Many people – worldwide – who have the good of other people in their hearts affirm that Christmas is a time of peace, a time of giving and a time of taking care of the homeless and the poor. Buddhists also recognise that Christmas is a time when they may practice their dharma for the benefit of others. Lord Buddha – if he had any desires – desired that his bhikkus – and all sentient life – reach enlightenment. Joy, giving, family, and peace … people of all faiths can celebrate these values of the holiday season. Here, several Buddhists offer their take on yuletide dharma.
The point of Christmas, says Lama Rod Owens, is to be in the places that need you.
When I was growing up, Christmas was always a special time for me. My mother and I didn’t have a lot, but she, with the help of my father, made sure I had what I needed and wanted. After college, I struggled to understand what Christmas meant beyond materialism and consumption. I wanted to remember how the season evolved out of commemorating the birth of Jesus, and how that event signaled, above all, new hope, transformation, and resilience.
By my early twenties, I was living in an intentional community in Boston called Haley House, where one of our projects was running a soup kitchen that mostly served homeless men. My first Christmas staffing the kitchen was also the first time I’d been away from my family during Christmas. It felt odd.
It was the tradition for a family close to the Haley House community to come in on Christmas morning to prepare and offer a breakfast of ham and eggs to about a hundred men. I felt moved by the generosity of this family. As the men came in, I felt my own longing to be somewhere else, as they too may have wished to be somewhere else. But we were there together, and I realized we were holding space for each other to practice hope and resilience.
That morning I reflected on my choice to serve, and in doing so understood that this was the point of Christmas: to be in the places that need you. This was a transformation for me. I finally knew what Christmas meant to me.
Lama Rod Owens is a core teacher with the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Cambridge and a co-author of Radical Dharma.
Houses Full of Light
Mary Rose O’Reilly shares a collection of gathas for the Christmas season.
In my childhood, the adults made music and cocktails until it was time for somebody’s crying jag. Later, we headed to midnight Mass. My dad, a glorious tenor, always found his moment to stand on the front steps and sing “O Holy Night.”
Later, as a single mother, I kept the season with Quaker restraint. The children would wake to banks of candles in blue glass and a few homemade gifts. Then we served dinner at the Catholic Worker.
Grown up, my children confided, “That was not magical.”
Last Christmas Eve, I chose the sesshin of an overnight train journey. If I nodded off, a toilet door would slam its call to mindfulness: May all beings be brought to enlightenment.
At dawn, outside the train window, there was a snow-swept mountain gorge as if by the Japanese artist Hokusai. My children met me at the station and took me away to houses full of light.
Gathas for Christmas
- In this season of holy longing, with the help of all beings, may I rest in the equanimity of practice.
- As the days become shorter and darkness deepens, may I honor the rhythm of rest and gestation the earth teaches me.
- May I walk mindfully amid distraction, attraction, neediness, and panic, remembering that peace is every step.
- Giving a gift
- In this season of high expectations, may I lovingly offer what is truly needed.
- Visiting and welcoming
- In this season of hospitality, may I seek that of God in all encounters.
- Lighting a candle
- I honor the wisdom of my ancestors and teachers. With the help of all beings, I vow to open my heart to illumination.
Mary Rose O’Reilly is the author of The Love of Impermanent Things.
You can read more Very Buddhist Christmas stories here.
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