Feature

What it Means to Celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays as a Buddhist

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The holiday season is a great opportunity for self-reflection, appreciation and growth.

Dear World Tribune,

In this holiday season, what is the Buddhist perspective of celebrating other religious traditions?
—Curious

Dear Curious,

Good question. I’m sure many others are wondering this as well. In short, Buddhism accords with reason. As long as we do not veer from the foundation of faith in the Gohonzon, there is no need to be rigid or intolerant toward other religions. To deny the contributions of other religions would be to deny our own humanity.

Take Christmas as an example: 9 in 10 U.S. adults say they celebrate the holiday in some form, according to a Pew Research Center study published in December 2017.

It is indeed a multifaceted, ever-evolving holiday with roots in Ancient Rome, when the time period that now coincides with Christmas was a pagan festival, which observed the winter solstice.

It was a celebration of the hopeful return of the sun, symbolizing the transformation of darkness into light, so to speak.

Today, Christmas in the U.S. obviously has a different meaning and significance for many Americans.

Nevertheless, Christmas and other religious holidays today give us the opportunity to practice important aspects of the Buddhist way, including a spirit of appreciation, hope and renewal.

In the earliest episodes of The New Human Revolution, SGI President Ikeda focuses on foundational guidance for Japanese pioneers, as they advance kosen-rufu in a new land. Among many topics, he addresses the Buddhist spirit of humanism amid religious differences. During his first visit to the U.S. in 1960, President Ikeda calls on the pioneers to have a “big, magnanimous heart as vast as this great land” of America (NHR-1, 217).

Let’s glean key lessons from President Ikeda’s guidance in The New Human Revolution:

There is a concept in Buddhism known as zuiho bini—meaning that so long as one does not deviate from the essential teachings of Nichiren Buddhism, that is, faith in the Gohonzon, it is fine to make the formalities of Buddhism conform with the manners and customs of each area and with the conventions of the times . . . After all, Nichiren Buddhism exists not only for the Japanese; it is a religion for all people the world over.”

(vol. 1, p. 30)

“There is a concept in Buddhism known as zuiho bini—meaning that so long as one does not deviate from the essential teachings of Nichiren Buddhism, that is, faith in the Gohonzon, it is fine to make the formalities of Buddhism conform with the manners and customs of each area and with the conventions of the times . . . After all, Nichiren Buddhism exists not only for the Japanese; it is a religion for all people the world over.”—SGI President Ikeda

In another scene from volume 1, a Soka Gakkai women’s division member, who moves to the U.S. from Japan, feels conflicted as a Buddhist sending her son to a Christian school. She tells President Ikeda: “I’m wondering if this isn’t slandering Buddhism. There’s no other school that’s suitable, you see” (p. 45).

President Ikeda responds:

That’s all right. Your son isn’t going to school to practice Christianity; he’s going there to learn and study. So long as that’s the case, there is absolutely no problem . . . You may pay money to the school, but that is only for tuition; it is not an offering to Christianity. It is natural to pay a fee if your son is being taught there.

The basis of our faith is to believe in and pray to the Gohonzon, which was revealed by Nichiren Daishonin. So long as we do not veer from this basic foundation, there is no need to be rigid or intolerant.

(pp. 45–46)

Understanding that the pioneers were struggling to spread Buddhism in a new society, President Ikeda dives more deeply into the topic, saying:

Many aspects of our culture and how we live are connected in one way or another to religion. For instance, most companies are closed on Sundays.

This is a practice that comes from Christianity, which views Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Yet, anyone who thinks that taking Sundays off is a slander of Buddhism would be unable to live harmoniously in our society.

Music and art, as well, are often influenced by religion. Yet, there is a difference between appreciating a work of art and believing in the religion that inspired it. Therefore, there is no need to think that you must avoid viewing such artwork or that listening to certain pieces of music constitutes slander. If having faith meant that you could no longer admire fine works of art, then that faith would be denying your humanity.

Some religions exist for the people, and others exist only for the sake of religion. Religion for the sake of religion descends into dogmatism, ultimately binding and enslaving people in the name of faith. As a result, people are deprived of their spiritual freedom, and common sense and humanity are denied, deepening the rift between the religion and society.

Nichiren Buddhism is a religion that exists for the people, aiming to bring about a flowering of humanity in each person. (pp. 46–47)

Apart from how to observe the holidays, the season nudges us to examine our relationships, especially with our families. We can use this time as an opportunity to evaluate where we are and where we want to be. President Ikeda explains:

By regarding the challenges we face within our family as a test of our faith, and then summoning forth courage, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and expanding our life state, we will undoubtedly come to realize that each person in our family is a “good friend,” or positive influence, in our lives. This is the power of the Mystic Law. Nichiren Buddhism is a philosophy that enables us to broadly embrace all difficulties in life and move everything in a positive direction.

Youth and the Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 180

If your discussions at the family dinner table get a little tense, remember the big picture. If we can challenge ourselves in this way, then we have truly grasped the holiday spirit to impart “peace on earth.”

And this is something worth celebrating. WT