A new take on traditional Christmas carols
In the metal cabinets at the back of the meditation hall of Suan Mokkh, a Thai forest monastery in southern Thailand, I came across Christianity and Buddhism by Ajahn Buddhadassa. While spending almost a year of my young adult life at this monastery on retreat (much of it in silence), I read a lot of books. This one became important to me because it spoke about my Christian upbringing. Other which also addressed this topic were Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh and, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Over the millennia, the expression of Buddhist teachings has changed as they moved from place to place and from time to time. Sometimes, they focused on alleviating personal suffering, sometimes on benefiting others, and sometimes on understanding, wisdom, awareness or emptiness. It is said that there are 84,000 teachings in order to benefit all mindsets and awaken us from illusion's veils.
While I'm not a translator or a Dharma teacher, I do have children. As a parent, I am responsible for helping them connect to Dharma in whatever ways suit them. A few years ago, in sharing with my root teacher, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, the influence of my Christian upbringing and family lineage on my Buddhist practice, I also spoke about my deep desire to connect my children to Dharma, but without being overbearing or brainwashing. As a father himself, Rinpoche spoke about how to practice Dharma with my children, how to make it easy for them, doable and above all, spacious. Needless to say, I'm still following his advice today.
"Rudolph the Bodhisattva"
Fast forward to 2015, returning home from a trip to Tibet with a heightened sense of my personal creativity, I began to write poems and songs. When Christmas rolled around, I baked my usual casserole following a recipe my mother used for decades as part of our family holiday tradition. Sitting in front of the kitchen oven of my Lamma Island home in Hong Kong and gazing at the yellow light radiating through the glass window, I contemplated my quest of connecting my children to their heritage, culture and buddhadharma. It was then that the inspiration arose to write Rudolph the Bodhisattva to be sung to the tune of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. My kids loved this song and took to singing it again and again. In fact, we all memorized it and it became our favorite carol.
Growing up in the West and celebrating Christmas every year, carols have always been catchy to me. I love them. After the initial write of Rudolph the Bodhisattva, not many weeks passed before I had several more carols loaded with Buddhist inspired lyrics. Today, I have seventeen finished carols and more on the way.
I am convinced that Christmas carols are a great way to connect Christianity and Buddhism and to continue the interfaith dialog I started at Suan Mokkh. In Christianity and Buddhism, Buddhadassa wrote:
It is due to the ignorance of the language of Dhamma that one abandons one’s own religion and embraces another. If one really understands the meaning of one’s religion in the language of Dhamma, he will love his own religion just as one loves one’s own life.
And later in the same chapter, this also really struck me and has stayed with me:
As for Buddhists, they can accept all the passages of Christianity as in agreement with the Buddha’s teaching, if they are allowed to interpret the language of Dhamma in the Bible in their own terms.
My Dharma Carols are an attempt to do this. They use melody to communicate one layer of meaning and then lyrics to add another dimension of meaning.
"The First Nidana"
The first professionally produced carol is The First Nidana. It is cast to the melody of The First Noel, a carol recounting the birth of Jesus Christ and the Nativity story.
The First Nidana is the story of our own birth and the creation of our ego, each and every moment, as we cycle through the realms of samsara, experiencing dukkha or unsatisfactoriness.
The lyrics present the twelve links of interdependent origination, one of the first teachings of Lord Buddha and one of the first teachings I studied at Suan Mokkh.
Some of my Dharma carols render teachings in a poetic and lyrical way. Others rely on metaphor and analogy. They are all enjoyable for adults and children alike and for Christian, Buddhist and mixed heritage families.
I released The First Nidana to see people's reaction and at some point, decide if producing an album is realistic. At the moment, you can listen to The First Nidana on Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify and other digital outlets.
Please listen. You won't be disappointed!
If you're a parent (or not) and would like to see this Buddhist Christmas Carols move forward, please share The First Nidana in your community.
I'm happy to offer this article on Vajrayana World and would love to receive your comments below. Here's a question that's running around in my head:
When listening to the music, what about it either helps to create a deeper connection for you, or triggers something about your past which can be used for your own practice?
Look forward to hearing from you! And..Best Wishes for the Christmas Season.