January, tradition holds, is the month of resolution: an auspicious time to pledge ourselves to improving character imperfections; an opportunity to work with nature's impulse for fresh beginnings and thereby gain an added impetus to invoke our best in meeting the challenges of the new year. The first few days of January especially, along with the last weeks of December, mark the transition of the sun's southern course to its journey northward: an interval to consolidate past harvests as well as to sow the seeds for an abundant future. It is a season also of festivals and the exchange of gifts, celebrating not only the changing cycle of earth's life forces, but also those of spirit.
Somehow, we who live in America tend to dissociate Christmas from New Year's. Their only relationship seems to be proximity in time: Christmas in December, New Year's in January; gay pageantry and gifts in the old year, resolution in the new. But when we explore these customs to some extent, not only in other cultures, but more particularly from the perspective of their ancient origins, we find intimate connections between the birth of Christ and the birth — or rebirth — of the solar year as marked by the winter solstice.
Nothing is certain as to the precise day of Jesus' nativity; nowhere is it stated in the New Testament, nor is it found in the contemporary writings of the period. Most scholars tend to feel, with legitimate reason, that our present Christmas celebration is derived largely from more ancient pagan sources, connecting it with the jubilant buoyancy of the Roman Saturnalia. This festival, marking among other things the end of the midwinter sowing season in Italy, began December 17th and culminated on December 25th with natalis solis invicti, the "birthday of the unconquered sun."
It has been said by some that the early Christians chose December 25th because during the persecutions it was the only day when their commemoration of Jesus' birth might go unnoticed. Others, more mystically inclined and perhaps more historically accurate, saw a close connection between the birth of the sun and the advent of Christ, honoring the latter as the "sun of righteousness."
However accurate all of this may be, it is of note that devotional giving among Christians drew its inspiration, not from anything that occurred on the Nativity, but so far as we know twelve days later, on the sixth of January, from the story of the Three Magi who offered their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Christ on his Epiphany or "showing forth." The Romans, too, exchanged gifts. Besides those of the Saturnalia, presents were given also on the calends, or first, of January — the month of beginnings, named in honor of Janus, the dual-faced guardian of beginnings, entrances, doorways, and endings. Offerings made on this day, ending the fortnight which began December 17th, seemed more solemn in character. Children and the poor were the principal recipients, symbolically honoring, perhaps, the infancy and helplessness of the new year just arrived. Another aspect, seldom mentioned, is that these gifts, usually wax candles and little clay dolls, were said to be given in honor of the higher self, the indwelling divinity, the "christ" or savior within each person who received them.
Thus it appears that the presentation of gifts, in both Christian and pagan celebrations, was closely associated with an influx of a spiritual force whose nascent impulse was felt around the winter solstice, and which lasted twelve to fourteen days, when the new year or new cycle had clearly "shown forth."
Let us dwell a moment, then, on this subject of gifts and see if there is not some link with the proverbial new year's resolution. Worthwhile direction is often discovered in the old axioms, and in this case we turn to the Roman adage, ex oriente lux, light from the East." In the tradition of Buddhism, in its northern school particularly, much emphasis has been placed on cultivating the "transcendent virtues of perfection," otherwise known as the paramitas. It is in reflecting upon the very first of these, dana, "charity" or "liberality," that we trace this connection.
Gampopa, a Tibetan Buddhist of the twelfth century, wrote one of the few commentaries on the paramitas that has been translated into English, under the title, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation."* In this well-outlined summary, Gampopa, quoting a Buddhist maxim, declares that "Liberality brings suffering beings to maturity" and therefore conduces to an enlightened state of understanding. It is on this foundation that he considers three kinds of gifts, each in their three aspects: the gift itself, the recipient, and the manner of giving.
*Full title: "The Explanation of the Stages on the Mahayanic Path towards Liberation, called a Jewel Ornament of Liberation or the Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Doctrine," translated by Dr. Herbert V. Guenther, 1959.
First is the material gift, which is primarily concerned with securing physical benefit and happiness for others. "A Bodhisattva does not give to kill, fetter, punish, imprison and ostracize others; nor does he make gifts in order to gain fame and praise; nor to rival others." Nor should one bestow anything on a person who would use it perversely, as a glutton or drunkard might do with food or drink. And finally, one should rejoice in giving; for scorn, unfriendliness, or other bad feeling would only nullify the act.
The second is the gift of fearlessness; that is, one should strive to be "a refuge to those who are frightened by lions, tigers, crocodiles, kings, robbers, floods and other disasters." But of all gifts, the third, the one which above every other redounds to the well-being of the inner man, as well as of all men, is the gift of the Dharma.
For Gampopa, this meant, ostensibly, sharing the teachings of the Buddhist doctrine. And for this he recommends proper veneration: the gift should be made only to those who want and have respect for it; one should give only out of compassionate and disinterested motive, not for self-benefit; and further, one should be extremely careful of the manner of presentation so as not to distort the Dharma's meaning.
Hidden under the outwardly literal and sometimes quaint renderings of Gampopa, there breathes a highly philosophical and practical spirit; for, truly, to make a gift of the Dharma implies much more than a proper reiteration of the teachings of Buddhism, which nonetheless is a fine gift in itself. The word is the key. Central to both Buddhism and Hinduism, dharma admits several different, though intimately related meanings: "religion," "path" (of spiritual quest), "duty," "righteousness," "justice," and "law" (both cosmic and civil). Taken singly, these tend to vitiate the full force behind the idea; but when woven together in such a way as to depict the web of human and universal destiny, a far more comprehensive, and comprehensible, picture emerges.
For beyond the worldly and literal interpretations, there is a transcendent stream of thought which speaks of the dharma of the cosmos, of man, and even of the tiniest speck in the atom. The universe, it states, is alive, one vast expression of consciousnesses of ascending quality; and the collective dharma of these periodically reimbodying "sparks of eternity" is, in a word, evolution: that is, to unfold, to bring forth into active manifestation with ever increasing measure that infinite or divine potential which resides at the core of everything, great and small. Thus it is the "path" and the "duty" and the "justice" or rightness of fulfilling this evolutionary mandate that is the motor within every tendency to ally more closely with the spiritual forces of the universe. From atom to man to supergalaxy, the universal urge is towards greater and more sublime expressions of being. For the kingdoms below the human, the process is automatic. But once having achieved self-awareness, and with this status, responsibility, man's — that is, our — effort becomes increasingly self-devised; until such time when we learn that there is a path, and then make the determination to tread it.
What, we might ask, has all this to do with Christmas gifts and new year resolutions? Within this same stream of philosophic thought, it has been stated that at birth our higher self presents to us our lot for the coming lifetime: not our station, but rather the dharma that is ours to fulfill in order to "bring our suffering selves to maturity." Year by year the karmic script — the destiny of our own making — unfolds on the stage of life. It is the manner in which we meet these necessary circumstances and opportunities that we, through our free choice of action, succeed or temporarily fail in pursuing our dharmic endeavor. By reading the karmic script in the light of our dharma — in all its meanings — we will, by responding appropriately, embody more and more of the higher portions of our spiritual nature.
May we not, then, like the ancient Romans on the calends of January, honor our higher self with our own gift of the dharma. And in spirit with the dual symbolism of Janus — whose one face looks back upon the year just past, the other, to the future — might not this gift also be twofold: that we, upon reflecting back, bestow the fruit of our preceding effort; and, looking forward, offer the gift of resolution — the pledge to fulfill, as best we can, the dharma of the year ahead? As it is, too, a time of exchange, let us receive well that influx of spiritual force, that higher Dharma, which seeks to show forth at this sacred season; and through our liberality, charity and generosity with it, help to bring all suffering beings to greater maturity.
- From Sunrise magazine, January 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press
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