November 23, 2014

Merry Whatever

Christmas is a strange season for the American Buddhist. No matter how long you've been on the Path, Christmas still feels like Christmas. And everybody actslike it's Christmas. And some part of you wants it to be Christmas-precepts or no precepts. Jesus was, by anyone's reckoning, a great Bodhisattva. And what's Santa Claus but a Western Ho Ti in very silly clothes? So where's the harm in celebrating, just a little? Especially when they're passing out the prezzies...

We have our own holidays, of course. There's Buddha's birthday, his renunciation, his enlightenment, and his Parinirvana (death, for us regular folks). Ditto for Avalokiteshvara, a.k.a. Guanyin. Maitreya has a special day (New Year's), as do Samantabhadhra, Manjushri, Amitabha, and the Medicine Buddha. Don't ask about the Medicine Buddha-I haven't the foggiest.

To the best of my knowledge, no Westerner has ever celebrated any of these holidays-mostly because they only occur on the Traditional Chinese Lunar Calendar and not on the Harley Davidson Garage Girls calendar. The last American to actually figure out the Regular Old Date of a Chinese holiday was the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. He was an atheist and he's dead - so no help there. I tried calling Miss Cleo, but she didn't know either.

Buddhist holidays are all very similar. For Buddha's birthday, we chant and we meditate. For Maitreya, we meditate and we chant. For the Medicine Buddha, we chant, we meditate, and we have open season for health insurance. There's not a lot of celebration involved. Not much actual holiday cheer or Samantabhadhra-tide spirit. And definitely no eggnog, with or without liberal doses of Captain Morgan's Parrot Bay Rum. I think the the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara said it best:

Therefore, Sariputra, in Emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry sauce, no figgy pudding, no strange green jello-like substance that cannot be identified; no tree, no tinsel, no Star Trek ornaments by Hallmark, no light-up artifical reindeer in the front yard, no stocking over the mantle; no seven-millionth rendition of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, no thirteen-billionth showing of It's a Wonderful Life; and P.S.-no prezzies, either."

Kind of a bummer, when you think about it.

So my theory is, we have to make the best of it-a Buddheo-Christian holiday, if you will. Turkey and stuffing not on your sattvic diet? OK, there's plenty of fruitcake left over. People keep shoving gaily-wrapped packages at you despite your protestations of poverty and detachment? Fine, just keep repeating "It ain't real, it ain't real, it ain't real" as you rip into your box of shiny new socket wrenches. And if they spike your eggnog, stick a pair of fake antlers on your head, stand you on the ottoman, and make you bellow gibberish like "fa-la-la-la-la," "rum-pum-pum-pum," "rata-plata-plan," "fum-fum-fum," "hey-nonny-nonny," "homana-homana-homana," or "wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom" far into the night? Well, just think back to the time you were bald, dressed in pajamas and a robe, bopping your nose on the floor and chanting "namo tasso baghavato arahato samasambhuddhassa" in all seriousness, even though you had no idea what you were saying.

And try to remember that many paths lead to Enlightenment. Who are we to judge the ways of the Western Barbarians?

Now, to make sure you've got the spirit, grab some friends, run down to the nearest temple, stand on the front lawn, and sing this - preferably in Sanskrit:

Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell chant,
Christians do Christmas but Buddhist guys can't,
Incense and sutras are bushels of fun,
Now the jingle chant has begun.

Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell chant,
Strictly from Asia, and not the Levant,
If your stocking's Empty as Empty can be,
Don't complain to me!

Jingle bell chant,
It's a swell chant,
To chant on Christmas day,
Jingle bell chant,
Sounds like hell chant,
Gonna chase all your karma away!

So giddy up jingle monk,
Rattle your beads,
Rattle 'em 'til you pant,
Kneel and kowtow 'til your forehead bleeds,
That's the jingle bell,
That's the jingle bell,
That's the jingle bell chant!