The Buddhism of Christmas

1973

Tis the season when my wife and I, as we behold our children reacting to packages and presents arriving in the mail, exchange knowing glances and mumble something about how “Buddhist” Christmas is.

Spouses, as everybody knows, use a sort of shorthand that is unintelligible (and thus usually misleading) to everybody else, so I will translate. It means something like:

Christmas, like all existence but perhaps more so, torments people through the subtle and insidious mechanism the Buddha first described.

Oh, and what was that mechanism?

As is my wont, I will get gratuitously intellectual about all that in a moment, but let’s start with the actual scenario.

Scenario

Christmas is a time when presents show up unannounced. This is otherwise known as stuff. Uncles, aunts, and other acquaintances send the stuff because, well, it’s Christmas and that’s what one does, whether anybody wants stuff or not.

So the packages arrive — in a household that contains children. In fact, the stuff is meant mostly for those children, and the children know it. How do the children react?

1973

Definition of “child”:

I have read enough academic papers to know that one must, whenever a text threatens to get interesting, interrupt with definitions. Herewith:

Child (noun; plural = Children): A human being who is exactly like an adult but has not yet had sufficient time to practice the adult skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Back to scenario

Where were we? Oh yes, the presents that are arriving at the door. How do the children react, in the first instance and over the next hour or so?

Exactly as both the Buddha and his contemporary Patanjali (my favorite thinker) would have predicted:

  1. Child A, arriving first: A momentary thrill. ‘Here is something that promises to suspend my boredom. No, I wasn’t actually bored, but now I would be if I do not immediately rip this package open.’ Rips package open.
  2. Child B, arriving split second later: Another momentary thrill. Then: ‘But wait. Sibling has got a head start. She can’t have more thrill. It’s my thrill. Must have.’ Attacks package.
  3. A & B: Conflict. Hair pulling. Tears on A. Time Out for B.
  4. A, having played with toy (because it’s already open anyway, so what can you do?), loses interest. Returns to previous activity and temporary balance/bliss.
  5. B, emerging from Time Out, gets his turn with toy. Notices that A has lost interest and returned to previous activity. Also loses interest and returns to balance/bliss with A.
  6. New package arrives. Repeat cycle.

Sanskrit: duhkha and sukha

Both the Buddha and Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (as far as I’m concerned, original Buddhism and authentic Yoga are exactly the same philosophy), describe our minds as causing us near-permanent discomfort in precisely the way these toys are tormenting my children.

The word both the Buddha and Patanjali use for this mental discomfort is duhkha.

T.K.V. Desikachar, a great yogi, translates duhkha as restricting or squeezing in this excellent book.

This is noteworthy, because duhkha is usually mistranslated as suffering. Thus, you’ve probably heard the first Noble Truth of Buddhism expressed as follows:

All life is suffering.

Well, actually, the Truth says that all life is duhkha. And suffering is a bad translation (with the effect of turning many Westerners off before they’ve even begun to absorb the rest), because, manifestly, not all life is suffering.

Duhkha is more subtle, so let’s investigate as we usually do: by looking into etymology.

Etymology of duhkha

The Sanskrit roots of duhkha relate to its Indo-Germanic nephews German and English as follows:

duh ≡ du(nkel) ≡ da(rk)

and

kha ≡ ka(mmer) ≡ cha(mber)

In other words, duhkha is, or feels like, a dark room, an oppressive space.

Its opposite is sukha, a happy, good or light space.

The goal of Yoga, Buddhism and all other Indian philosophy is to exit the dark room and enter the light room.

Remember that this entire time we are talking about our minds. Our mind constantly shoves us into the dark room (duhkha) by conjuring disturbances (called “fluctuations” in the Yoga Sutras):

  • distraction,
  • fear,
  • anxiety,
  • anger,
  • craving,
  • jealousy,
  • disgust
  • boredom
  • etc etc

This does not have to be very profound. If you’re a child, the arrival of a package suffices.

In the Bhagavad Gita, all these disturbances are represented by the Kauravas, the vicious cousins of my hero Arjuna.

The Kauravas of Christmas

Christmas is — aside from a time for cosiness, festiveness and so forth — an intense agglomeration and onslaught of mental disturbances.

For the kids, each package creates an expectation of thrill, quickly leading to a disappointment (= duhkha).

Or to a pang of jealousy (= duhkha).

Or simply to distraction from the activity the child had just been absorbed in (= duhkha).

And for the adults?

Definition of “adult”

Adult (noun; plural = Adults): A human being who is exactly like a child but has had ample time to practice the skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Adults don’t run to the package and rip it open. They put it under the tree. And they don’t pull your hair when you’re opening your package.

But they walk around all December with that jingly-jangly music in the stores and those trees in the windows and they feel … that they should — shouldn’t they? — be somewhere special, with someone special, feeling special. And is the person next to me special enough, is all this special enough,….?

So they yearn, and they crave, and they’re lonely, and perhaps they envy or regret, and they’re in the dark chamber of duhkha.

Sukha

But there’s a jail break.

One strand of Buddhism/Yoga invites you to discipline your mind (ie, meditate) for years so that your mind becomes still, thus setting you free.

Another strand, called Zen, guffaws at the hilarious inside joke of it all and simply says: ‘Snap out of it — now!’

That can be easy, it turns out: You put away the packages and the toys, and you tickle the kids, and you all roll around under the tree, in the beautifully light, comfortable room of sukha.

1973

24 thoughts on “The Buddhism of Christmas

  1. If I didn’t know better (and I really don’t), I’d say you are well on your way of being a Christmas Curmudgeon. Don’t be alarmed, it happens to most adults at some point. Some grow out of it, some don’t. I suspect you will. Think of it as a phase you are going through… like you did the Terrible Twos.

    But do we rally mean to describe Zen as a “snap out of it” discipline? I always thought of it as a “Get the joke? Now, appreciate it” discipline. I am not sure I’d want to “snap out of it…!”

    Merry Christmas.

    • I disagree with the particular but concur with the general: I am not a Christmas Curmudgeon; however, I am indeed a Curmudgeon generally. 😉

      Zen: Go back and read my sentence: I do present Zen as a way of laughing at the “hilarious inside joke of it all” — “it all” being our existence). The “snap out of it” refers to the preference in Zen for sudden and instantaneous enlightenment — as when a Zen master slaps a student in the face; or when he takes your staff and breaks it, then walks away.

    • I see your point. I did not simply ignore the (let;s call it) Part 1 of Zen, I just did not see the Part 2 as you described in this comment/reply. It struck me as a “Forget the cosmic joke and come back to reality” position. I see now that you meant enlightenment.

  2. Awwww. Somebody hasn’t changed a bit.

    Given the context of receiving presents, I could not help but pick up on the similarity between duhkha and danke. “Duhkah sukah” sounds a bit like “thank you, sucker” in Creole. Probably goes back to the same Indo-European roots.

    Now, when you refer to Patanjali as your “favorite” thinker, does this, by definition, mean I am not your favorite thinker, or does Buddhist philosophy permit the concurrence of multiple favorites?

  3. Thank You Andreas for a wonderful explanation of ‘Dukha-Sukha’. Especially so, since for a very long time, I have believed that ‘life is nothing but sorrow, with a few moments of joy sprinkled in between’. By stating this, I do not mean to sound pessimistic, but it is my way of accepting that although ‘Dukha’ may be a constant companion, yet when there are joyous/’Sukha’ moments, and that is the blessing of life – to be lived.

    • Thanks, Sanjiv.

      I find that when expressing the Buddhist/Yogic philosophy in this more accurate and more moderate way, it is more accessible.

      But yes, there are those Sukha moments, so let’s enjoy them. 🙂

  4. Hi Andreas,
    I enjoyed the article thoroughly.

    It was very interesting how you described the emotional stages children go through while opening the presents during Christmas with a combination of thrill, jealousy, disappointment, etc., and compared them to Kauravas. Very well put.

    I was also thrilled you mentioned Duhkha and Sukha. We have a ‘meetup’ site called ‘The mirror of Light’. A couple of weeks back we have started a discussion forum named “weakness, suffering and strength”. You will see different views on the topic from a few people. What boils down to it is…as you mentioned… “duhkha is usually mistranslated as suffering”. You will notice that in these postings too.
    In case anyone likes to read, here it is:

    The Academy of European Arts and Culture Los Angeles

    Los Angeles, CA
    57 Friends

    Following the tradition of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Collin, The Academy of European Arts and Culture is a global school committed to the process of Awakening the Soul.Founded…

    Check out this Meetup Group →

    Thanks,
    Aruna

  5. A moving post, Andreas. Though perhaps Christmas, with all the lights and music and feasting, is somewhat of a Dionysian ritual and hence needs to have a place in our lives? We’ll never be able to find Suhkha if we don’t acknowledge the existence of Duhkha -and the best time to do so is probably in the aftermath of an orgy of mindless consumption.

    I never enjoy major holidays because of said orgies but your post made me realise their value: so thank you, and Merry Christmas!

    • Ah, yes, the Dionysian release. I’m all for it!

      That said, your Christmases are clearly far more interesting than mine. Now, if we were to get properly Dionysian, that would be another matter. Apparently, the pagans did just that around the solstice, but when the missionaries made that into Yuletide and Christmas, it got rather more G rated….

      😉

  6. Andreas,

    As much as a agree with you about Christmas presents, I can’t help but note that the Norse word ‘hum’, meaning ‘night’ or ‘shadow’, and the word ‘bugge’ meaning ‘apparition’, combine to yield ‘humbug’ or ‘dark apparition’, a phrase close in literal meaning to ‘duhkha’ or ‘dark chamber’, a humbug being something that, like duhkha, tricks the mind — first a thrill, then disappointment.

    So there you have it:

    “Christmas? Bah! Humbug!”

    or

    “Christmas? Bah! Duhkha!”

    as one chooses.

    And God bless us, every one!

  7. I think your ghost-of-Christmas-past self is sitting in a hero pose in that last photo. Very nice tie-in!

    And, more generally, will nobody else say how shamelessly adorable these pictures are?

  8. The last sweet shot is quite symbolic of the man you were to become: vision, a ladder to the moon and stars, and a Mona Lisa-like ironic smile.

    You mother, as you say “in her day” was a beautiful woman and you, clearly, the apple of her eyes.

    Thanks for sharing a little set of photos.

  9. As far as I can tell, you are absolutely correct. But I think this applies to adults, too–not as far as the way they approach opening packages but rather the way they attempt to create an idyllic Christmas experience by means of a retail extravaganza.

    • Or even as they “attempt to create an idyllic Christmas experience” without any retail extravaganza. At least in my case. There’s such pressure to make certain moments special, that it ruins them.

  10. Hi Andreas,

    Happy New Year, Great photos! Love your posts. I always struggle at Christmas, for many complex reasons, the main one being that the winter solstice is ideally a time of quiet introspection and our consumer society has created just the opposite situation. Adding to the fun is the fact that my wife and son both have birthdays in December. Tis a busy month.

    I never had the sense that Buddha said that life is dukha/suffering, but that rather that our minds can turn the amazing, awesome creativity of the universe into suffering by our own ignorance/ avidya, and that we need to find out how and why we do this. Patanjali does get into a bit of the ‘purusha is pure, prakriti is impure’ bit, but that is just a reflection of the masculine/ transcendent fear of the feminine immanent that was, and still is, prevalent in the more fundamentalist religious view points.

    Also, as a somanaut, I use the more traditional translation of dukha/sukha, from kha meaning an axle hole. Dukha, a poorly drilled hole or a stuck axle, leading to bumps, bruises and immobility: sukha – a well drilled and centered axle hole giving a smooth flowing ride. The body gets it right away. Going with the flow or fighting the flow? How do we choose? Then there is the possibility of learning how to steer our cart as we ride through life. Parenting is such a great teacher on so many levels. Navigating this mysterious process is infinitely challenging, which is why I so love Dan Siegel’s work on attachment theory, interpersonal neurobiology, and the whole mammalian emotional bonding process. We carry our parents and their parents around in more than just or DNA.

    Great blessings to you and you family for 2011 and beyond.

    • Thanks, Arthur. I love the axle hole etymology. Why have I never come across that in my readings?
      That metaphor just opens it all up.

      (As it happens, my Chinese name happens to be the character for axe handle. Never knew what to make of that. But now….)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s