This question was posed to me by the Ironwood State Prison Protestant chaplain a couple of days ago while we were walking across the prison yard. We were walking back to the security gates following a meditation teaching/practice session two of us had just completed with an inmate group. These types of questions are not new to me, or perhaps to any of us whose spiritual practice is generally identified with Buddhism. Most of the time well intentioned, often asked with genuine and warm interest; I still find my first reaction is irritation. “Don’t you understand anything outside of your comfort zone, your conditioned thoughts?” “Is the world-at-large supposed to somehow justify itself to your spiritual practice preference?” Noting my irritated mind chatter, I take a moment and summon a deep breath. My own monkey mind was hard at work, keeping me locked into my own concepts and judgements. A little space opened up; perhaps my escort and I might share some things, maybe share more things than we think. Things bigger than my escort’s and my own thought-driven conceptions. So I responded, “Before I answer, tell me, what do you like best about Christmas?” It caused him to pause. A thoughtful man, he was not about to offer a cliche response. “Well,” he said, “I like that everything seems to be happening in a different light–a little warmer, a little softer–people are just more concerned about each other.” My turn to pause. I responded: “I like that, too, and I am deeply grateful for this shift. So, yes, I do celebrate Christmas. Or the heightened awareness of more lovingkindness—the words are not the thing. It’s the context, the felt atmosphere we bring forth, in ourselves and others. Our minds dream up these labels of Buddhist, or Christian, or Muslim, or any other institutionalized belief systems. Where my practice has taken me is to remember our true nature. Where we deeply live, feel and sense the universal context into which we are born. Sure, I celebrate Christmas, and any of the beautiful spiritual traditions which, at their heart, all share something so common: releasing attachment to those things that limit us, being reborn to that spirit, that essence, that transcends our relative thoughts and concepts. Things that bring us to peace and equanimity–within ourselves and for all life.” He appeared perplexed. He said, “I thought you were a Buddhist, that sounds like something He (referring to the Christ) would say.” “I don’t know– to me it does kind of sound like something He would say”, I respond. My escort nodded agreement.
A couple of Christmases ago, I wrote in this blog about my love of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and how it connects me with a revered teacher, Dr. Robert Bitzer, who also so loved the carol. You will find the post in this blog’s history panel. The third verse resonates the spirit of my conversation with the chaplain.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
There was no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph, so much a reflection of our conventional lives where there is no room for the stillness (“no ear may hear”), the peace of emptiness, that is always with us. So, in humility, Mary and Joseph accept what is present to them, a space in the manger. This surrender leaves them, and us, open and vulnerable to the birth of a bigger picture, the unconditioned awareness of what is already, and will always be, given. “The blessings of His Heav’n” are also the words of the Zen Nun, “It may be nothing, but it’s the fullest nothing you’ll ever know” (reference: Adyashanti). We may be prone to conditioned error (“sin”), but in every moment in which we are fully present, not lost in our conditioning, the dear Christ enters in. In the presence of such a blessing, why wouldn’t a “Buddhist” celebrate?
May this season bring you the birth of peace and equanimity.