The Importance of Doubting the Doubtful Mind: Lessons from a Buddhist Retreat

The Importance of Doubting the Doubtful Mind: Lessons from a Buddhist Retreat

TLDR: The mind can feel chaotic with the presence of defilements. When doubt arises, try doubting the doubt to set the ground for clarity to arise. The teachers’ guidance can also help in the situation and as an object of recollection after returning to daily life.

I shared the first part of my experience of an 8-day retreat in Wat Marp Jan here, summarising my experiences in the environment. This part will summarise observations of my internal world, which may or may not be caused by external situations.

Doubtful mind

Doubt arose in the restless mind on the first few days. I found myself disliking the unfamiliar way the Dhamma talk was conducted: the Thai part by Ajahn Anan that I didn’t understand which meant I had to wait for the translated part, the seemingly unstructured topics chosen for the session, the distractions of seeing the other monks having their meals during morning Dhamma talks.

There was so much resistance in my mind that I wondered if it was the right decision to join the retreat. I decided to take Ajahn Achalo’s suggestion to doubt the doubtful thought: “Who is doubting?”.

I asked myself if the doubt was reasonable, as there must be some validity to the method if these many retreatants decided that it was worthwhile to spend 9 days away from their daily lives to be here.

Keeping this in mind, I continued with the daily schedules and, fortunately, supportive experiences started to materialise. I watched how the resident monks acted with grace and intention, listened to how the visiting Ajahns expressed their respect for Ajahn Anan, and felt how Ajahn Anan slowly drew my mind in.

My mind shifted into a lighter mode in the middle of the retreat period, and I was more receptive to the way things were conducted.

The teachers show up

We were also privileged to listen to Dhamma talks from other visiting Ajahns during the week. Ajahn Achalo dialled in via Zoom to caution us that hindrances may be amplified during the retreat period (it’s totally accurate for me!); Ajahn Ñāṇiko from Abhayagiri Monastery shared about patience-endurance (Khanti) and faith (Saddha) in our practice; Ajahn Pavaro from Tisarana Buddhist Monastery gave advice on getting ‘back’ into daily life.

For me, the peak experience was when Luang Por Boonchu graced us with his presence. Ajahn Anan treated him with such high esteem, sharing that Luang Por Boonchu was the left-hand man of Luang Por Chah (while Luang Por Liem was his right-hand man). 

Visually he may look like an unassuming older monk, but he emanated such a ray of joy (or perhaps equanimity) with his light-hearted mood. He encouraged us to remain mindful and see conditions as ‘just like that’, to continue with our practice, and try something we have not done before – if we’ve never meditated overnight, we should try it out (some retreatants did that with a joyful attitude). 

I experienced this ‘old monk’ as the epitome of joy and love. I was in tears by the end of the session, overcome by the overflowing joy and bliss in my heart. Feeling embarrassed, I apologised to my chore-mate for having to compose myself before our cleaning duty. She just smiled and said, “That’s okay. I cried yesterday too.”

Last but not least, Ajahn Anan stood at the centre of my overall experience. Ajahn showed up as someone a little stern in the beginning, adding to the dislike in my mind. When I finally saw Ajahn Anan’s warmth and generosity over the next few days, my mind also slowly opened up to his teachings.

I noticed Ajahn’s emphasis on continuous practice and mind cultivation (he often closed his Dhamma talk by telling us to ‘Samadhi’ – just one word and everyone gladly followed).

When daily life ‘returns’ to us

Having been to two retreats, I now understand why retreats could progress one’s practice and deepen one’s faith in their practice. The secluded environment helps to highlight areas that are ready for exploration and progress. However, the practice does not (and should not) end when we leave the monastery compound, so the effort does not go to waste.

We can find appropriate ways to continue with the habit/practice cultivated during the retreat.

Ajahn Pavaro suggested that we bring our minds to meaningful moments during the retreat so that we can recollect and lighten our minds when daily/mundane life clogs our minds.

Incorporate mindfulness in daily small actions, e.g. be aware of the body when sitting in a traffic jam. With this, we can continue using the spirit already developed during the retreat into a more mindful life.

Buddha’s smile

I’d like to close off this sharing with a small realisation. When I first saw the Buddha statue in the Eating Hall, I recall thinking, “This Buddha’s face feels awkward”.

Towards the end of the retreat, I finally saw the compassionate gaze and smile. Of course, there was no change to the statue, only a change in my perspective and understanding. It’s human nature to form opinions based on our past habits, but there can be learning as long as we keep our minds and hearts open. 

The smiling Buddha
Cr: Author

Wise steps:

  • The mind can play tricks, raising doubtful thoughts to discourage the practice. Try doubting the doubt to see the situation beyond our own liking/disliking.
  • Remain patient when disliking arises. Once the ‘dust’ settles down, only can the mind see clearly.
  • Retreat and daily life can feel like two opposite ways of life. We can apply small mindful actions to bridge the gap.
The 11 things I learned and “gained” from a 3-month meditation retreat

The 11 things I learned and “gained” from a 3-month meditation retreat

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from PJ’s website. Do check out his past articles on tackling the workplace over here, here, and here

On 19th October 2022, I flew back to Singapore after spending three months at my teacher Ajahn Brahm‘s retreat centre Jhana Grove and monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia.

Since then, I’ve been asked quite frequently about what I learned and “gained”, which I’ll attempt to summarize here. Below are the 11 things I’ve learnt.

(Graphic image warning: Please note that learning point 8 has a few graphic pictures of a decaying dead kangaroo. You may quickly jump to point 9 if you are easily affected.)

1. A much clearer & experiential understanding of how suffering works

Expectations, wanting, hopes, plans, etc. are a huge barrier, because of the Second Noble Truth: wanting causes suffering. During this retreat, I think I’ve let go more of the expectations & wanting to re-experience the life-changing yo-yo-jhana in 2010, which I’ve written about here and here . And if I wanted anything, whether it was the beautiful breath, or silence in the mind, or nimittas, or jhanas, that wanting always led to suffering.

So towards the end, I was deliberately cultivating the mantra of “Good enough”. Heavy rain while walking to the monastery? Good enough. Restless mind while sitting in the morning cold? That’s more than good enough!

And that really helped and worked: there was a lot less suffering when I was developing this mindset of being “contented and easily satisfied”, instead of striving with strong wants.

It’s not all perfect: there were definitely days when it felt like walking into a perfect storm. The lowest point I experienced was towards the end, on a Monday. For the whole of Monday, I struggled with a very, very restless mind: I could barely sit. It was, as Ajahn Chah (Ajahn Brahm’s teacher) described, “you can’t move forward, you can’t go backwards, you can’t stay where you are”.

I’m experienced enough to know that restlessness is the mind being discontented with the present moment experience. So I tried to make peace with the present moment experience and tried to be unconditionally kind and gentle to my own mind. That caused my mind to kinda go into a kind of split, where a less-critical, more-loving PJ was having a dialogue with a very fault-finding, very discontented PJ:

Loving PJ: There there! It’s ok to be discontented. You’re not enlightened yet!

Fault-Finding PJ: Of course it’s easy to say that!

Loving PJ: Remember Ajahn Brahm’s instructions? Just make peace with the suffering, be kind, be gentle…

Fault-Finding PJ: Of course it’s easy for Ajahn to say that! He’s the MOZART of meditation, whereas you are still playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars! You can’t even watch your stupid beautiful breath, for goodness sake!

It just spiralled downwards from there, into outright fear and despair. I was reminded of the episode in the Buddha’s passing, when his attendant Ananda cried out of despair. I understood what he felt because I felt this deep fear of what will happen when Ajahn Brahm dies? Who else can I have as a teacher I am dependent on?

And there was despair because I was nowhere close to the jhanas, which are needed to really remove the defilements. And I had so many defilements … it felt like I was tasked with using a single box of matchsticks to melt an entire iceberg or glacier.

The fear and despair was very, very real, and very, very bad: I sobbed and cried my eyes out in the shower. I don’t think I have cried like this ever since my colleague Parathy died… after I finished crying, I asked my mind what it wanted to do, and went to sit and meditate, before going to sleep. The next morning, I went to ask Ajahn for advice on how to deal with such days. 

Ajahn was so kind and compassionate… he kept saying “trust. you are so close“, and also talked about how, often, progress on the Path isn’t about more effort, but about finding the right place to perpendicularly cross the river. “And when you’re over, you’ll then realize how stupid you’ve been all this while, because you’ll look back and say ‘wait, that was it? That’s all it took?’ ” And that was all it took for me to gain back the trust, confidence, and patience to carry on.

2. A more experiential understanding of non-self”

The other learning is a more experiential understanding of non-self. Basically, I don’t really control my body or my mind: it is heavily influenced by the environment around me. The body is out of control, and the mind is out of control because they are all complex processes which have no single source of self, and where effects become causes for further effects. It’s all about putting the right causes in place, I.e. Right Motivation (Samma sankappa). A few episodes really highlighted this to me.

  1. No matter how much I tried, I could not change the fact that my body is made in Singapore, and that I struggle with the cold. Cold makes my mind restless, as I am really not made for this climate. It’s quite funny because whenever it’s cold, there is automatically a soundtrack playing in my mind (for the first two months, it was the soundtrack of Crash Landing On You, because my wife and I re-watched it before I left…). But what was even more interesting was the short spell of warm weather in late September and early October: the soundtrack playing stopped in my mind, with no choice nor force at all! So it was really caused by the cold.
  2. Physically with my body, there were a few incidents (suspect Covid; my twitching eye; body pains from sitting meditation) which drove home the point of non-self.
    From the Buddha’s second-ever discourse (Anattalakkhanasutta SN 22.59):

“(this body is not) fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’”, because “…if…(this body) were (my) self, this (body) would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of (this body): ‘let my (body) be thus; let my (body) not be thus’. But because (this body) is nonself, (this body) leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of (this body): ‘let my (body) be thus; let my (body) not be thus’. “

Basically, if your body was you or your self, then you would be able to compel it and control it to be well, not be sick, and to take on any shape or form you wish. Which you can’t.

3. Reduce the drivers of negative emotions

Much of Ajahn Brahm’s teachings are really about undermining and reducing the drivers for negative emotions, especially the overthinking mind that tenses up, comments, interferes, fault-finds, strives and tries, is ruthless, and seeks to control everything (especially due to fear).

If we do the exact opposite to the above verbs, those are the causes for future deep meditation and eventual liberation. So we should:

  1. Relax to the Max
  2. Disengage from commentary
  3. Don’t interfere or do anything, because it is all none-of-your-business
  4. Let the mind decide what it wants to do, rather than tell and control it
  5. Cultivate contentment: “good enough”
  6. Not try
  7. And be kind, unconditionally.

4. Cultivating the opposite of fault-finding

Ajahn Brahm once wrote that “cultivating the opposite of fault-finding is 90% of the Buddhist practice”, and this was something I realised from the three months.

It is so easy to lapse into fault-finding and criticism of everything: I could be sitting for 45 mins, watching the breath for 44 mins, and daydreaming in the last minute, and that is often enough for me to say “that was not peaceful”! This is crazy, if you think about it, because I wasn’t really looking realistically at the whole session, but only picking out the bad parts to smear the whole thing.

I think this fault-finding is due to social conditioning: it seems “smarter” to seem pessimistic, cynical, and negative (as shared in Psychology of Money: see point 7 in the original article here). This mindset is especially prevalent in Singapore, I think.

5. Systems, Not Goals

Scott Adams’ “system vs goals” came up in my mind during the retreat, and I started wondering what was my “system”, vs the “goal” of enlightenment. My system is to keep precepts, learn Dhamma, create the supporting environment for practice around me, and meditate daily. I’ll let the results take care of themselves. Some specifics that I picked up during the Rains:

  1. If the meditation was me largely “letting go, being kind and gentle”, then the meditation was a success, regardless of the results!
  2. I started debriefing myself after each meditation, as part of my “system”. I ask myself these questions:
    1. What suffering was absent? How much peace, calm & stillness was generated from the sit?
    2. Was there letting go, kindness and gentleness in the meditation, between me and the meditation object? 
    3. Which defilements were gone? Usually for me, there’s no ill will, sloth and torpor, and doubt. The usual suspects are Kama canda, and restlessness and remorse.

7. Meditation is like taking a shit

Meditation is a lot like taking a shit: there are a lot of parallels between the two.

  1. Both are non-self: in both processes, there is no single part you can point to, and say that’s me, mine, a self. There are also none of the accumulations of a self in any part of the processes e.g. ego, pride, expectations, will, etc. 
  2. Both are natural causal processes, where willpower & expectations are NOT necessary causal factors & are often counterproductive:
    1. If you’re blocked in meditation, often you need more mindfulness and kindness, to unblock yourself. If you’re blocked in shitting, often you need more fibre and water to unblock yourself.
    2. Using willpower in both cases causes haemorrhoids in your mind and in your a**
    3. Expectations in both cases are major blockers. 
  3. Both processes are about clearing their “containers” of defilements and debris: one is clearing the mind, the other is clearing the digestive system.
  4. Last but not least, the best sits and the best shits are effortless and joyful, and very healthy. 

7. Keeping Precepts is Critical

Keeping precepts is critical for progress on the Path. This is often overlooked, especially in western meditation instructions. But this importance becomes very clear when meditation deepens, and when your mind starts to reflect the spottiness of your ethical behaviour by body, speech and mind. Let me share a story about someone, whom I’ll call PJ2. Imagine that PJ2 is single, and that he once had a very, very deep meditation experience a few years ago. 

At the start of the Rains Retreat, I was discussing nimittas and jhanas with PJ2. However, as the retreat progressed, PJ2’s past caught up with him: he had not kept his precepts fully, and that caused him to feel this overwhelming sense of guilt that triggered panic attacks.

This lasted until PJ2 left, and it was very eye-opening for everyone to see how important keeping precepts are, for deeper meditation and for one’s practice.

8. Death is everywhere

Death and dying is everywhere, in the most unexpected places. In September, as a few of us returned from visiting Kusala Hermitage, it turned out that two kangaroos had been hit by vehicles just outside Jhana Grove. One of them was more decayed, while the other one was quite intact. It was very eye-opening to see the decaying and decomposition process over the weeks, which I captured by taking multiple videos and photos.

What videos and photos do not capture is the smell: that nauseating odour of death and decay, which reminds me of the very first time I smelled that odour, as a teenager helping my father clear the drowned rat stuck under our driveway.

But what the photos and videos do convey are the charnel ground descriptions in the suttas, especially the Satipatthana sutta (** CONTACT ALERT: Pics of dead things**)

Dead adult kangaroo, lying sideways on a road
The dead adult kangaroo just outside Jhana Grove

…And it had been dead for one, two, or three days, bloated, livid, and festering. They’d compare it with their own body: ‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’ 15.1

The dead adult kangaroo had moved due to heavy rain and had decayed

Then:

…a corpse discarded in a charnel ground being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, herons, dogs, tigers, leopards, jackals, and many kinds of little creatures. 16.2They’d compare it with their own body: 16.3‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’ 17.1

Same dead kangaroo, much more decayed. Note how the skull has gone missing, and the skeleton has changed color.

Then:

Bones rid of sinews scattered in every direction. Here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, here a shin-bone, there a thigh-bone, here a hip-bone, there a rib-bone, here a back-bone, there an arm-bone, here a neck-bone, there a jaw-bone, here a tooth, there the skull …

A finger fragment of the dead kangaroo by the roadside marking

Then:

Bones rotted and crumbled to powder. 30.2They’d compare it with their own body: 30.3‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’

It is extremely sobering, especially since an adult male kangaroo is about the same size as me, to reflect that my body is truly “of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.”

The Sangha at Bodhinyana Monastery paying respects to the Triple Gem

9. The monastic practice is the Buddha’s Training Programme

The monastic practice set by the Buddha is THE way to get to Nibbana.  Before this Rains, I had doubts about this: what’s stopping me as a lay person from being able to practice towards liberation? But after three months, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that the Training Programme decided by the Buddha is the best bet to Enlightenment.

However, my conditions in life are such that, it has to be lay life for me, at least for a while: as a married man, I have to take care of my wife, but also have to take care of my parents and parents-in-law as they age.

10. Some observations of my fellow retreatants:

My “alms bowl” for three months, filled with food generously given by lay supporters of the monastery. Those lay supporters drove 1 hr each way to feed the monks and lay retreatants every day, for 3 months!
  1. The generosity of people is astounding.
    For three months, I was fed by other people.
    Also, this group of Rains Retreatants really were very generous with helping each other out. For example, Becky would serve Ajahn tea, but also do a lot of acts of loving kindness to others. And in turn, I saw others helping her: a number of retreatants were talking to her to give her an introduction to the suttas, just before her silent retreat. Everyone was helping each other out like one big family (e.g. Gayathri making soup for Piotr, our Polish retreatant, when he fell sick a second time), which the Jhana Grove staff observed was quite unusual to our group.
  2. There seems to be a bit of PTSD from past experiences with SN Goenka vipassana meditation: a couple of retreatants mentioned to me something along the lines of “I can’t watch the breath, because I end up trying to control it from my vipassana experience” and “I can’t watch the breath with pleasure, because my vipassana conditioning kicks in”. Which is a real pity, because the breath can be a lovely meditation object.
  3. Dhamma vitakka (thoughts of the Dhamma) as a subtle hindrance was something that came up in a sutta class taught by Ajahn Brahm, but it seems to have been rejected by a number of retreatants. This hindrance was something I saw in my own mind: at some point, I realised that reading the suttas was actually complicating my own meditation practice, because I ended up generating a lot of questions (“Am I doing X right, like in the sutta?”) which disturbed the peace of mind. So towards the end, I deliberately cut down on my reading of the suttas, and reduced my thinking on aspects of the Dhamma.

11. The Practice isn’t just about meditation

While on a day outing with Ajahn Santutthi, abbot of Kusala Hermitage, I asked Ajahn about advice on the practice, especially since I felt stuck and stagnating in my meditation depth. He gave very good advice: “the practice doesn’t end after three months”, “the practice isn’t just about meditation”, and “just develop contentment and peace.”

Which is perhaps the main takeaway I got from my three months. 

Monks from Kusala Hermitage walking in a botanical garden bed of tulips
#WW: ❄️ Seeing Dhamma in Christmas…is that possible?

#WW: ❄️ Seeing Dhamma in Christmas…is that possible?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

To our Christian readers and all that celebrate, Merry Christmas! In this season largely celebrated by Christians. Are there Dhamma elements we can take away from this celebration? We have heard stories from friends who are invited to Christmas events only to face attempts at conversion, leaving a bitter taste of Christmas. So can we see Dhamma in this festival? Here are two stories that may make you think different!

1. The role of spirituality and Christmas

2. Can Buddhists celebrate Christmas?

The role of spirituality and Christmas

Cr: Unsplash

What’s going on here & Why we like it

Ajahn Brahm, a Buddhist monk from Australia, shares on spirituality and our occasional obsession with dogma. The notion that we take on labels (e.g. I am a Buddhist from Singapore/Malaysia who follows xxx teacher) prevents us from being expansive in our hearts.

Ajahn Brahm then also shares a unique moment where a reporter scolded Dalai Lama on receiving a skirt from a poor lady. A pretty fascinating response from Dalai Lama that embodies the spirit of Christmas. We have time-stamped the story in the video below.

“You build a circle that grows, grows, and grows. And all those things you have fear of in the past. It vanishes.”

Wise Steps

What views are you holding on to that prevent you from embracing the differences in others?

Check out the video here or below!

Can Buddhists celebrate Christmas?

What’s going on here & why we like it

Heng Xuan, a HOL writer, shares the different ways we can celebrate Christmas as Buddhists. The spirit of generosity expands beyond labels and whatever religions we identify with. December, the month of Christmas, offers Buddhists and Christians alike an opportunity to reflect on a topic dear to both traditions: Giving.

The article shares 3 ways that we can live the spirit of Christmas as Buddhists in the coming 3 days!

“What matters is that we are giving up mind states that cause us to feel negative. We then open ourselves up to giving and love.”

Wise Steps

When was the last time you gave to someone/something in need?

Read the article here.

#WW: 💀Jan is dead, where is our Real Home anyway?

#WW: 💀Jan is dead, where is our Real Home anyway?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

2 stories for you today!

January has “passed away”, how has the first month been? January was also a month that marked the passing of Ajahn Chah, a famous Thai Forest Monk. We share a story of his teaching and a simple picture on spring cleaning!

1.Our real home: Ajahn Chah’s encouragement for a dying disciple

2. Spring cleaning our social media

Our Real Home: Encouragements for a dying disciple

Unsplash

What’s going on here

Ajahn Chah, a renowned Thai forest monk, gives encouragement to a lay disciple that was passing away. He beautifully encourages the person to be fearless as life ebbs away. It is worth a listen and read especially for those of us who are with someone facing death.

Why we like it

Ajahn Chah uses the nature of things to skillfully cast out fear for his disciple. He makes you ponder deeper about where our true home is. We can spend this year chasing the external material stuff or this year developing ourselves. We are often paralysed when loved ones are diagnosed with a terminal illness or facing their end. Hence, this provides a balm to the questions we might have about dying.

“The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body has become old and now it’s meandering towards its death. Don’t go wishing it was otherwise, it’s not something you have the power to remedy. “

Wise Steps

Where is our real home? Are we developing it daily or are we putting energy into things that eventually fall apart? By reflecting deeper, may you find the energy to develop your mind for the rest of the year!

Read it here

Listen to it here

Spring cleaning our social media

neon signage
Unsplash

What’s going on here

@peopleiveloved draws a simple image of housecleaning our lives.

Why we like it

A short simple image to remind us to let go of things that no longer uplift our mind. The acquaintances or influencers whom we follow and feel jealous about.

“Housecleaning. I used to want to know… now I am not so sure.”

Wise Steps

Check your social media feed! Are there people you follow that makes you feel inadequate and demotivated? It might be time to unfollow!

See what she posted here or down below!


Celebrating Christmas: How do Buddhists view this season? Can celebrate ah?

Celebrating Christmas: How do Buddhists view this season? Can celebrate ah?

TLDR: Can/should Buddhists celebrate Christmas? Is that the right question to ask? To give the intangible, share metta, and give up the unwholesome — these are some ways we can celebrate this season of giving.

The possible awkwardness in Buddhists celebrating Christmas 

“You can meh?” was the start of that imagined awkwardness of a Buddhist celebrating Christmas. The notion of enjoying another religion’s holy day while being firmly grounded in Buddhism made me feel ‘awkward’.

The question arose as I walked with friends to observe the Christmas light up at Orchard road. “Should I be enjoying this?”, “Should I be singing Christmas songs and giving gifts?”, “Is this against what Buddha taught?” were thoughts that ran through my mind as my Christian friend asked me “You can meh?”. 

He was concerned for a ‘serious’ Buddhist like me, who had to stroll through the nativity scenes put up in Orchard Road to celebrate Christmas. He thought that celebrating  Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, might be ‘against my religion’.

Rather than asking, “okay to celebrate?” we should ask ourselves how we can grow our goodness this season. 

A Christ-Buddhamas?

Often, we tend to divide our world into a binary one of ‘right’ or  ‘wrong’, ‘us’ or ‘them’.

Learning the Buddha’s middle path of balance and wisdom helps pull us away from such extremes. We develop a tendency to slow down our reactions and enrich our responses to the world around us.

December, the month of Christmas, offers Buddhists and Christians alike an opportunity to reflect on a topic dear to both traditions: Giving. The late Thai forest teacher Ajahn Chah illustrates this best.

An excerpt from one of the recollections of his teachings:

How can they (monks) celebrate Christmas?

A group of the Western monks decided last year to make a special day of Christmas, with a ceremony of gift-giving and merit-making. 

Various other disciples of mine questioned this, saying, “If they’re ordained as Buddhists, how can they celebrate Christmas? Isn’t this a Christian holiday?”

In my Dharma talk, I explained how all people in the world are fundamentally the same. Calling them Europeans, Americans, or Thais just indicates where they were born or the color of their hair, but they all have basically the same kind of minds and bodies; all belong to the same family of people being born, growing old, and dying. When you understand this, differences become unimportant. 

Similarly, if Christmas is an occasion where people make a particular effort to do what is good and kind and helpful to others in some way, that’s important and wonderful, no matter what system you use to describe it.

So I told the villagers, ‘Today we’ll call this Chrisbuddhamas. As long as people are practicing properly, they’re practicing Christ-Buddhism, and things are fine.”

I teach this way to enable people to let go of their attachments to various concepts and to see what is happening in a straightforward and natural way. 

Anything that inspires us to see what is true and do what is good is proper practice. You may call it anything you like.

Ajahn Chah’s tongue-in-cheek yet compassionate take on Christmas spreads the flavour of Dhamma better than any Christmas log cake.

We are often caught up with technicalities and terms, forgetting the essence behind them. We tend to see differences rather than similarities.

Applying Ajahn Chah’s comments to my experience, I should not have worried whether I was ‘violating’ the Buddha’s teachings by singing songs. 

Rather I should have been more concerned whether the words I said were compassionate and kind. Was I ‘giving’ kindness to those that I spoke to? Did I give when the opportunity arose? Or did I hold back when others needed me?

What can we do this Christmas?

Beyond ‘doing’ Christmas stuff like eating, meeting friends and gift exchanges, how can we better embody the festive season this December as Buddhists? 

Here are 3 ways.

1. Give thoughtful Gifts

Bring mindfulness into the act of giving. We may give someone a material gift that helps them through tough times or if we wish to ‘rebel’ against materialism, we can give our time and effort to friends. 

Giving them a call, taking them out for tea/coffee, going for a hike are great ways to give! We may not have a lot of money to buy gifts, but we can give in many ways.

Recollecting that Jesus praised a poor widow who gave a few cents of her wealth as a greater gift than the rich crowd who gave a large sum. It is not the amount but rather the intention and heart that matters.

2. Sit! Do a loving-kindness (metta) meditation

This gift may not be an obvious choice to give during Christmas but it has strong lasting effects. The act of cultivating goodwill for all sentient beings and wishing them to be well and happy can change your attitude to friends, family, and your social circles. 

This meditation technique is excellent for those of us who struggle with anger and jealousy. Sharing a feeling of gratitude and kindness with all beings softens our hearts and uplifts our minds.

This practice gives others a sense of protection that you will never harm them while keeping your mind light and bright (even brighter than the Christmas tree at Vivo City)

3. Reflect on generosity

Beyond giving thoughtful gifts & cultivating metta, we can delve deeper into generosity. The act of giving comes with the spirit of letting go. The eradication of “the attachment that comes from feelings of scarcity and separateness” as Vipassana teacher Philip Moffit describes Dana (Generosity).

For some of us, this might mean letting go of our greed and selfishness. For others, Christmas can be a time to examine biases towards people of other religions. 

What matters is that we are giving up mind states that cause us to feel negative. We then open ourselves up to giving and love.

Same same but different?

These 3 ways can help us Buddhists celebrate the Christmas spirit of giving and not get caught up in the consumerism of gifts.

This attitude perhaps resonates with many churches who lament about the materialism that has plagued their favourite holiday. In this way, the holiday can be turned away from the usual feast of consumerism and toward a period of interfaith solidarity.

Following the 3 ways of making merit, giving can be seen as both a beginning to the Buddhist path and as a component of the path in its entirety. May you find the beginning of giving this Christmas!

So rather than asking ‘okay to celebrate?’ we should ask ourselves ‘how can we grow our goodness’ this season. 

P.S. In case you are wondering if Buddhists have their ‘season of giving’, there is! 

Theravādin countries (e.g. Thailand, Myanmar) celebrate Kathina, a festival where lay people offer basic goods to monks and nuns such as robes, bowls, medicine, and food. Monastics, in turn, give religious teachings to the laypeople. You can read more about this Buddhist season of giving here


Wise Steps:

  • Don’t get caught up by labels (e.g. Christmas) especially if that prevents you from practising the values of generosity. 
  • Find non-material ways to give! Be it metta meditation, being there for someone, or giving up bad habits