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A Very Buddhist Christmas

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Sitting in my mother's home in Baltimore, Maryland -- the state named for the mother of Jesus, by the many Catholic co-founders of the colony -- I listen to Barbara Streisand sing the divine melodies of Ave Maria. It's deliberate, serene, rich with gravitas and promise, with the vocal flourishes only Babs can provide. I am technically no more a Catholic than Streisand is, at this point in my life. But things weren't always this way.

For most of my childhood, I went to Mass every Sunday. I did the CDC religious instruction classes. I had my first communion, followed by many; and first confession, which to be honest, was my last. I never quite believed in all the dogma, but I loved the community and the ceremony. I just wasn't sure, even as a child, that this was my path to God. As a small child, I created a pantheon that included the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Greek and Norse gods, and superheroes. Hey, why shouldn't saints have superpowers and capes?

Some of my family has stuck with the one true Catholic and apostolic church; others have become Protestants; atheists; or, in my case, someone who practices Buddhist meditation. I started the nontheistic spiritual practice a decade ago. With a friend's encouragement, I began to attend regular meetings at different sanghas, a word that sometimes means a community of monks and nuns, but in America is often used akin to "congregation" in Christianity. I would not call myself a strict Buddhist. But as Alice Walker, who also meditates in the tradition said, "The whole point of anything that is really, truly valuable to your soul, and to your own growth, is not to attach to a teacher, but rather to find out what the real deal is in the world itself. You become your own guide."

I have questions about Buddhist teachings as I did about some Catholic ones. Some people call people like me religious dabblers, or people who choose a buffet plan of spiritual options. I prefer to embrace the teachings that stir my heart, no matter where they are from. From Buddhism, I seek ways to calm an overactive mind; to watch my thoughts and emotions as one watches clouds cross the sky, rather than getting caught in the inevitable thunderstorms of life. I have made some progress, and have far to go. You start a meditation practice in the hopes of gaining wisdom over time, with patience. You embrace kindness toward yourself and others, building the strength not to take everything personally and to gain compassion for even those who treat you badly. To me, the central teachings are very practical. Life includes pain -- illness, injustice, death. Suffering comes when we cling to an "if only" mentality: if only I was physically well; or wealthy; or if racism disappeared. Happiness and freedom come when we release these "if only" cravings, and live fully in the moment, embracing all of its joys and pains.

Few of of the people I've practiced with grew up Buddhist. There are the Batholics, like me, and the Jewdists and every other silly name you can come up with for people who are internally interfaith, or at least started with one notion of religion and ended up in another. A lot has been written about interfaith families and how they blend or respect traditions. But you don't have to be in a relationship to be interfaith. We all grow and evolve. How do we relate to the divine, if we choose not to do it in the way we once did as a child?

A revelation for me came when my grandmother was dying of cancer a decade ago. I audiotaped interviews with her, which I eventually edited into a CD for my family. She was the core of our Catholic practice, although she had grown up a Protestant. She raised her children with a strong sense of faith, gathering the extended family together for supper many Sundays after Mass. Her house was adorned with crosses and small figurines. And yet, as she lay dying, when I asked her about the afterlife, she said: "I don't know. Who really does?" The fact that someone so devout could be honest -- and not in a fearful sense -- about the mysteries of life and death inspired me.

I'm listening to Christmas carols right now, with my mother humming along as she wraps gifts. I can respect and learn from Jesus without believing a Christian faith is the only path. I also respect those who choose Jesus or another divine figure as their one true savior. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher who convinced Martin Luther King, Jr., to oppose the Vietnam war wrote:

"The moment I met Martin Luther King, Jr., I knew I was in the presence of a holy person.... On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors ... When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own." 

In that spirit, I pray to Jesus too.

I have a deep appreciation for religious choice, and for all faiths practiced with integrity. Any religion can be twisted into violence and vengeance or practiced with absolute love. And if Jesus taught us anything, it was "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He said nothing about what faith (or lack thereof) that neighbor was. It's a teaching that could be applied in a Buddhist context, or a secular one, or many of the world's religions. And to me, that is the deepest meaning of Christmas, a holiday I will always treasure for its belief that we humans can embrace our divine nature.