Saturday, December 08, 2012

Why Buddhists Should Celebrate Christmas!

The second of a planned five or six . . . Click here for "Why Hindus Should Celebrate Christmas," and for why I am writing this series -- if that needs explanation!

(12) Chinese Buddhists never wanted to stop eating pork in the first place.  The movie Mulan ("pork, beef, chicken") gets that right.  At the very least, think of Christmas as a good excuse for a ham dinner!

(11) When I lived in Hong Kong's New Territories in 1984, I remember watching a family that dwelled in a hovel on the coast, snapping plastic Christmas ornaments together.  Nowadays, Costco is full of toys made in China.  For the past few decades, countries that are largely Buddhist have made a mint on Christmas.  
White Horse Temple outside of Luoyang, the first
"official" Buddhist temple in China.  The temple was named
for the white horse that brought Buddhist sutras to Emperor
Ming after he was told in a dream to send his servants
west to fetch them.  Some Christian missionaries suggest
the servants fetched the wrong scriptures. 
(10) Japanese like to think of Christmas as a romantic holiday, and also like Christmas cake, which I believe is an English tradition.  This is fitting.  Christmas is a love story between our Creator and the human race.  And since it's Jesus' birthday, and since Japanese cakes taste so good -- they use whipped cream, not frosting, and add lots of fresh fruits -- what better than a birthday cake for the Lover of our Souls? 
By the Song Dynasty Zen painter, Mu Qi; the atmosophere
is that of the southern Song capital, Hangzhou, where
he renovated a monastery.
(9) Buddhism has usually adapted to other cultures well, even to the point of syncretism, which is why the Buddhist artistic tradition is so rich: the esoteric blue tones of the Tang Dynasty, mandalas representing the Buddhist cosmos in vividly colored detail, the misty suggestiveness of Song landscapes inspired by Zen, gaudy jataka tales splashed on banners hanging down from Theraveda temples.  Rejecting the art of Christmas would be un-Buddhist.

(8) Indian Buddhists lost God, and were trying to recover him.  That is the meaning of certain parts of the Lotus Sutra, in which a single bodhisattva becomes an omnipotent, all-knowing being that surpasses all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Indian philosophy had become too navel-gazing and introverted, and left India thirsty for a God outside themselves.  But as John Farquhar writes:

“The religious experience of India throughout the centuries has consistently demanded a personal God: that is the lesson of the whole history of the great sects, and of Buddhism and Jainism as well . . . The whole history of Hinduism thus proves that man cannot live without a personal God.”
(7) The Dalai Lama's mother thinks several of her most famous son's siblings were killed by ghosts.  Perhaps instead they died of diseases of infancy.  Theists invented modern science, and followers of Jesus created European science.  Because of that science, Buddhist mothers do not have to worry as much about their children dying in the cradle -- a concern Mother Mary had, too, if for different reasons.

(6) The boddhisattva Di Zang (Ksitigarbha) is beloved for trying to save hungry ghosts and beings that are in hell.  Jesus is said to have preached to those in hell.  Maybe, as C. S. Lewis suggests in his wonderful novel, The Great Divorce, some listened and repented.  That would be something to celebrate. 
Buddha, a disciple, and (I think) a bodhisattva, at Longmen
Shiku, outside Luoyang. Marigolds at Buddha's feet indicate
the scale of these magnificant carvings.  Buddha's
size reflect an hierarchical politics that Buddhism
has seldom challenged, but that needed challenging. 
(5) Buddha was no politician, though some schools of Buddhism have involved themselves intensely in politics.  Esoteric Buddhists have sometimes promised to bring political salvation.  Indeed, the monk Bu Kong claimed to save the Tang Dynasty from a huge Tibetan hoard by his incantations.  The Lei Zang temple of the esoteric True Buddha sect, which I studied for my MA, displayed slogans carrying conventional wishes in Chinese for the peace and prosperity of the nation -- whether referring to the United States, or Taiwan, I don't know. 

Many Buddhist countries have become more democratic and prosperous because of the news of Jesus Christ, including Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand, so far.  That's something great to celebrate. 

(4) Women were not oppressed in Buddhist countries as terribly as in traditional Hindu or Muslim countries, but it was generally assumed that they needed to be reincarnated as a man to gain enlightenment.  Buddhism seemed to set little obstacle in front of the oppressive practice of footbinding, that caught on during the Song Dynasty, when Buddhism was highly influential.  Unlike most Buddhist monks, Jesus had female disciples, whom he showed every sign of respecting, and who could gain salvation as quickly as the men.

Indeed, while the birth of Jesus may not have involved sex, Christmas celebrates motherhood, which usually does involve sex.  Buddha called his son "Obstacle," which does not seem very kind.  The Gospel shows that salvation can come through a woman, and through a baby.  Buddhists have often felt more attracted to the family than Buddhist philosophy encouraged them to be: Joseph, Mary, and the babe, "wrapped in swadling clothes, laying in the manger," show how the divine can liberate us to be more human. 

(3) The Dalai Lama has advized Buddhists to copy the good works he has witnessed Christians doing in India.  The work of Christian missionaries inspired a creative reinterpretation of Buddhist compassion that has served as a blessing to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.  (Especially through organizations like the CiJi Foundation, which used to deliver rice, for instance, to a Christian drug rehab center I often visited in Taiwan.)  Competition in good works can be a very good thing, especially when it is carried out in that spirit. 

(2) The great Chinese scholar Hu Shi criticized Buddhism for deprecating the life of human beings, even to the point of celebrating monks who burnt themselves to death.  He believed that the slow influence of Buddhism in China, from the Tang and then increasingly in the Song and later, undermined traditional Chinese humanism.  I am not sure the story is that simple: the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, the Shang, practiced widespread human sacrifice. 

Christ is fully human, and Christmas celebrates the humanity of God.  Yet Christ also offers hope beyond the grave, which accounts for Buddhism's popularity in East Asia.  If Jesus really has found a way to be both more human and to hope to transcend humanity some day, that is a hope eminently worth celebrating. 

(1) Mahayana Buddhists love stories about a god or goddess who dies to redeem humanity. The most popular deity in China, also probably Korea and Japan, is the goddess Guan Yin (Kannon), of whom the Lotus Sutra wrote:

“Suppose you are thrown into a large pit of fire
By someone who has an intention of killing you
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The pit of fire will change into a pond of water.

Suppose you are in a ship drifting on a great ocean
Where dragons, fish and devils are rampant
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The ship will not be sunk by the waves . . .

 Suppose you are sentenced to death,
And the sword is drawn to behead you.
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The sword will suddenly break asunder.”
The gospels describe Jesus doing similiar acts of mercy and salvation, but rather than in a mythological style like the tales of Guan Yin, in the style of Greek biography, with many indications of historical truthfulness, detail, and honest reporting.  Supposing God really did come in human form to save sinners?  Does not Mahayana Buddhism prepare us for that eventuality?  In that case, would that not be most worth celebrating of all?
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And -- thank God -- East Asia, too.

Next: Why Muslims should celebrate Christmas!


Crude said...

I'm starting to think you just want far more Christmas presents this year. :)

David B Marshall said...

I've been found out.