Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Eve: A Moment Alone With The Whole Universe

All I wanted for Christmas was for someplace to be open on Christmas Eve. Thank you, Santa, for Figaro Cafe on Vermont Avenue.

It was looking like a rough Christmas Eve on my own in L.A. First, there was the bright idea of redeeming a gift card at Barnes & Noble in Glendale: nothing doing. All the shops closed at six.

Back in Los Feliz, it was looking very small-townish. Mexico City: closed. Skylight Books: closed. Grocery store: closed. Everything: closed. In such a diverse city, I wondered, could there be a lack of Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and other non-Christmasy employees and customers?

Then Figaro appeared, its awnings trimmed with little lights and lively conversations going on at their absurdly small sidewalk tables. Oooh la la, could I go for some coffee and some port while writing a couple of Christmas letters!

That's right: I wrote Christmas letters on Christmas Eve. Is there a problem? I don't welcome people to places before they have arrived, thank them for things they have not yet done, or resent people who have not yet hurt me. Because of this perversion, I write my Christmas cards and letters sometime around Christmas Eve. This works nicely, because at the same time I tender blessings for the year to come.

So Figaro was my host as I sat on Vermont Boulevard writing letters.

A theme emerged as I wrote Christmas cards for some Buddhist friends. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. What, you and I both wonder, would I write about?

Currently, I am conversing with Grayling's Life, Sex and Ideas, and arguing with the book a fair amount, especially with respect to religion. Unlike Grayling, I am willing to see something artistic and creative about the religious imagination, provided religion has not become an ideology. Grayling, it seems, makes no such distinction.

It is not my belief that a man literally sat under a tree for six years without scratching his nose or eating something or dying - yet the story is a moving one, and points to a truth that lives in my emotional and creative being. Does this make any sense? It is inspiring. Because it inspires, it is telling a truth that is not history but plays a role in it. I don't need to believe Siddhartha sat there for six years literally. There is no document anywhere of him making this claim himself!

Stephen Mitchell suggested that religions are elaborate languages for discussing the inexpressible. This is beautiful.

Anyway, so this Buddhist is sipping port and writing Christmas cards to his Buddhist pals. Does this sound like a joke? It is. I won't promise you a good punchline, but here's what I wrote about Christmas.

Christmas Eve is a space where friends and family appreciate one another as they are, coming together in appreciation for conversation, eating, sharing music and comparing an opinion or two about this world we've made.

Then Christmas comes and Buddhists, without believing Christianity literally or accepting Jesus as an exclusive and personal savior, can still appreciate the meaning of Christmas. The Holy Spirit is born as a person in the world of form, and submits to the suffering of the human realm like a mop, taking the grit into its body, for you and me. Do Buddhists not recognize and celebrate this?

On my personal altar, I not only put up a seated Buddha, but also a rosary with Jesus on the Cross. The seated Buddha moves me for its resolve, the faith it takes to say, "I am not going to get up from this place until the mystery is penetrated." The Crucifixion, for me personally, conveys the terrible gravity of the Bodhisattva vow. Compassion is not a bowl of strawberries - not among human beings.

(It reminds me of a time I witnessed somebody ask Zen Master Dae Kwang how long they should "try" Zen practice, and he shot back at them: "Try it until you die.")

So coming together - whether it's in time and space, or in the heart of a person writing letters to loved ones at a sidewalk cafe - we appreciate the flowering of you and me, forgive folly, and (perhaps) renew a vow we would do well to follow every day of the year.

Namu Kwan Se Um Bosal.

Merry Christmas.

Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your life.


Lorianne said...

Merry Christmas! I drank two glasses of wine on Xmas eve & discovered that playing Scrabble is far more fun that way. (Of course, by teammate & I, both of us writers, came in second-to-last place. Must've been the wine...)

I love the fact that you found a "room at the inn" at a place called Figaro. In my head, I hear an operatic celebration of the place: "Fi-ga-ro, Fi-ga-ro, FI-GA-ROOO!"

Anonymous said...

Thank you for "Try it until you die." Merry Christmas.

Trinity said...

Merry Christmas also by me!!
Wish you a good eve!

Algernon said...

Grazie per il commento ed anche per leggere il mio blog! Buon Natale.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the flowering of you and me, as well. Missed it on PS...I prefer to visit your writing here, anyway. Happy holidays...


Ji Hyang said...

finding the silence in the middle of the city is actually more challenging--
I spent Christmas Eve in an Italian restaurant in central NJ discussing the bardo realm with my mother--
Will be visiting CIZNY Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

thank you for your splendid online company, algernon. through your inspirational (mental) adventures, i see what it's like to have the soul of a sweet and good human being, and that has been a yearlong present that i hope continues into the new. merry double-o seven.

Hal Johnson said...

Thank you for a splendid piece of writing, and Happy New Year.