As phenomena grow clear to the brahman — ardent, absorbed — he [the Buddha] stands, routing the troops of Mara [illusion], like the sun that illumines the sky. –Ud 1.3 [Pali Canon]
With Thanksgiving done, and people still digesting food, it’s a good time to look forward to Bodhi Day: the day the Buddha became enlightened.
According to the traditional calendar, the Buddha became enlightened on the 8th day of the 12th month. Using the Western calendar, this is December 8th. Along with the birth of the Buddha and the Buddha’s final Nirvana, this is one of the biggest holidays in Buddhism.1
I say all this because it provides an alternative (or compliment) to the usual Christmas season. Since last year I started observing Bodhi Day with the family for a few reasons:
- The excessive commercialism of Christmas really annoys me. It just isn’t fun anymore.
- My daughter is both a religious and ethnic minority in this country and I would really like her to have some unique traditions of her own.
- It’s already a valid holiday in Buddhism, just not observed in a consistent manner in the West.2
But the trick is figuring out how to make this a genuine family holiday without seeming “forced” or shoe-horning existing traditions in a Buddhist context. Last year, we observed Bodhi Day, and my daughter enjoyed it, but quickly forgot about it. She was 3 at the time, so I can’t really blame her. Another challenge, is just explaining what it’s about to a little kid. They just won’t understand things like enlightenment and such, so I simply told her that this was the day when he became a Buddha. As a three year old, she still didn’t really grasp that.
This year, I think I will setup the “Bodhi Tree” again and arrange things similar to last year. She understood that part at least. I do want to get her a little “Bodhi Day” gift such as a book or something for school (in other words, something wholesome) rather than a toy. She’ll get enough of those at the end of the year between Christmas and her birthday.
I noticed at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore that in the children’s area, there is a shelf for religious books. Naturally, most of the books are Christian or Jewish since these are the two most established religions in the US, but I was surprised to see that there were no Buddhist books at all. Not one. There are plenty of Buddhist books for adults, but maybe people haven’t tried to write a good Buddhist children’s book. Since I like writing on the side, but never get anything published, I thought maybe I should consider writing a children’s Buddhist book, so I started looking on the Internet for advice. One bit of advice really struck me: Don’t under-estimate children. They are much more clever than you think, and don’t like to be belittled.
It’s tempting to write something preachy or something charming for adults, but trying to explain something like the Pure Land or the story of Shakyamuni Buddha in a way that isn’t obvious or belittling is pretty hard. Making it engaging for kids is hard.
My daughter has a number of Buddhist comics featuring Shakyamuni, Kannon and Jizo. They feature lots of stories, some very cute, some kind of graphic. For some reason she really like the Jizo Bodhisattva book in particular because the artwork is well done. Since it’s all written in hiragana (no Chinese characters), she can read it too. The point is is that there do exist good Buddhist books for kids, just not in the US.
Anyway, similar to poems like A Night Before Christmas, it would be nice to have a something like that I could tell my daughter about the prince who became a Buddha (e.g. Shakyamuni).
Maybe instead of complaining, maybe I should just try it myself.
P.S. Besides being sick, I got food poisoning from the breakfast before Thanksgiving. Not fun.
1 Admittedly, Buddhism differs from other religions in that it’s not big on holidays or routine attendance. It’s more of a “day to day” religion if you ask me.
2 Bodhi Day frequently gets confused with a Zen Buddhism’s tradition of rohatsu which falls on the same day. Rohatsu is just a Zen-specific observance of Bodhi Day, but people assume anything Buddhist is, by default, either Zen or Tibetan. :-/