Multifaith realities during the holidays

Merry Bodhi lights! The Holiday Season is upon us. The word 'holiday' is derived from 'holy-day'. This is a fitting name for December because it really is a month of holy days. While we are being overwhelmed by what my good Christian friends would call the hype of secular Christmas, people are quietly trying to derive meaning from their Hanukkah, Bodhi Day(Dec. 8), Winter Solstice, Ramadan, Festival of Lights and Kwanzaa, just to name some of the other holy days of December.

This multi-faith reality quietly takes place behind all the glitter and consumerism. With so many faiths celebrating a significant holy day at the same time, it might be tempting to hearken back to an ideal, imaginary past when life seemed easier in a country with only one language, only one race and only one religion. But that has never really existed for us here in Canada. I have seen old Metis shrines. They have medicine bundles next to a cross. It is obvious that they followed both the Old Ways of their mothers and the faith of their fathers. Before the coming of the Europeans, Canada was surely composed of many languages, faith forms and social styles. The current emphasis on multicultural, multi-faith realities is not something new, but rather a rediscovery of who we Canadians really are.

Our society here in Canada presents us with a unique challenge. Not only are our communities diverse, so too are our families. It is not unusual to find a family with three races and three religions. Just how does a family of this type go about celebrating the Holy Days in December? The multicultural and multi-faithed society has given rise to multicultural and multi-faithed families. Can you still love your non-Christian non-white grandchild? Do you give a Christmas gift to your Muslim spouse? Can a Mennonite celebrate Bodhi Day (Buddha's Enlightenment) with their Buddhist stepdaughter?

It is easy to be wholly dazed during the holy days!

Buddhism is a minority religion in Winnipeg. We are surrounded by non-Buddhist friends and relatives and spouses. Our community enjoys many successful interracial and interfaith relationships, but this does not mean that everything comes easy for us.

At this time of the year it is, therefore, necessary to focus on two virtues. One is anjin and the other is mudita. Anjin was taught by Shinran, the founder of our Pure Land sect. Anjin combines peace with a settled mind and quiet confidence in our own faith experience with the grace of Other Power. Mudita was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. It is sympathetic joy--sharing the good fortune of others without envy or guilt.

If we are settled in our faith (anjin), the other celebrations taking place during December do not present a threat but are, rather, an opportunity.

This quiet confident faith prepares the way to practice mudita, sympathetic joy. Why should any of us feel guilty for experiencing the joy of the Christmas season? Then, too, why should the dominant faith feel threatened by the fact that other faith communities are celebrating in parallel with the Christmas celebrations?

Remember, no one owns December. There are some 7 different celebrations during this month. Those of other faiths will continue to enjoy the holiday season in their own way. Perhaps it is all right to include a Bodhi Wheel on the Christmas tree? Wheel-shaped pasta can be found in some stores. Perhaps we could string it up along with other holiday decorations?

There is indeed more to December than an orgy of secular consumerism. It might be time for Winnipeg to take the leadership in affirming the interfaith realities of December by declaring it the month of Interfaith Understanding and Reconciliation. This process has already been started in the dialog between Christians and Jews. What if we were to extend this important initiative to other faiths? What kind of message would we be delivering if the wonderful Mennonite Children's Choir were followed by a Jewish choir in our shopping malls? Or if the Buddhist meditation on Loving-Kindness were part of the opening of the holidays? Maybe a Christian Father would join the Muslim community in doing Ramadan fasting? Or a Muslim would join a First Nation's celebration of the Winter Solstice? This would be one way to change the focus of the season away from the depressing prospect of being in Christmas debt well into May.

There is really something to be joyful about during the month of December. Withdrawing into the shell of our separate faith communities and being suspicious of those "others" just misses the point somehow. The Wise Men were not Christian. They did not come in the spirit of triumphalism, nor was their arrival the result of a culturally intrusive missionary system. The gifts they presented to the Babe in the Manger did not imply their conversion. We non- Christians, during the December Holy Days, find ourselves playing the role of the Wise Men at the Manger. Would it be too much to ask of those who follow the Babe to play the same role for us?

And by the way, we wish you Merry Bodhi Lights as we encourage success for those in Ramadan during the Winter Solstice under the lights of our Christmas Tree!

Sensei Ulrich

December 23, 1999