this holiday season, i am contemplating presence and how that may be the only gift we ever really need to give.
my sister, Alicia, and i were up late wrapping presents on Christmas Eve. while this is not unusual, i congratulated myself on being ahead of schedule on the gifts this year. because i traditionally do not have a lot of money to get people whatever they desire, i tend to be more creative in my approach to gift giving. in many years past, i would be making presents up until the night of Christmas Eve. this year, i was done early and even started wrapping during the day as opposed to the night of. yet here we were, upholding a tradition that is perhaps more of a habit, tired and wondering if it was worth it. as i deepen my practice of mindfulness, i wonder how important it is to give material gifts every year. as Alicia sighed out from under the weight of endless streams of wrapping paper, i asked her whether we might consider not buying anything next year. i was surprised when she agreed and will follow up on this idea next year.
i could have been finished a couple hours earlier, but sacrificed present wrapping and sound sleeping to go with my father to candlelight service at the Lutheran Church we grew up attending. i have felt very far from that community and some of the spiritual philosophies that i find problematic. i haven’t been to that service in about ten years. as my dad ages, however, his faith grows more fervent. when i returned from Colorado, he asked me, “If you are Buddhist, that means you are not a Christian anymore?”
at first, struck by the question, i responded, “I guess not.” my mother and father both wailed in disappointment, despite the fact that my mom does not even attend church anymore. “Mom, you’re from Korea which is a predominately Buddhist country.”
“No, not Buddha!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, Buddha,” was all i said and she dropped her little rebellion.
as my dad went on about problematic multiple god worship and Jesus as salvation, i thought about my answer to his inquiry. after he claimed he has failed and given up on me, i restated my case. “Well, you know Dad, actually my Buddhist beliefs don’t actually contradict your Christian ones. In fact, Buddhism appreciates and allows for your beliefs. And the fact that I study and practice Buddhism does not mean that I could not also be a Christian. I just wouldn’t necessarily label it that way.”
by the end of the conversation he said, “Well, I guess there are just some things I might not understand yet.” this was a profound change from years of lectures on righteousness.
during lunch on Christmas Eve, he asked us if we were going to church with him that evening. Alicia asked, “What time do you go?”
my mom immediately said, “No.” she was busy preparing for the next day.
i didn’t respond.
Mom: Go to church and pray for me.
Dad: No, I give up.
in the end, i decided to go because i know how important it is to my dad. on the car ride there, i asked Alicia why she goes with him every year. she said, “It’s mostly because this is Dad’s spiritual practice and regardless of how I feel, I think it’s important to support him and respect that. Plus, I feel like Christmas Eve is a special night that can bring us closer to the sacred. This is kind of our tradition…and the closest I get to experience that!”
during the service, Pastor Phil talked about the different reasons why people were there that evening, including the person who believes fully in Jesus Christ and the person whose faith has been broken but has a longing to reconnect with the Holy Spirit. after he listed each type of person, he said, “You are most welcome here this evening.”
however, after he listed the person who went out of obligation to their family, to respect their beliefs and traditions, he said, “And you, especially, are most welcome here this evening.”
i felt tears well up in my eyes, exacerbated by allergic sensitivities to the congregation’s intensely perfumed gathering. i went into this very consciously—contemplating my reasons for going, my intentions to let go of my ego and trauma from years of being forced to participate in this particular brand of organized religion, and working to experience it on a sensory level rather than one laden with psychological attachments to ideas of experience. to my surprise, the service that i dreaded for so many years served as a meditation. in many ways, it was not different than gathering with Buddhist sangha to receive teachings and sit in meditation. it was even quite delightful chanting Christmas hymns in a different octave with my sister. the woman dressed in red suspenders and Christmas tie on my other side was there alone and sang with me at the same low pitch. at first, she sang very timidly, but appeared to grow in volume and gusto as Alicia and i belted out “Away in a Manger.” as she was driving away in the parking lot, she rolled down her car window and said, “If I went up a third, we could have covered all the octaves!” we laughed as she drove off into the misty night.
and then, there was my father. when i said, “Excuse me, sir,” and walked into his pew, he looked up at me, taken aback. i said, “You didn’t wait for me to answer.”
“About whether or not I was coming.”
he flashed a thoughtful smile and nodded his head, saying “Very good…”
during the service, Dad had many emotional outbursts of things like, “Jesus is the light of the world” and “Praise God!” i would normally be turned off by such derivative expressions for faith, but now that i understand the usefulness of mantras, i could also see that they were his. he uttered them with a tremble in his voice and a welling of fluids in his eyes that felt authentic and heartfelt. i actually felt happy being there with him, and seeing that he trusts in his own faith so deeply.
Pastor Phil started his sermon by asking three questions:
1. “Meditate on what God has to reveal to you during this sermon.”
2. “Think about how it can integrated into your life in the coming week.”
3. “Who will you share it with?”
i really had to open my heart in order to return to a place so loaded with the growing pains of childhood and adolescence, coupled with a disillusionment of organized religion. i remember how Pastor Schneider and i used to argue when i was growing up because i had serious questions and concerns about some of the things we were being told. my favorite was: “I really love the story of Noah’s Ark with all the animals and all that, but I have a question. If he takes two of each animal on the ship because of the flood, what about the fish? Fish live in water. Why aren’t we overpopulated by fish???”
instead of being told it was a story to convey a message or in any other way addressing the question (proposing alternate possibilities would have been useful, such as, “perhaps the rainfall produced waterfall inhabitable for fish”), it seemed to make him mad that i was even asking questions in the first place. something akin to, “That’s not the point” was the common response. i was looking for some explanation for the inexplicable, something that might help deal with all of the hardship and mystery of this difficult and wondrous life. instead, critical thinking was discouraged. i have heard this is a big turn-off for many people who want deeper answers that aren’t really explained by the Christian religion. it seems to demand a blind faith filled with all kinds of contradictions. on the other hand, one of the tenets of Buddhism is that a student should question the teachings. through deeply questioning, one could come to their own conclusions about a principle’s truthfulness or come up with a better explanation altogether. if the latter should come truly to pass and win in a scholarly Buddhist debate, the “rules” would adapt to this new information.
this kind of acceptance, conditional application, and cultivation of faith suits me. that said, i appreciate that my father feels secure in his faith and hope it is the kind of true spirituality that allows for others to find their own. my beliefs are beginning to allow for this kind of open heartedness, despite areas where my heart has grown a little hard. through Buddhist teachings and practice, i have come to experience glimpses of this sacred world Alicia talks about in a very visceral way. i now know there is a reality that operates on a different level than the one we normally experience; this phenomenal world is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves to cope with it. so i figure, if i can get so invested in what happens to the characters in “Game of Thrones,” for example, can’t i find the biblical story equally as dramatic and intriguing? i fall asleep at night wondering what will happen to Sansa Stark or if they will kill another one of my favorite people like Tyrion Lannister or Daenerys Targaryen. i go back through the episodes and string together events and storylines so i can figure out what has happened and what might help the situation in Westeros. when i look at Christianity through this lens, baby Jesus might very well grow up to save the world.
on Christmas, i woke up at 6:30am (as is usual these days) to my cat Kichu’s growling stomach and loud purring in my ear as she sits next to my pillow. the latter sound is a more gentle substitute for the high-pitched incessant meowing that used to be characteristic of the Kichu alarm clock, my wake up call to feed her lest she starve to death by 8am.
i was tired and feeling a bit out of sorts this Christmas. i returned a few days beforehand from a very New York City-esque-type trip to NYC, filled with appointments, meetings, filming and taking care of business. i felt like i couldn’t relax for one day and came home to my parents’, exhausted. immediately, i came down with a cold. by Christmas Day, i was getting over it, but still felt out of it. it was hard to feel present.
so i watched Alicia interacting with our parents. she is so incredibly present with them in a way that does not come so fluidly for me. she is just there with them. she helps in whatever way is needed. she asks questions about their lives and listens deeply to the answers. she claims, “It is the easiest thing I can do.”
i tell her it is not that way for all people, that it is one of her gifts. if i can’t quite summon the power of presence this Christmas, i vow to work on cultivating it throughout the year. i will stop getting caught up in all the fuss and stress and grasping. i will keep working on opening my heart in the everyday, so when major events come up, i am better prepared.
to close Christmas day, we watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Alicia’s partner, Dean, gifted it to her this year. Alicia always had a soft spot for Charlie Brown; i was more of a Snoopy lover myself. i did not remember the film being so much about anti-commercialism (though it was, after all, made in 1965). i also didn’t remember Charlie Brown having seasonal depression, but he keeps talking about how everyone seems so happy during this time of year and he always feels so sad. it is true that every year, “Winter is coming.” with it, brings an army of chaos that can either unite us or destroy us.
Charlie Brown does a lot of self-reflection about his feelings and attempts to unite with community for the holiday-themed theatrics. he finds this difficult because everyone has their own priorities and beliefs; sometimes this makes them act really mean to others (including Charlie Brown or even fun-loving Snoopy) who don’t operate the same way they do. so Charlie goes off again with his trusty friend Linus to find a “big, shiny aluminum tree… maybe painted pink” at Lucy’s request. this is where they discover a little tree, ironically, the only real tree on the whole lot.
Linus Van Pelt: Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?
Charlie Brown: This little green one here seems to need a home.
Linus Van Pelt: I don’t know, Charlie Brown. Remember what Lucy said? This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit.
Charlie Brown: I don’t care. We’ll decorate it and it’ll be just right for our play. Besides, I think it needs me.
he picks up the tree and a bunch of needles fall off. he brings it back to the group; more needles fall off and they chastise him again, calling him a blockhead and complaining that he never does anything right. exasperated, Charlie Brown shouts in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!?”
cue trusty Linus (for every good tale needs a hero’s sidekick to do a heartfelt monologue, although said sidekick is usually named “Sam”): “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Linus proceeds to take centerstage, call for a spotlight, and recites the King James version scripture reading from Luke 2: 8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
the artifice of Christmas—the strong connection to family, objects, religious ideas, and the material world that insists upon us with its unbending illusions of static reality—overwhelmed my ability to tap into a deeper sense of presence for prolonged periods of time, like those i experienced in Colorado not so long ago. i had forgotten how to do that because this world of unrelenting rationality makes it easy to forget the unexpected moments and inexplicable miracles that define the subtleties of other dimensions. as in many cases, less is actually more. it is much easier, however, to get distracted by the big and flashy, letting desire and pride take over our faculties of wise discrimination. Jesus was born in a barn, for goodness sake. Charlie Brown’s little tree ends up bringing everyone together and revealing something deeper than the commercial trappings that are disturbing our sensitive protagonist. the good stories show us how our habits and patterns tend to reinforce preoccupation with the material world—it is actually the miracle moments of light and love that signify the reason for any season.
and yet, there were glimpses of magic, like at Christmas Eve service or watching my sister and mother make sweet potatoes, when i remembered the possibilities of reality beyond the surface. i felt the longing to reconnect with spirit and discovered that reason is all around us and found within. we can be challenged by those that feel different, rest in the support of others, go on our own spiritual quest, connect with what is important, and bring that back to share.
in honor of my sister, who i learn so much from and am grateful to share this glorious world with, i wrote her a poem and gave it to her as one of her gifts:
the best thing
what do i do when the best things i do
i do them with you?
how do i write a poem without you
when you bring my poetry alive?
i start by procrastinating
and make a big fuss.
then, i forget altogether to do it,
but even that is not enough to stop me
from writing a poem for you
then, i think about it for days
and little glimmers shine through
of how i could possibly ever write a poem
without help from you.
because what would i do if you ceased to exist?
would i give up my life
and throw a big fit?
the day very well may come
when you can’t be there, it’s true,
so i must learn to be brave
and do some things without you.
so i sit down
and chin up
and put down my pen.
it magically moves as though
guiding my hand.
and i write you a poem
about writing a poem.
when i’m done, i realize
there’s nothing i do
that could ever come to be,
truly, without you—
because you are the soul with me
in all that i do.
i hope you are all having a wondrous holiday season with family, friends, furry ones, or simply your own dear heart in a mix of solitude, belonging, access to magic, and sublime storytelling.