Looking through the eyes of another can bring into fresh focus those things familiarity can too easily obscure. So, at this Christmas time I share some reflections on the birth and teachings of Jesus Christ as offered by a Tibetan teacher - Lama Yeshe (1935 - 1984) - from talks he gave in the Christmases of 1971-74 when first encountering Western students in Kathmandu.* Although disenchanted with the Christianity of their homelands, and seeking alternative answers in Buddhism, Lama Yeshe sought to help the students at Christmas understand and engage with, rather than simply reject, the rich and meaningful heritage of their own Christian tradition in the life and teachings of Jesus.
'True religion brings peace and satisfaction to the mind... Jesus brought teachings to show us how to be peaceful... If you want to come to this Christmas celebration and bring a present, the best present you can offer is a peaceful mind.' Lama Yeshe
Our picture of Christmas, as Lama Yeshe recognises above, includes the giving of gifts. The shepherds pondered what gift they could bring the new-born king. Similarly, in the well-known carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter' the hymnist also ponders:
'What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart. '
So we also ask the question spoken in the Christmas liturgy of the Eastern Church: 'What can we offer you, O Christ, for having been born for us on earth as a man?' We certainly offer him too little if all we do is to exchange costly presents with one another, gifts that are not the expression of our own selves and of a gratitude that otherwise remains silent. Let us try to offer him our heart... our whole being, as indeed God has given his own self to us in Jesus: Immanuel - God with us.
Lama Yeshe suggests cultivating and bringing the gift of a peaceful mind, and perhaps a peaceful mind is ultimately only realised through the surrender of ourselves to the divine - the transcendent - however we understand that to be. In the Christian tradition, it is particularly at Christmas that we remember Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Jesus' birth was announced by the angel: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men' Luke 2:14. Jesus urges us to be at peace with one another and promises, 'Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.' John14:27.
Perhaps, the word 'peace' moves people today more than any other single word. The biblical word shalom means so much more than the mere absence of war and conflict. It conveys a sense of completeness, wholeness, harmony and fullness. It denotes well-being, a world in which trust and good will rule, a world without fear or deprivation or falsehood. If we embrace the peace of Christ within us, then we can share this peace with others and the world. If everyone were to become inwardly peaceful, then the causes of friction and war would cease. Peace on earth - that is the goal of Christmas.
'Jesus discovered the source of peace within himself... If our Christmas celebration is to be truly religious, it is important to remember who Jesus was, what he did and what he stood for. Vow not to disparage with hostility any philosophical or religious doctrine whatsoever.' Lama Yeshe
It is in the child Jesus that we see most clearly the defencelessness of God's love. God comes without weapons, because he does not want to conquer from the outside but to win us over from within, and to transform us from within. If anything can conquer the arrogance, the violence, and the greed of humanity, it is the utter vulnerability of a child: and extraordinarily God takes on this vulnerability in Jesus in order to draw us and lead us to himself. The defencelessness of God, his humility and his kindness come into view in the Christ child. He exposes himself to us in the heart of this world and comes to teach us a new way of living and loving in this world.
When God appears before us thus unarmed, with his love as his only might, all the frightening images of God lose their plausibility. In the crib and on the Cross, the glory of God is raised aloft in this world. And wherever we give ourselves to follow this self-giving God, a new humanity begins; peace on earth begins.
In today's world, that peace must extend to other religions. As the Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said, 'There will be no peace on earth without peace among religions.' Lama Yeshe understood this.
'Religion must be meaningful, and for this to happen we must transform ourselves inwardly... Try to discover within yourself the meaning of true silence, the silence of a peaceful, satisfied mind... Generally, our minds are like stone. Although we have listened to the teachings of so many religions and philosophies, they have never penetrated our consciousness.' Lama Yeshe
Silence is the space of this Christ child. Silence is the sphere where God is born. It is only when we ourselves enter the sphere of silence that we reach the point where God is born in us.
Christmas invites us into the silence of God, yet his mystery remains hidden to so many people because they cannot find the silence in which God acts. How do we find it? Mere silence on its own does not suffice to create it, for a person may be silent externally while in themselves be torn this way and that by all the confusion of the world and their own mind. It is possible to keep silent yet experience a terrible din within oneself.
Becoming internally silent means discovering a new order of things. It means that I do not limit my attention to those things I can produce and display to others. It signifies understanding the ultimate illusion of the ego. It means I do not limit my interest to those things the systems of the world consider important and valuable. Silence means developing the inner senses, the sense of conscience, the sensitivity to the eternal in us, the ability to listen to and know God.
In the silence we are born again. We are accepted and must let ourselves be accepted. We must transform our dependency into love and become free therein. We must be born again, laying aside our pride and becoming a child knowing the open spacious and natural reality of what we as humans can be and do in our deepest selves in God, rather than being trapped in the fantasy world of our fixed and neurotic ideas. Silence brings freedom. This is what Christmas is meant to bring about in us.
You do not hear silence, but it is that by which you do hear. You cannot capture silence; it captures you. Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking. It’s a kind of seeing, being - contemplata - that has its own luminosity. Silence, then, is an alternative consciousness. It is a form of knowing beyond mental analysis.
Silence is always non-dual. It stays with mystery, holds tensions, absorbs contradictions, and smiles at paradoxes - leaving them unresolved, and happily so. Silence holds impossibilities together. Silence precedes, undergirds, and grounds everything - 'In Silence everything displays its depth, and we find that we are a part of the depth of everything around us.' Robert Sardello
'When peaceful silence lay over all, and when night had run half way her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word' – Book of Wisdom 18:14-15
When our interior silence can actually feel and value the silence that surrounds everything else, we have entered the house of wisdom. This is the very heart of prayer. When the two silences connect, we have a third dimension of knowing, which many have called spiritual maturity or even “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2: 10 -16).
Perhaps this is the mind of peace that Lama Yeshe encourages us to bring, for every religion agrees, each in its own way, that we are called to a transformed consciousness, a new mind or being 'born again' a second time in some way.
Perhaps, we are all searching for someone to surrender to. In Kathmandu, the students found that someone in Lama Yeshe who led them to take refuge in their own inner Buddha nature. So, this Christmas, those of us who follow the Christian path, let us surrender ever deeper to Jesus and allow the Christ child to penetrate our consciousness and very heart. Don't let Christmas remain a single day instead of a lifetime of ever deepening realizations.
'In this way the festival of Jesus' birth can become truly worthwhile...
Thank you, and have a merry Christmas. ' Lama Yeshe
* Published in 'Silent Mind, Holy Mind: A Tibetan Lama's Reflections on Christmas,' Wisdom Culture,1978.