Today, as Christians around the world celebrate Christmas Eve and the birth of Christ, I woke up thinking about the many religious traditions I’ve been privileged to learn about over my years of working and living internationally. And while in the past Christmas was a strictly “Christian” holiday from my point of view, that view has evolved over time.
Born an eternal optimist, my interest in “faith” as a human condition began in childhood. As a child, I learned all I could about Christianity; by the time I was 12, I realized that to understand Christianity, I needed to understand Judaism first. Surrounded by Jewish friends in Miami, I was invited to Bar Mitzvahs and introduced to the many beautiful traditions of the Jewish faith. In the years that would follow and through college, I learned all I could about many world religions and philosophies, eventually discovering Buddhism and the teachings of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. When I found “Thay”, I found a new faith to embrace; by the time I was in my mid-20s I was explaining to people that I was a “Zen Christian”.
I know: that sounds weird, right?
Well, it sounded even WEIRDER back then, as if I was picking and choosing the parts I liked from two very different religions. The thing is, I wasn’t TALKING about “religions”…I was talking about my FAITH. In understanding “faith” from a Buddhist point of view and combining it with my own Christian concept of faith, I emerged as a more compassionate and complete human being. And if you want to break it down “religiously”, the development of my Buddhist faith has made me a better Christian, just as the deep roots of my Christian upbringing make me a better Buddhist.
The world is divided into two types of people: those who are “seekers” and those who are not. Seekers are helplessly drawn by the impulse to go deeper and learn more about faith; it’s driven by both curiousity and need, and it is nearly impossible to explain it to a non-seeker. Moreover, “seekers” are not necessarily “religious” people; similarly, those who are not seekers may have a deep involvment in their own chosen religion, without having curiousity about more about other belief systems. That’s perfectly okay because the most “religious” person can be empty of faith, and I know many self-proclaimed atheists whose “faith” is deep and profound. The former have little positive impact on the world, the latter, despite their avowed atheism, make the world a better place each and every day through their actions and compassion. Religion is good, but it can also divide us into “us” and “them”, create artificial barriers between people. It is faith – the cornerstone of human compassion – which defines how we impact the world and it is faith we should endeaver to personally cultivate. Faith can move mountains.
So: Merry Christmas, Vietnam! Whether you are Catholic celebrating Christmas Mass at the Cathedral in Saigon tomorrow, a Buddhist looking forward to the spring festival at Bai Dinh Pagoda, or an atheist sitting on some beach somewhere, reflecting on life…remember to cultivate your faith, whatever its particular flavor, and use it to make the world a better place.