As part of the January-June 2016 online content, Mandala is happy to share the most recent Dharma Realities column by Ven. Chönyi Taylor, who has been contributing to Mandala‘s online edition since 2010.
What better way to describe the Christmas frenzy? Wish lust. The longer the list, the greater the lust. Or perhaps the more expensive the list, the greater the lust. Whatever. The point is that our Christmas wish list is mostly a list of lusts. The Christmas we celebrate is more like the Roman Saturnalia: a celebration marked by unrestrained licentiousness. Revelry. Saturnalia was an orgy, a celebration of lust. The winter solstice marked a return to lushness after the long winter nights.
The 1st-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of times”: dress codes were relaxed; small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged. The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it; masters and slaves swapped clothes. Family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch. The god Cronos (Saturn) says:
During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.1
Christians took over this solstice celebration and turned it into a renewal of life through the birth of Christ. Lust has no place in the new order. Instead, it is a celebration of the new commandment: that we love one another as Christ has loved us.
These two ways of celebrating the winter solstice pull us towards two different kinds of happiness. One is the riotous happiness of relief from temporary suffering. It is a happiness that is based on external things, on having our wants and lusts met, about having a comfortable life. The other is a quieter happiness that is based within, the happiness that comes from unconditional love.
Love is, according to our Buddhist teaching, the desire for others to be happy. Compassion is the desire that they be released from suffering. The happiness that comes from these desires is an inward thing, a state of mind – and especially so because it arises from an inner state of mind rather than from external things.
Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Christmas are found in a precious book Silent Mind, Holy Mind, which is unfortunately out of print. A drawing of Jesus accompanies a daily practice by Lama Yeshe for people devoted to Jesus. “Jesus” said Lama Yeshe, “had exceptionally great compassion. It is very good to check up on this fact and consider it deeply. If the thought comes to the mind ‘I must gain his realizations and becomes as compassionate as he was’ then this is the most perfect basis on which to have a celebration of his birth. With this feeling in our hearts, a Christmas festival can be very meaningful and worthwhile.”
Ven. Chönyi Taylor is a registered Foundational Buddhism FPMT teacher and an elder for the Discovering Buddhism at Home Course. She is the author of Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Working with Addictive Patterns (Snow Lion, 2010) and has been published in Mandala, Buddhadharma, Dharma Vision and Sangha Magazine. She is a founding member and member of the training committee of the Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists and an Honorary Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychiatry at Sydney University.