Understanding a Buddhist During Christmas

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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 very popular and well known Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Ven. 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; a Bodhisattva lives in the here and now working to help all living beings (read more in this booklet).
  • An interesting part of the story of Jesus is that he was very much like a Bodhisattva (in his own faith, of course, and not Buddhism).  In summary, Jesus descended into hell to free anyone who wanted salvation.  The point being, Jesus didn’t abandon anyone…even those already in hell.  That’s kind of cool.  That story always strikes me as how we view Bodhisattva’s in Buddhism…we are actively living in “hell” in our world (not the hell you’ll read about in the Bible, but one of our own doing) and actively work to help and free those in this world from delusion.

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 Saint Nicholas 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.
  • The love, sacrifice, teachings of love, and kindness of Jesus Christ is the kind of things that Buddhists go all teary eyed about.  We are all about how we are all connected, and helping one another.  Just like the Buddha, Jesus (500 years later) also took in all sorts of people with various backgrounds into his flock.  Jesus didn’t care about your past, but where you are going.  The Buddha and Jesus would have a lot to talk about if they were walking together.
  • When it comes to presents, Jesus and Buddha had different gifts, of course.  While Jesus promoted salvation and heaven after death, the Buddha promoted inner salvation and heaven in the here and now.  The Buddha gave us the gift of his teachings, which were his explanation of how “life” works (to sum it up in a single sentence).  Part of that gift is a present you make.  You ARE the present…all nicely wrapped up (with a bow even).  What is inside is the most beautiful gift in the world, known as enlightenment.  Do you know how you feel as you rip away the wrapping paper of a present (that is the same in Buddhism as ripping away the false concept of “self”).  As you start ripping away, you become more excited, but also can see the ‘box’ of your present…which makes you more excited, because now you know what you are getting.  As you open the box (what we call awakening in Buddhism), you hold in your hands the actual present.  This is enlightenment.  Sorry if you were looking for a new game console instead 😉
  • If you’re looking to get a present for a Buddhist, look no further than this article about it.
The Buddha wants to bring you the present of enlightenment!

The Buddha wants to bring you the present of enlightenment!

“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 and above all…a human being.
  • The Buddha told everyone that he was just a man who had found the meaning of life and end to suffering (enlightenment).  He never claimed to be any god, deity, or spiritual being.
  • 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”, and in Buddhism this helps us 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!

Recommended Reading

If you would like to read two fantastic books related to Buddhism and Christianity, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh has two great ones that are very popular:

Living Buddha, Living Christ
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

If you are a Christian, this is not only a great book to understand Buddhist concepts, but to also see how they have similar parallels with Buddhism.  There are many points in the book that cause both Christian and Buddhist practitioners to pause and think not only of similar beliefs, but also how they can make their life better (and their faith stronger).  A must read book that helps to create understanding between these two religions.


Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

A companion book to “Living Buddha, Living Christ”, this book is aimed towards Christians who may have become Buddhists, or who are exploring it.  The book helps guide them towards similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, and Buddha and Jesus, so they can remain in their Christian faith.  Buddhism reinforces that people should remain in their own faiths because it is the right thing to do, and not to become a Buddhist unless careful thought and understanding is first undertaken.  Ven. Hanh reinforces this longstanding belief as practiced by the Buddha with this book by helping those who follow Christ, but are exploring Buddhism, to feel reassured to stay in their religion.

Copyright © 2012 by Alan Peto.
This article was originally published on 24 Dec 2012, and last updated on 17 Nov 2017.

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You can discuss this article here, however please remember:  No off-topic, rude, abusive, or offensive comments. Comments are moderated.  Read my Comment Policy before commenting.  If you wish to contact Alan directly, click here.
  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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!!

  • Christ’s Beatitudes and Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truths are, in fact, very similar if not the same 🙂

  • Patrick Stelz

    Xmas is just winter solsitice in my place it’s a pagan day usually and many religion gt this day because It’s last short day of year and after our days are longer till summer solstice. In the world it’s same and we can have a real good day because our Earth is important. Me I am Christian by my culture, but is not my religion. I respect what my heart like first and I think if it’s a good thing for other people, if I can sharing. Somtimes I think about Allegory of the cave (plato) and i know some shadows in the World. We’ll need respect all things in the world. I hope and I respect Buddist and I know so few about Buddha because my culture accept a bit this religion (this philosophy) today. I wish many Happy Things for all people in The World

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