Photo by Hélène Villeneuve on Flickr

Understanding a Buddhist During Christmas

Photo by Hélène Villeneuve on Flickr

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. ~ Dalai Lama

As Christmas approaches we are delighted to wonderful decorations, beautiful lights, great presents, and, for Buddhists in America and other western countries, the inevitable question “So, do you celebrate Christmas?”.  The question always brings a smile to my face as I answer “of course!”.  But how can a non-Christian celebrate Christmas?

Like most American Buddhists, I wasn’t born into a Buddhist household.  My family was of the Christian/Catholic background, so we always had a Christmas tree, and knew of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The smells of freshly cut pine trees, alluring multi-colored lights, decorations, and (oh!) those presents, were just icing on the cake.

So do I celebrate Christmas?  As a Buddhist, I celebrate Christmas in a non-Christian way.

Christ, the Bodhisattva

If you ask most Buddhists what they think of Jesus Christ, you may be surprised to hear some very positive and supportive opinions.  Without speaking to the spiritual context, we believe Jesus was what those in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition call a “Bodhisattva”.  A Bodhisattva is one that forgoes their own benefit to help others and has compassion, kindness  and love for all beings.  Jesus definitely helped others in ways we still experience today by showing the world immense compassion, love, kindness, and beauty and how to incorporate that into their lives and help others.  So for Buddhists, we can see Jesus as a blessing to this Earth.

The Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote an extremely popular book titled “Living Buddha, Living Christ” (this book is on Oprah’s nightstand) which helps explain how both traditions can understand each other, and share similar beliefs (such as compassion).

For Mahayana Buddhists, the aim of their practice is to become a Bodhisattva, which is an expression of bodhichitta (which is the desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of others).  If there is a slogan, it would be:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Many Buddhists, both lay practitioners and monks, take the Bodhisattva vow to reinforce this commitment:

Beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unobtainable; I vow to obtain it.

Becoming a Bodhisattva in Buddhism is not like becoming a god; they live in the here and now working to help all living beings (read more in this booklet).

The Buddha Tree

Do Buddhist’s have a Christmas Tree?  Well, we may have decorated pine trees in our homes, but it may or may not have anything to do with Christmas.

Most people are not aware that things such as the ‘Christmas Tree’, was actually a pagan tradition during the winter solstice, which no Christian wanted to adopt at first (in-fact it was banned by Christians, the Church, etc.).  It was only after it was promoted in a magazine that Queen Victoria had one that it was popularized, and then only in the late 1800’s did Americans adopt it.  Even Christmas Day (December 25th) was actually during the very popular pagan winter solstice (the 25th was the ‘return of the sun’).  It’s still unknown when Christ was actually born, and this date was decided since there was already established celebration that the church could switch from a pagan celebration, to a Christian celebration.

A popular Buddhist holiday, Bodhi Day, is celebrated in December as well (and goes on for 30 days) to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Those multi-colored lights you use for your Christmas tree, are also used during this celebration on ficus trees.  Although many Western Buddhist’s may have an artificial pine (Christmas) tree they can use for the same purpose.

So having a “Christmas Tree” is quite acceptable with Western Buddhist’s to have, and some may even have one because some of their family members may be Christians, Catholics, etc.  Buddhism is accepting of other religions, so this wouldn’t bother us at all.  My Christmas tree still has my mom’s angel (from the 1960’s) at the top every year.

Wrapping Up a Buddha

When it comes to gift giving, Buddhists look to Saint Nicolas (Santa Claus) for someone who resembles our values.  The selflessness and compassion he brought to children is something that is very much a part of Buddhism, which is the selfless act of charity and caring without expecting anything in return.  We are very mindful of what gifts we give to others, and want them to be meaningful and not harmful.  For example, we would not give a gun (even a toy one) to a child as a present on a day that we want to express peace for all mankind.

If you’re looking to get a present for a Buddhist, look no further than this article about it.

Photo by Alan Peto

“But Wait. Don’t You Worship to Your ‘God’, Buddha?”

Not at all.  The historical Buddha that everyone knows (Siddhārtha Gautama) is not a “God” in Buddhism, but instead our respected teacher.

The Buddha told everyone that he was just a man who had found the meaning of life and end to suffering (enlightenment).  You may see Buddhists bow to a statue of the Buddha, but that is out of respect for him as our teacher, not as idol worship.  In Asian countries, students everywhere bow to their teachers out of respect and humility, and the Buddha is no different.  Some Buddhists even give offerings of food, water, etc., to a statue of the Buddha not as an offering to a god, but to bring about selflessness and compassion in themselves.  This is similar to repetition in learning something, it helps to awaken and bring out the kindness in ourselves so we can share this selflessness and compassion with everyone.

What Does a Buddhist “do” on Christmas?

Glad you asked!  I have an entire article about five things a Buddhist can do on Christmas.

Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas!

  • Jeffrey Thee

    Very informative, I’m just a man living and many have asked if I am Buddhist. I have never read a Buddhist book because people throw the title around like it should automatically bring respect, much as the religious do with the title Christian (Which in my observation simply means “oppression through capitalism”. I don’t wish to live under the influence of a title that ties me to the behavior of those I have never observed. I now observe Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion thanks to your blog. But I still don’t wish to tittle myself or put myself into a situation of being compared to others that label themselves the same. You’re
    never too old to gain wisdom and never too young to freely share knowledge,
    observe everything, it all creates the future.

    • Alan Peto

      Hi Jeffrey! Not labeling yourself as “Buddhist” is actually very healthy and shows progression in your understanding! Being a ‘Buddhist’ is just being human :) Although calling yourself Buddhist is ok too, because at the minimum it simply means you follow the teachings.

  • Paul

    I don’t think Sri Lanka is Mahayana. In fact it might be the epicenter of Theravada.

    • Alan Peto

      Good point Paul, I went ahead and removed that section (it didn’t have much to do with the point of the article anyways). Thanks!

  • Paul

    Also Tibetan Buddhism is certainly not Mahayana either.

    • Alan Peto

      Well, perhaps not entirely Mahayana. Tibetan Buddhism is made up of three vehicles of Buddhism: Foundational Vehicle, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna.

  • Buddhism

    its better to bring forth the knowledge that we have only thanks to Buddha, on intermediate states (antarabhava, bardo) and Dharmakaya, not only just “life is suffering”. Buddha means Awareness, full awareness, to be awake, present, concentrated. Buddhi means intelligence, and not mind. Mind is a wrong western translation of citta. Ism is bad. Regards.

    • Alan Peto

      Thanks for your comment! There are many paths to enlightenment, and teachings, as you’ve mentioned. Bardo is important to (for example) Tibetan Buddhism but isn’t important in Theravada Buddhism. We can all learn from each other.

  • Roberto Carlos Gamez

    The “december celebration” has been a serious issue to me since I started to study dharma, I found this text really useful, the best way to find respect to my beliefs is showing respect for other people´s beliefs.

    Thanks for sharing this!!

    • Alan Peto

      Welcome Roberto! :)