December is a month of holidays, or as a popular song goes, “the most wonderful time of the year.” I tend to agree with this sentiment as I enter into the spirit of the season and experience the brilliant sights and sounds. It is a wonderful time, especially if we remember to celebrate with feelings of peace and good will, banish our harsh judgments and foolish prejudices, and remind ourselves of our interrelatedness with other people, sentient beings, and the natural environment that surrounds us.
In the United States, the most common celebrations are, of course, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. But in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, we also observe Bodhi Day. On December 8, we recognize the day, 2,500 years ago, when the historical Buddha attained enlightenment. As he sat under a Bodhi tree, reaching down with his finger touching the earth, he awakened to an awesome awareness that everything in the entire universe is connected and removed himself from all the forms of anger, greed, and desire that cause suffering—and thus attained a state of perfect wisdom and compassion. It’s a good day to remember to adopt the tenets of the eightfold path in our daily lives and to feel gratitude for Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha’s compassion.
There is, however, a part of Bodhi Day that is a little sad for me because in order to attain enlightenment Shakyamuni had to essentially “kill” himself by negating all of his perceived truths. However, he experienced a “rebirth,” becoming the Buddha and understanding the universal truth of the dharma—the four noble truths and eightfold path. This is referred to as the turning of the wheel.
December is also a month of traditions and customs and gathering with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. When I was growing up, my parents operated a business in Hawaii, and at this time of year, my father always made a point to reduce his debts and to make courtesy calls to all the people who made our family business possible. I remember as a little boy I would accompany him on these visits, sometimes to places quite distant from our house, and we would get home very late. But regardless of the time and distance involved, these year-end calls were important to my father. It was deeply meaningful for him formally to say thank you for their help and patronage during the past year, and to reflect on the possibility, working together, of a better year to come.
I think of these visits when I reflect upon another element of this season, which is the custom of giving and receiving gifts. Exchanging gifts is a way of sharing our joy and expressing appreciation and affection to those who are close to us. But what if we don’t have the resources to buy presents? Does it mean that we cannot give anything? Absolutely not! I often forget that the most meaningful gifts are those with no monetary value at all.
This concept is embodied in dana [selfless giving], one of the six paramitas or transcendent actions or perfections followed on the path of enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism. Dana cannot be measured in terms of financial value. Dana encompasses giving that has a positive impact, even if the gift is simply freely sharing something of yourself with genuine understanding, love, and compassion while expecting nothing in return. When we feel spiritually or emotionally down, a kind word, a gentle touch, or a simple smile—someone reaching out to express sympathy and understanding—is more valuable than an expensive object. It changes everything! It means that someone is recognized just as they are. During this time of giving, we should not place too much importance on material gifts; it’s our thoughts, words, and deeds that count. Sincere expressions of appreciation, praise, thanks, and an unexpected helping hand can be the most treasured gifts of all.
As we enter the holidays, we put aside our differences and warmly express our cheer and well wishes to all. As part of the spirit of the season, let’s remember the light of Amida Buddha. It’s like the sun that radiates innumerable rays of light outwardly toward everyone equally everywhere, sustaining us. The immeasurable light of Amida Buddha illuminates and permeates all worlds, reaching out and summoning us with the command of the primal vow to recite the Buddha’s name in gratitude.
Namo Amida Butsu
Upcoming Buddhist Holidays: Joya-e & Shusho-e
Joya-e means a Gathering on a Night to Dispel. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught that people have many faults, 108 of which are major. As we come to the end of another year, we gather at a service to reflect upon our imperfections and the vow to free ourselves from the bondage of samsara. The climax of the service is for each person to ring a bell, for a symbolic total of 108 times.
The following morning, we observe Shusho-e, which means a Gathering to Make Things Right. The Japanese have adopted this tradition in recognition that we can make things better when we realize that Amida Buddha is always guiding us and will never abandon us no matter how severe our faults may be. What better time to express gratitude to Buddha by coming together to recite the Buddha’s name. Our Joya-e service will be observed on New Year’s Eve. Shusho-e will be observed on New Year’s Day.