Christmas is less than a week away now, and if Star Wars mania doesn’t completely eclipse the popular winter holiday, we’ll all be left with the usual yearly questions like “Happy Holiday” or “Merry Christmas”? Or “to tree or not to tree…“Or,”why are all these pagan festivities being practiced by Christians this time of year, anyway?”
How about one more question: Could Christmas become a genuine Buddhist holiday?
I concluded my university class on Buddhism last week by talking about ways the religion might be co-opted by Western culture (Zen liqueur, anyone?*). But I also talked about ways Buddhists would take on and re-valorize aspects of the contemporary dominant culture, as they have throughout Buddhism’s history.
So I wish I had seen this video before then. Be sure to watch to the 1:25-minute mark when the music begins, and don’t miss the ending.
(click here if the video doesn’t appear above)
As Doug, who brought this to my attention with his blog Essays in Idleness, writes, “Interestingly, Santa is referred to here as Santa Bosatsu (散多菩薩) or “Santa Bodhisattva” in Japanese emphasizing his role of selflessly bringing joy to others.”
Doug also points out that, “…some purists among the Buddhist convert crowd might say “Well that’s not real Buddhism” or that it’s another “example” of Asian cultural accretions getting in the way of Buddhist teachings, but on the contrary, I would argue that Buddhism’s strength lies in its inclusiveness.” Whether it brings strength or not is of course a matter of contention, but there is indeed a breadth of the tradition that includes inclusive types of Buddhists alongside the purists.
In the spirit of that inclusivity, Doug has also penned a Maha Santa Claus Sutra (much in the style of Gary Snyder’s celebrated Smokey the Bear Sutra). Beginning in the vein of many great Mahayana sutras, it sets the scene:
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove monastery of Anathapindaka’s Garden at Shravasti, together with a large assembly of twelve hundred and fifty monks, who were all great arhats, well-known to the people. Among them were great disciples such as the Elders Shariputra, Mahamaudgalyayana…
Thus having set the stage,
At that time, the Buddha said to the Elder Ananda: “If you travel northward from here, passing a hundred thousand asamkhya kotis of Buddha-lands, you will come to a workshop where dwells a Bodhisattva of the tenth-stage named Mahāsānthaklaṣ (Santa Claus), who even now is in a state of deep samadhi.”
“Ananda, why is that Bodhisattva called Santa Claus? In the distant past — innumerable, incalculable and inconceivable kalpas ago there lived a Brahmin named Nikholāṣ(Nicholas). At that time, Nicholas encountered a Buddha named Joy of Gift Giving, who expounded the Dharma. Nicholas was so deeply moved by the teachings he renounced the householder life and made a series of great vows:”
- To attain the samadhi of knowing who is naughty and who is nice.
- To attain the samadhi of being able to visit all houses in one night.
- To attain the samadhi of being able to hear all gifts requested for.
- To provide a joyous winter holiday to children everywhere.
The great vow worked, as it were, leading Great Santa Claus to his North Pole workshop, described at length, again in very typical Mahayana sutra fashion. The sutra even comes with its own very Santa mantra, as the Buddha explains to Ananda:
“Ananda, if sons and daughters of good families should, on the 24th night of the twelfth month, leave an offering of milk and cookies and recite this mantra:
Om, maha-santa-klas-ho-ho-ho hum!
Then Santa Claus will fly to their house, as easily as one extends their arm, in a chariot pulled by his eight reindeer attendants, and leave behind a great cart of the seven treasures. Such a disciple will receive an inexhaustible quantity of goods to meet their material needs, thus enabling them to follow the Dharma more easily.”
Read the full sutra here.
So, is Christmas now a bona fide Buddhist holiday?
Buddhist teachers from Thich Nhat Hanh to Ethan Nichtern have opened their arms to Jesus as a great bodhisattva. The spirit of generosity is already at the heart of much traditional Buddhist morality. And now Santa too is in the arms of Buddhist inclusiveness.
With that, a Merry Christmas to all and to each a Happy New Year!
- Is Santa Claus Japanese?
- Can Buddhists Celebrate Christmas? by Sean Robsville
- Understanding a Buddhist During Christmas by Alan Peto
* Note the complete appropriation of the term ‘Zen’ here: “For millennia, people around the world have enjoyed the marvels of both green tea and fine spirits separately. Now arrives Zen, a premium green tea liqueur that merges two of the world’s most popular beverages.”