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December 25, 2012 / A Mindful Traveler

The Meaning of Christmas

Today was the first Christmas Day I spent away from my family, but given that, I was fortunate to spend it in Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited.  It’s the sort of place that’s so pleasant you could easily imagine living here (the kind people, mild weather, and delicious $1 street food all play their role).

It’s also a major center for Thai Buddhism with some very beautiful temples (wats) located within its old city.  The best known of these is Wat Phra Singh, which features a garden that includes some words of wisdom from the Buddha in both Thai and English.  I’ve found it a shady and contemplative place to read and think.

I’ll shortly be leaving Chiang Mai itself to sit a brief retreat at Wat Doi Suthep, which sits on a mountain overlooking the city.  Many people regard it as the symbol of Chiang Mai and apparently all newly matriculating students at Chiang Mai University make a pilgrimage there before beginning their studies.  This provides a good illustration of how integrated Theravada Buddhism is into Thai life.  Although it’s not the state religion, it functionally serves as such and every Thai man of the faith is tacitly expected to spend at least three months as a monk.

A photograph I’ve often seen in temples illustrates this point.  Images of Thailand’s King Bhumibol, who is revered throughout the country and has ruled since 1946, appear everywhere and leave no doubt as to his royal status.  Inside temples, many of which enjoy royal patronage, he often appears in a different form, as a young monk with no name attached to the picture.  Indeed I was only able to discern that this image portrayed King Bhumibol when I saw it in a store next to another picture of him.

You might rightly ask what this has to do with Christmas, which appears in Thailand in a purely commercial form.  My answer is this, just as the picture of King Bhumibol as a monk celebrates the spirit of Buddhism, I think the meaning of Christmas has to do with sharing, togetherness, and kindness, not commercialism.  To my mind, gifts are only truly  part of the Spirit of Christmas to the extent they’re a manifestation of this.

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