, , , , , , , , , ,

For most of my life, when people asked me “what’s your religion?”, I usually felt the need to respond with a paragraph. That changed about eight years ago, dealing with my wife’s cancer treatment, where I realized it was important to me to be able to say simply: I am a Buddhist.

It felt strange, and yet reassuring, to be able to answer “what’s your religion?” with a simple answer. Yet complexity remains – the sort of complexity that has led me to proclaim, “I am a fine distinction“. I note nowadays how there is almost no area in which my identity is single, and I say: I am gender-fluid, biracial, binational… and a Buddhist who celebrates Christmas.

Christmas is certainly part of my history and tradition, but more than that, I’ve always dearly loved the Christmas season. Perhaps its appeal to me began as simple greed – a child excited for all the toys my generous parents would get me as presents. But nowadays I can afford enough, and have managed to moderate my wants enough, that I have become “hard to shop for”: these days it’s often hard to tell people what I might even want as a present. The content of the presents is less important to me than seeing them under the tree, in their bright and shiny wrapping paper. For what I really love is the aesthetic of Christmas – the wrapping, the lights that hold back the year’s darkness. All the better if there’s snow.

And maybe above all, I love the music. The songs of the Christmas season bring me back to my childhood, and I adore their simple and often haunting melodies. And that is perhaps where questions of identity start to get complicated. For while a few of the songs I love are “secular” – most notably “Deck The Halls” – the vast majority of them come back to the story of Jesus. (Some of them do so with a theological depth.) “What Child Is This?”, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, “O Come All Ye Faithful” – I can’t do without them, a year without them would be incomplete.

Does all this make me less of a Buddhist? I don’t think so. The Abrahamic God is notoriously jealous, proclaiming that his followers must have no other gods before him. The Buddha of the suttas is a very different figure, saying that one must follow his path to get out of suffering – but there’s nothing in there about the gods one way or the other. The gods are there in the Pali texts, just in a subordinate role (like one memorable story in the Vinaya where the king of the gods comes out to do the Buddha’s laundry).

And perhaps more importantly: the world’s Buddhist traditions are filled with non-Buddhist stories. In Thailand, the most notable of these is the Ramakien, a retelling of the Rāmāyana – which, remarkably, seems to have begun as an anti- Buddhist story, whose villain was the king of Buddhist Sri Lanka. The Thai Ramakien places the Rāmāyana story in a Buddhist context by identifying Rāma, the hero, as the Bodhisatta, a previous birth of the Buddha. This is an old Buddhist move, going back to the Dasaratha Jātaka. But, as in many Jātaka stories, any Buddhist message is quite unclear: if you removed the framing that identifies a character as the Bodhisatta, nothing of substance in the story would change. The story is beloved because it’s a good story, not because of a Buddhist message. (It likely has more in common with the Mahāvaṃsa than with the more philosophical Buddhist suttas.)

I note all this because I want to say: the Nativity is my Ramakien. The non-Buddhist origins of the Rāmāyana story are no barrier to the Thais’ love of it; and the non-Buddhist origins of the Nativity story are no barrier to my love of its retellings, in music, in reading the Gospel of Luke around my in-laws’ Unitarian Christmas table, in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I am happy to embrace Christmas, not just the washed-out shopping-mall “holidays” that erases all Christian references, but the whole Christmas, Jesus and all. That doesn’t make me less Buddhist, any more than loving the Ramakien does for the Thais.

A scene from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Kaew, and a stained-glass nativity scene from a church.

Now it’s true that the Thai Ramakien does add the Buddhist framing of Rāma as the Bodhisatta. I suppose that the project of philosophical consistency would encourage me to do something similar with Jesus. But perhaps that’s not so hard. Jesus’s messages to love your neighbour (in the sense of compassionate agapē), to turn the other cheek to a blow – these are messages of which I think the Buddha would approve. The core of the Jesus story is a man dying that others may be spiritually saved – which is not far from what a bodhisattva would do. Not everything in the New Testament fits with Buddhism by any means – but then, a very large number of self-professed Christians who celebrate Christmas would find a great deal in the New Testament that they could not endorse either.