Reverend's Message - December 2015

"T'is the Season to be Jolly...Not"

Rev. Dean Koyama

Again, Sariputra, in the Land of Perfect Bliss, there are many ponds of seven kinds of jewels, full of water with the eight excellent qualities.... There are lotus flowers, as large as chariot wheels, growing in the ponds. Those of blue color emit blue radiance; those of yellow color emit yellow radiance, those of red color emit red radiance and those of white color emit white radiance. They are exquisite, wonderful, fragrant and pure. (The Amida Sutra)

Just as Halloween concluded, Starbucks introduced their new Holiday cup to launch the start of the holiday season. It is a simple red cup unadorned with anything else other than their green and white logo. Who would have ever thought that such a simple cup would become the center of attention and apparent controversy?

Shortly after the introduction of this cup, Starbucks was labeled as being a Scrooge for taking Christmas out of the Season. Granted, gone were the snowflakes, reindeer, hanging ornaments and other such wintery designs that we would normally associate during this time of the year. Starbucks has never overtly included any Christian symbols or designs that would sanction one religious tradition over another.

However, because of the absence of any design, some have taken this simple action as one that prevents Christians from being able to observe Christmas as they feel it should be observed. There was one individual who proclaims himself to be an evangelist and advocated that people should "protest" Starbucks. The protest would work this way: After ordering a latte of choice, when asked by the barista for a name, give the name, "Merry Christmas" forcing Starbucks to not only write the words on the non-descript cup but also to call out "Merry Christmas" when the order is ready for pick up.

I don't know how effective this protest will be, since in the end, one still has to buy a coffee and that will only add to the profit for Starbucks. Even though, Starbucks markets a "Christmas Blend" of coffee beans and sells ornaments for a Christmas tree, people still feel the need to complain.

Another weird situation occurred on Thursday Night Football when the New York Jets played the Buffalo Bills. The New York Jets wore an all green uniform and the Bills donned an all red uniform. I suppose you could say that the NFL was endorsing Christmas by their choice of colors and who would be angry with them? Well it turns out that there is a segment of our population who are red-green colorblind. And so for those who were trying to watch the game on TV, it was impossible to distinguish the teams because they looked the same and the NFL took its share of complaints on such a decision. Based on recent experiences, I wouldn't be surprised that if the NFL took steps to make sure a green team does not play a red team (to satisfy the color blind population) there may be some who will then complain once again that the NFL is also taking Christmas out of the Season.

A wise, great thinker and teacher is quoted as saying, "I suppose if you were a salamander, it is a big thing to be called an Amphibian-American. But personally, I think it is just fine to call a toad a toad." This quote is from Kermit the Frog. (Kermit is also responsible for the song, "It's not easy being green.") Kermit is addressing the issue of political correctness, which basically is the way of neutralizing everything so that the least amount of people will be offended. The idea of being politically correct raises its head in many areas particularly dealing with race, gender and especially during this time of year, religion. Our Constitution of the United States mandates that there will be a separation of church and state meaning that government will not endorse or infringe upon the free practice on any religion. This is a very important entitlement that has been established which I personally feel must be protected to the fullest extent, especially for those of us in the religious minority. However, by being so politically correct, traditions, customs, and most importantly, all religious significance has become lost or at least certainly diluted, especially during this time of year. That is not the fault of the government or the Constitution. I fully endorse the idea of not having a nativity scene set up at the expense of taxpayers on government grounds where governmental business is conducted. But I do enjoy seeing them where they belong, at churches or in the yards of individual homes.

This incident led me to think about how, as Buddhist, do we observe Christmas? I can recall comments in the past where I've heard Buddhist members say things like:
"We don't have a Christmas tree, but we have a Bodhi tree."
"We don't give Christmas presents, but we give Bodhi presents or year end presents."
Or "We celebrate Christmas by giving and receiving gifts, but we don't recognize it as the birthday of Jesus the Christ."

Rennyo Shonin writes:
Specifically conduct yourself in the following manner: Adhere explicitly to the laws of the land; exercise the ideals of compassion and act for the good of all beings; observe all the usual public customs and traditions; and hold the faith of our sect deep in your hearts inwardly, Those who understand well the essence of the foregoing are the people within our sect who truly possess the comprehension of the True Teachings of our school. (Gobunsho, #42, "Chapter on the Existence or Non-existence of related past conditions.")

According to this letter, Rennyo, warns us that it is important not to slander or criticize other teachings and traditions. The primary reason is that all teachings may be important in the fruition of the circumstances to allow one to truly hear the Teachings of Truth. Rennyo was able to recognize the unsettled environment surrounding the members of the Jodo Shinshu community of his time. And by acknowledging the existence of other schools of Buddhism and of other religious teachings he was able to instill a manner of conduct coping with the dilemma of different traditions and teachings.

By saying that Christmas does not exist, or by saying that because we are Buddhist we do not observe Christmas while having a Christmas tree (not a Bodhi tree) in our homes, we are, in a way, denying the secular reality which surrounds us. This may lead to problems and confusion especially with the increase of inter-faith marriages and families. What is the Truth? Is there only one way? Do we all have to believe in the same thing?

Shinran often speaks on the level of Shintai - Truth Value or the Ultimate Reality focusing on the elemental meaning of Life, which is manifested by the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. Rennyo deals with Zokutai - the Utility Value which focuses on the causes and conditions, our environment with which we are led to the Ultimate Truth. For Rennyo, it is important not to slander other teachings. It is also important not to deny the existence of other teachings for ultimately they will lead us to the point where we can hear the Ultimate Truth.

There can be no denying that Christmas and Chanukah are special days. We can investigate, discover, recognize, and observe the significance of these special days. We can recognize Christmas as being a birthday of a man who has been an integral part in the history of the western world and share the joy of Chanukah as an important observance signifying the struggle for religious freedom. But at the same time, we must also ask ourselves of the importance and significance of our own Buddhist observances and how we may awaken to the Great Wisdom and Compassion found in Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. To thoroughly investigate the significance of our own tradition as we would the traditions of other religious faiths will help us all become aware of the beauty and richness of the Nembutsu teachings. Only then can our own enthusiasm, self-esteem, and confidence nurture our growth along the path of the Buddha Dharma.

To be able to recognize a Christmas Tree as a Christmas Tree, a Bodhi tree as a Bodhi tree, a menorah as a menorah, and a toad as a toad is a treasure of the Buddha's teachings which is stated very simply in the Amida-kyo, "Blue color gives off blue light, Yellow color gives off yellow light, red color gives off red light, and white color gives off white light."

Gassho, Merry Christmas, Happy Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Kwanza...
Happy Every Day!

Rev. Dean