Printmaker Peter Miller the other day posted a photo of the stone basin at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, which carries an inscription: 'Even if I have nothing, it is enough.'
What if this message translates to say that we should gratefully accept all that comes our way this Christmas? Acceptance is the Zen of things: acceptance of the universe and acceptance of THAT which makes it tick.
Peter said he had long cherished this notion of sufficiency and gratitude, adding he purchased at the temple, for 800 yen, a medallion to remind himself of the practical message contained in the kanji. "Then I lost it," he said. "Really. I packed the medallion in my suitcase carefully, but on my return it wasn't there. Thereby illustrating in an unintended way the wisdom of the inscription."
You cannot walk the path until you first become the path.
Let's consider also this bit of seasonal Western wisdom: "He sees you when you're sleeping."
Can we say, now that we are big children, that this Xmas jingle about Santa coming to town confers a slightly discomforting thought? Who wants to be seen while sleeping? And let's admit, while full of good cheer, as piles of bygone Christmases stack up, that we find the holiday season to be no longer the same bumper-car jumbalorum of joy that it once was.
Do we outgrow the wonder? Can we find it again? Show us a kid on Christmas Eve who doesn't channel all their love, hope and joy in the direction of the all-knowing, roly-poly, Saint Nick. Who, as a child, isn't lost in the Lapland of their Christmas dreams or, alternatively, can't be coerced by the threat that you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout ... but be good, for goodness sake?
Goodwill to All
Today, we find our fondest memories of Christmas past are slippery and elusive, untrustworthy even - just like the memory of a carefully packed Ryoanji medallion.
To be honest the manger nativity birth-of-little-Jesus version of Christmas never really resonated with us. The images of cattle lowing, shepherds or even wise men did not enthrall. Personally, the Saint Nick version of Christmas always carried more magical weight than the nativity. Santa bestowed a spirit of generosity, of giving, and good will toward all. I still like to place Santa at the centre of my nativity scene (Jesus is there too) and surround him with plastic dinosaurs, knights and Corgi cars.
When I was last in Bethlehem you could not buy a wooden Santa, sleighs or reindeer - only angels and mangers, and chubby little Jesus's carved from branches of olive trees from near Gethsemane.
Which is a shame. Because at Christmas who cannot imagine iconic Rudolph, lightbulb nose in the air, his icy reindeer breath billowing atop the snowy shingles? We listened under the warm blankets, so still, for the stealth sound of Santa negotiating our chimney, magically sliding past the crematorium of the gas furnace, to leave large boxes under the glittering tree. Oh yes, we were far too wired for sleep. It was Christmas Eve and our hearts were luminous.
But consider this warning: "He knows if you've been bad or good. He knows when you're awake."
Let's not belabour bad or good. You have a conscience of your own. But being awake is a prerequisite for no-mind satori. And I imagine that state to be a place where tigers worship flying lords a-leaping, where no smoky breath can disturb the deepest dust that lies buried therein. I imagine it is where all the peace, calm and serenity in every person of every nook of Earth is mustered and illumined, trumpeted and glorified; where we can bathe in clean rainforests festooned by snow pillars, where we are serenaded by ice wolves who howl across crackling firelight blizzards. And I imagine this is a place where we may raise a glass to toast the thunderclaps, and fill our cup to the brim with love; where we find flashes of fat-bellied mirth as our cockles warm under the ridge of the pipe and the blankets of the sleigh, bells jingling as we are drawn forward, accepting, hopeful, surrounded by gay lumberjacks named Spruce.
Perhaps, though, you are the sort of Christmas celebrant for whom neither satori nor Zen nor even Santa will keep your toddy hot. Let's say you are moved by the traditional birth-story, the shepherds and manger.
If so, then let us offer the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. It is a fine little midwinter yarn that was consigned to the Apocrypha, discarded long ago by church leaders because it was insufficiently contemporaneous and too finely graphic and literary to be Biblical.
What happened is Joseph ended up with Mary after taking a pass on five other virgins: Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea, and Cael. The Pseudo-Matthew version of the birth narrative reports: "they cast lots among themselves what each virgin should do, and the purple for the veil of the temple of the Lord fell to the lot of Mary." One thing begat another, as they say, and later (omitting some details in the interest of brevity) en route to Bethlehem to answer the census, an angel appeared and the expectant Mary was guided to refuge in a dark cave. The birth was entirely impressive: "The light from God so shone in the cave, that neither by day nor night was light wanting as long as the blessed Mary was there. And there she brought forth a son, and the angels surrounded Him when He was being born. And as soon as He was born, He stood upon His feet, and the angels adored Him, saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good pleasure."
Joseph wasn't present for the actual birth though. According to this version of things, he took off to find a couple of midwives. But shepherds saw angels and there was a Big Star – bigger than any seen before.
Gold, frankincense, myrrh
The manger thing happened on Day 3: "And on the third day after the birth ... the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him."
A few more things happened on the third fourth fifth and sixth days after the birth and then something a bit nasty happened to Jesus on the eighth day. And then, jumping to the second year: "Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, bringing great gifts … one gave gold, another frankincense, and the third myrrh."
Later, as Mary, Joseph and young Jesus fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, they stopped by a cave to rest: "And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired."
Pseudo-Matthew goes on, with much emphasis on adoration and the earthly beastiary: "Lions and panthers adored Him likewise, and accompanied them in the desert. Wherever Joseph and the blessed Mary went, they went before them showing them the way, and bowing their heads; and showing their submission by wagging their tails, they adored Him with great reverence. And Wolves shall feed with lambs; the lion and the ox shall eat straw together."
With this in mind let's eat turkey together with stuffing, and plum pudding together with gratitude, and lace it all with acceptance as we muddle through another holiday while tinkling the keys to the tune of the Zen Christmas Blues, which this year ends with the traditional appeal to each of you Dear Friends ... "Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night."
(Top Image: Zen Christmas Blues by David Roberts w/c on a card; Inside image: Starry Night by David Roberts w/c on a card)