December 8th, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, came and went without even a whisper in the national discourse. Despite our lip service to multi-cultural inclusion, December is Christmas and Hanukkah all the way, with a token nod to Kwaanza and no mention at all of Rumi’s Wedding Night on December 17, so named by the Sufis because it marks the death of that mystic poet as a marriage to the Beloved (God). It’s reindeer and dreydls all the way in the U.S. of A. Why is no one paying attention to Buddha? The tiny sparks of Beat Zen in the 50’s led to the small lit candles of Zen Centers in the 70’s and much (but far from all) of our country’s Asian population practices some form of Buddhism, but truth be told, it has barely made a dent in the American spiritual life.
When you compare the story of Buddha’s Enlightenment Day with Christmas, you can begin to see why. The occasion marks the moment when the historical figure Gautama Buddha sat down under the Bo Tree (now a shrine in Bodghaya, India) and vowed not to arise until he had found what he sought. And so he crossed his legs and went into a profound meditative state. There he was assaulted by the demons of fear, the seductions of beautiful women, the promise of power until he arrived at his Enlightenment, a profound understanding in every inch of the body/mind that he was one with all things in the universe. The clouds of ignorance had dispersed and he was filled with light, enlightened as to his true nature.
It’s an okay story, but not one to stir the masses. Too abstract, too undramatic, too…well, mystical. Compare it to the Nativity. That story starts with a pregnant virgin, a trip to Bethlehem, getting turned away at the Inn and lying in a manger with farm animals. Already it has our attention. A pregnant virgin? There’s a miracle afoot here and though we shy away from the mystical, we’re attracted to concrete miracles, from the virgin birth to water changing to wine to UFO’s to Obama being elected President in the U.S. We like travel stories, can relate to the Inn being full and love to get mad at the unsympathetic Innkeeper and like stories about cows and sheep and domestic animals. Then there’s the Star in the East, the Three Wise Men, their incomprehensible gifts. The light of our own spiritual nature eludes us, but we do like to gaze at the heavens, are intrigued by the three wise guys (were the Three Stooges based on them?) and love to get gifts.
But the major star is the innocent little baby, whose birth promises redemption for all. And the mother, who helps half the population relate without effort. In fact, the Virgin Mary was a minor player in the first thousand years of Christianity. But when she rose to a starring lead in Medieval times, it captured the imagination big time and caused an explosive flowering of art and culture. Cathedrals like Notre Dame (Our Lady) were built, paintings flourished, hymns of praise sung. The entrance of the feminine in the masculine trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost made the story many times more appealing and along with the image of the baby (we all love babies, don’t we?), was the beginning of Christmas superseding Easter as the most important—and beloved— Christian holiday.
Then the centuries roll by and suddenly, the story has a new constellation of players— a fragrant pine tree put in the house decorated with little doo-dads collected over the years, a fat jolly guy who bestows gifts, a little plant that allows you to kiss the office secretary, great songs with decked halls, partridges in pear trees, snowmen in meadows, silent nights, jingling bells and a reindeer with a shining red nose. How can you resist? There’s something for everyone here! How can Buddha’s story compete? A thin ascetic sits under a tree we don’t recognize and says “Aha!” See the problem?
Now technically, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day should be compared to Easter. Though it’s true that his enlightenment was a birth of sorts, from his mortal self into his spiritual self, it was also a death and a resurrection. But again, Jesus’ story is much more concrete and easy for people to relate to. Another miracle and mystery. He’s killed on a cross and then disappears from the tomb. Where did he go? The detectives are still out on the case and no obvious solution yet.
We are built for stories and if you understand that every religion is more story than Gospel truth, more images and plots that capture our imagination, then you understand how a good story goes a long way in filling the churches and temples. Buddhism has its share of engaging stories, but the combination of the markedly different cultural context and the disinclination of Buddhists to be evangelists insisting that everyone convert to their point of view has mostly kept it within its cultural origins.
And though its absence in mass media is notable, it is by no means a failure. The Zen Buddhism that has attracted the interest of a small group of Americans is a demanding discipline not ever likely to be a mass phenomena, but one that has radically transformed some people's lives—including my own. Like other branches of major religion (the Hindu yogis, the Islam Sufis, the Christian mystics, the Jewish Kabbalah), it accents experience over faith, meditation over prayer, active practice over mere church or temple attendance, union with the divine over mere worship of a powerful, punishing God. All of the above require a questioning mind, a seeking spirit, a physical practice, all much more difficult than sitting in a pew for an hour a week and mouthing “I believe.”
Buddhism is the only major religion without God to worship. That seems to be a major human need, for better or worse—to look up to someone or something greater than us. In its positive manifestation, it keeps us humble and properly awed. In its negative, we give away our own divine nature and are content to merely adore, be it Jesus, Brad Pitt or money. Zen has a vertical direction with the Zen master at the top, but not to be adored or mindlessly followed. He or she is a teacher who manifests a true nature we all equally share, but all are not equally aware of. And so the work of parting the clouds of ignorance and remembering that which we already are, a divine spark in a universe of light.
One of my favorite Buddhist stories:
One of my favorite Buddhist stories:
Buddha was asked “Are you a god?”
“Are you a saint?”
“Are you a prophet?’
“What are you then?”
“I am awake.”
Happy Belated Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!