving and other perfections, to aid all, may I become Buddha!”

Generosity is the sharing of time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. How do we define enough? When we say we don’t have enough – and we compare our situation with someone homeless on the street, we actually live in abundance. Maybe we cannot buy that Prada bag or the Porsche Cayman we hanker for, but we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, and that’s more than a lot of people have. It’s all a matter of perspective.

There are three types of generosity – firstly, there is miserly generosity. This is when we give things we don’t want. When for George and Steve’s housewarming party, we dig out an unused present from Selangor Pewter (still in its box) that Aunt May gave us for our housewarming and rewrap it up for them. Miserly giving is when we dig out old clothes we will never wear and donate it to the charity home – regardless of whether you think the old folks will ever wear this bright neon yellow sparkly trousers from the early 80s. This kind of giving is actually just recycling.

Secondly, there is kindly generosity. We think of what our friend wants for their birthday and we drive into the city and spend the whole day looking for a particular gift. Or we can even make the gift ourselves because we know our friend would really like it. Or we know our friend is sick and we cook porridge for her and deliver it.

Finally, there is kingly generosity. This is the highest kind of generosity and it is when we give our best – the best portions of our meal, our favourite handbag, our time for leisure, and ultimately, even our lives.

In addition, there are three kinds of gifts: the first and most superficial are material gifts – money, clothes, a car – anything material. This gives merely temporary happiness as the immediate joy of acquisition does not last long.

The second type of gift is one where we teach others self-reliance by sharing with them skills or education. As in the popular saying – give a man a fish and he eats for one day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life. This independence gives us self-esteem and confidence and is a more lasting happiness. However, it may not be permanent because things can happen which may prevent us from using these skills, such as a debilitating illness.

The third type of gift, which is the most valuable and the most lasting of gifts, is when we help people to transform their minds so that they have less fear. Although we often do not recognise it, our lives are governed by fear. Fear of not having enough money, resources, fear of losing our loved ones, fear of losing our health, fear of losing our status, fear of aging and death. If we can help people to be less afraid, by letting them realise that everything is impermanent, that everything does not belong to us, that the core of it all is to let go; that would be the best gift we can ever give anyone. And the happiness from that realisation would be permanent and that would really be an endless wealth that no one could ever take away. This is the Dharma.

So in this season of giving and revelry, let’s take a moment to pause and contemplate what gifts we are giving (or not giving, as the case may be) and what reflection they are on our motivation. And, we can always afford to give something – a warm smile, a tight hug, good advice or a kind word costs nothing but is priceless.

May you receive the best gifts this Christmas! Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column will appear every other Friday.

4. A Very Buddhist Christmas – by Jennifer Moreau, Burnaby Now, December 24, 2008


Burnaby, Canada -- In the midst of Christmas spending and a national recession, one Burnaby family is keeping it simple for the holidays.

Yi Ling Chen and her husband, Brandon Lin, are among Burnaby's 9,360 followers of Buddhism, the city's second most common religion next to Christianity. But for Yi Ling, Buddhism is a philosophy of living that carries a message of simplicity during the holidays.

"A kind of philosophy of Buddhism is to reduce what we want," Yi Ling says.

"If we have desire, we always want more," she says, adding this leads to emptiness and dissatisfaction. "It's a bad cycle."

That "lowering of desire" cuts down on insatiable materialism and helps one lead a simple life.

"(We) just think of getting what we need ... and living an eco-friendly life."

Yi Ling and Brandon moved to Canada from Taiwan and later met through the Tzu Chi Foundation, an international Buddhist volunteer group founded and led by Cheng Yen. Yen believes that suffering is caused by material deprivation and spiritual poverty and that a lack of love for others lies at the root of many worldly problems. Yi Ling and Brandon now have a baby girl, Chloe, and a boy on the way.

As Buddhists, they wouldn't normally do anything for Christmas, but, since they are in Canada, they partake in family dinners and exchange presents.

But even gift-giving is carefully examined.

"We just buy what we need," Yi Ling says, a practice they follow every day. "We have to ask ourselves: Are we really getting what we need or are we getting what we want?"

Rather than giving each family member presents, they think about who really needs something replaced.

For example, they bought relatives a TV to replace their aging set. They also bought it and delivered it in November to take advantage of sales - much more practical, Yi Ling says.

"That's another way we do the gift exchange," Yi Ling says. "That's one way to save money and really give something they really need." And that helps reduce desire and lightens the load on Mother Earth. Many worldly problems, such as global warming, are caused by people's desire, Yi Ling says.

The family gets together for a hot pot dinner on Christmas Eve. Since Buddhism promotes compassion for all forms of life, both husband and wife are vegetarian. Dinner is usually tofu, vegetables, fruit and a lot of soy-based food. They also donate old clothes to charity.

"We believe it's time to give and time to share," says Brandon.

For Brandon, the message from Buddhism is to appreciate and give back to society.

"The idea is a lot of us are new immigrants, and we believe we are consuming (resources from) this society," he says. Volunteering is part of the Buddhist philosophy, and the Tzu Chi Foundation gives back to local causes, Brandon says.

According to Yi Ling, the Buddhist Christmas message is not that different from any other day: We should appreciate the day, the whole new start and the fact we are privileged to live in a country free of war, disease, political unrest and terrorism.

"In Christmas, we take the appreciation and turn it into compassion and sharing and respect towards others - not only human beings, but everything on earth.”

5. Eluding Happiness / A Buddhist problem with Christmas. – By Jess Row Posted Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005, at 1:08 PM ET


I grew up in a white, liberal, East Coast family, Unitarian with Presbyterian roots, and we celebrated Christmas in a typical American way: the tree, the school pageant, the Burl Ives carols, the Claymation Rudolph on television. Most of my memories of the holiday are happy ones. But one year—I was 9 or 10—things took a bizarre turn: I woke up and raced down to the tree, inspected all the gifts, and found, to my horror, that out of all of them only two or three were marked for me. My brother (it seemed) had gotten six times as many. It was the younger child's worst nightmare: left out, given the scraps.

I burst out crying and threw a screaming fit. I was shown the little packages underneath that contained the things I really wanted—a Swiss Army knife with my name engraved on it, a Bruce Springsteen tape. But it took an hour to placate me, as I remember.

I'm sure most American adults can dredge up a similar story from their childhood. Of all the holidays we celebrate, Christmas is the one with the highest stakes, the most payoff, and no one understands this better than children. The threat of lumps of coal in the stocking is, in a certain perverse way, very real to them: not because they fear getting nothing but because they fear not getting enough. Parents, too, understand instinctively that presents on Christmas are a test of their love and act accordingly.

Anthropologically speaking, there's nothing unique about our slightly mad celebration of abundance and good fortune at the darkest point on the calendar, with its attendant hangover. I witnessed this some years ago when I lived in Hong Kong during the lunar New Year, which the city celebrates with the same brazen commercial fever it applies to everything else. The highlight of the celebration for children is the distribution of red lai see packets filled with money.

For the last 11 years, I've been a student of Korean Zen, and as an American Buddhist I'm not quite sure how to feel about Christmas. It's not that I feel disloyal celebrating the holiday.

Mahayana Buddhism, the larger tradition to which Zen belongs, encourages coexistence among religious traditions. When I asked one of my teachers recently how he feels about Christmas, he said, "When I'm at the temple, we celebrate Buddha's Enlightenment Day [the first week of December]; when I'm with people celebrating Hanukkah, I celebrate that; when I'm with people celebrating Christmas, I celebrate Christmas."

In many ways, I love Christmas, and not just because I generally enjoyed it as a child. There are many parallels between the Christmas story and the story of Buddha's birth. East Asian Buddhism even has a figure strikingly analogous to Santa Claus—Budai, or Hotei, the enormously fat laughing monk, whose name literally means "cloth sack," a reference to the beggar's bag he carries. Budai's bag is said to be always be full of presents for children; he is often pictured with tots climbing all over him. In China and Japan he is a symbol of abundance and sometimes even overindulgence.

But at the same time, I can't help feeling that something is intrinsically wrong with the contemporary American version of Christmas. It's not simply that the gift-giving has become unmoored from the religious content or that the holiday has become "commercialized." (As Leigh Eric Schmidt's book Commercial Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays makes clear, Christmas in the United States has always been a commercial ritual.) What's awry, from a Buddhist point of view, is that for the most part we've lost the ability to let gifts make us happy. The means—gifts—and the ends—happiness—have become detached. Overwhelmingly today, we assume that the way to make people happy at Christmas is to give them what they have told us they want. This is true of children and adults. The whole process of wish lists, of clear and defined expectations, is in a sense what makes the contemporary American Christmas possible.

Wish lists, however, mean that the giver takes no responsibility for—no ownership of—the gift. From a Buddhist point of view this is inherently a mistake. Whatever we give to someone else we also, in a sense, receive ourselves. The gift itself has only the existence and meaning we assign it. Another way of saying this is that gifts are an extension of our karma.

The most obvious examples of this are gifts that are dangerous or inappropriate—a rifle for an 11-year-old, a car for a 16-year-old who hasn't learned to stop at stop signs. But consider a more benign example. Say that you have a 16-year-old daughter who is dying for a pair of $500 skis. You can afford it; you've budgeted that much to spend on her; and buying them will make her extremely happy, in the short term. On the other hand, you feel it's inappropriate—even outrageous—to spend that much money on a present for a teenager.

Well, so what? It's not the end of the world to have a daughter who has expensive tastes. If you look at the gift simply as a transaction—I have this money, what would you like me to do with it?—it makes no sense for you to censor your daughter's desires. Nonetheless, after you buy these skis, the world will be slightly altered. She will feel validated about receiving extravagant presents as tokens of love, and you, by participating in the transaction, will have affirmed her choice. Nor do your guilt and frustration just disappear: They become part of the exchange itself, part of the price of her happiness. Your relationship is shaped by the gift, instead of the other way around. It's such a subtle shift that you may not ever be aware of it, but the consequences, ultimately, are real.

There's no easy way to extricate ourselves from these binds of obligation and reassurance. For those who want to cut down on expense or shopping there are now many Web sites dedicated to making the season simpler—a worthy goal. But Christmas isn't just about being virtuous; it's about feeling lucky to be alive and grateful for the abundance we share, without letting that abundance drive us crazy. This requires a sense of proportion—an instinct for when more becomes enough. I'm certainly no paragon here: After reading this essay, my wife pointed out that my Amazon wish list has 79 items on it. Many of those titles have been up there for years, and I don't really expect anyone to buy any of them. But the little boy in me wouldn't mind at all.

6. A Christmas Story from the Lotus Sutra


One time a young man inherited 4 farms from his father. He also married his childhood sweetheart. He celebrated his good fortune by building a great house with servants and many rooms.

As the children were born the man bought many toys. He filled the children's rooms with toys of many colors and sizes. The children loved to play for hours in their nursery.

One day a fire broke our in the house. The father shout, "Run everybody." Naturally he expected his children to run out of the house with them. But they didn't follow the mother and father outside to safety. The parents called and called to the children, but they did not want to leave their wonderful toys.

A neighbor who had come to help out with the fire suggested that they lure the children outside with more new toys. "But we don't have any," said the father. "We'll just make them up," suggested the tear-faced mother as the flames grew hotter and hotter. "Come on out," shouted the father and mother together. "We have horses, carts, jumping frogs, mechanical dolls, bows and even a monkey."

The children left the burning house and their beloved toys to see the new ones and thus were saved. When the smoke cleared from their eyes they saw the house destroyed. They also noticed that there were really no new toys to be seen at all. For the first time in their lives they knew what it was to have nothing and be very grateful indeed.

7. Oranges for a Buddhist's Christmas Present – Chicago Guy


“Give oranges,” said the voice.

I looked up from doing Christmas cards on our dining room table. No one else in the room. It was a grey, cold Sunday afternoon. Maria was lost in a frenzy of baking. She bakes the way Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Maybe even the way Gandhi walked the dusty streets of a village.

Christmas music filled the house and fueled her every motion. The football game played without sound as the Chicago Bears played without heart.

“Give oranges,” I heard it again.

“Honey, I got to get something upstairs, I shouted into the kitchen as she danced from the stove to the sink and sang, “OK.”

Climbing the stairs and walking into my closet where all the important stuff that wouldn’t fit anywhere else was tossed in a big white plastic bin, I pulled out the yellow envelope and slipped out the death certificate.

January 12. 2007. Yep. My Aunt Mavis, the Buddhist, was still dead.

Almost two years now. Still sometimes I check. Especially when I hear a voice saying things I don’t understand. Like, “Give oranges.”

It’s usually her.

Walking back downstairs and looking out the front window at the tiny bare tree on Grace Street where I could sometimes feel her presence, I remembered the Zen “Koan.” One of those stories that demands a second read before it even begins to make sense. She loved those kind of stories.

“One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, "Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?" Manjusri replied, "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?"”

I heard Mavis laugh and clap her hands with delight and then recognized her voice saying once more “Give oranges!”

Walking into the kitchen, I pulled a book off the shelf that I had bought just after she died. “The Seat of the Soul.” It was by the author of “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” one of Mavis’s favorites. I bought the book thinking about how I’d never get to talk to her about it. Then put it on a shelf unopened.

Today I opened it. It had been long enough.

What if, the book said, there were more than the 5 senses we humans use to make sense of the world?

Imagine how good that orange would taste. Tossing up the orange and catching it, I can see and touch its skin. Shaking it up next to my ear I can hear a faint sloshing. A taste like a thousand summer nights. And the smell is heavenly. But that’s just 5 senses. What if there were more?

What if a “multi-sensory” (as author Gary Zukav calls it) person; could expand the channels through which they take in the world? What if my personal frame of reference somehow grew to the size of a blue and endless Montana sky?

Would Glen Beck weeping start making sense to me? This could be terrifying.

Then I heard her say again, “Give oranges!” And I still didn’t understand.

I walked into the kitchen where Maria was unraveling dough like an ancient rabbi rolling out a Torah.

“Well, this year didn’t turn out like we planned,” I said. “Turns out the world didn’t change in a year.”

“Does the world ever change in a year?” she asked.

“Probably not, I answered. But I sure wish we could buy each other all sorts of cool Christmas presents. I wish we could take that trip out west.”

“I know. But we’re making it. We’ll get by. We have everything we need.”

“I think what I want for Christmas is an orange, “I proclaimed.

She’s used to hearing things like that. It’s been almost 14 years now. So she just smiled and said, “OK!” Then she ramped back up into her baking speed and I went back to the dining room to finish up the Christmas cards.

I sat down, picked up the pen, and as I did, I heard Mavis say, “So you’re not really finished with your book are you?”


“And the last part, the unfinished part, is about ?"

“Stewardship. Taking care of something I don’t own. Something infinitely bigger than me.”

“Like the stories? That other project you’re working on to celebrate a million different stories? Ones never even told before? ” she asked.

“Mavis, I said, (now it was my turn to roll my eyes) you already know all that! I’m the one that knows nothing! What I don’t know isn’t just about oranges, I don’t even know if I’m on the right road! I don’t know the next time I’ll see a paycheck! I don’t know what the doctor will say! I don’t know if Maria and I will be living in our car 6 months from now!

“Do you have a story to share right now?”

“Well yeah. But it’s kind of long. No one will listen to it here. People don’t have the time . . .”

“Is it the best Christmas story you know?”

“You mean besides the first one?”

“Yeah smart ass. Besides the first one.”

“It is.”

“Would a Buddhist like the story you’re about to share on this clip?”

“As much as a Buddhist would like emptiness?”

And that’s when I heard her laugh the loudest. I looked outside and it had begun to snow in Chicago. A gentle snow that stilled the troubled ground.

“Ok, I said, “I’ll share the story. It’s called “The Train. It’s by a group called “Celestial Navigation.” I don’t know how much you’ll like the middle part. But I am certain you will like the end. Maybe we could talk about it when we’re done?

Maybe if you just told me where I could find you? Where you'll be?

And Mavis answered, “Remember Steinbeck’s story? Remember what Tom Joad said to his mother when she asked him that question?”

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad - I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build - I’ll be there, too.”

“That’s where I’ll be,” she said.

“So what do I do now?”

“You listen. Listen for stories like the one you’re about to share.”

“Ok. I can do that. But what’s next? That’s the scary part! What’s next? What do I do next?”

“Give oranges, Roger. Just keep giving oranges.”


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