A Non-Buddhist Problem with a Buddhist Problem

December 22nd, 2005  |  Published in old and busted  |  2 Comments

As will be made apparent toward the bottom, I might not be reacting so much to the material itself as something else that’s been grating the hell out of my nerves this week, which is the whole “provocative holiday essay” racket NPR adores. It involves hauling writers into the studio to tell some Christmas tale, only with a “quirky hook” that’s supposed to sound mildly daring or risque or rebellious, but isn’t, because bitching about not liking to get homemade presents can not be dressed up to sound even charmingly curmudgeonly — it just sounds like someone bitching about presents they don’t like and sneering at people who are making the effort to do something better than the woeful norm.

I just don’t think idiosyncrasy does well in a can or thrives as part of a formula. By the time the quirk holiday essayist gets to the smug punchline, I want to stop payment on this year’s OPB subscription and mail Steve Inskeep a picture of my ass.

So anyhow … that said:

Eluding Happiness – A Buddhist problem with Christmas:

> Overwhelmingly today, we assume that the way to make people happy at Christmas is to give them what they have told us they want. This is true of children and adults. The whole process of wish lists, of clear and defined expectations, is in a sense what makes the contemporary American Christmas possible.

> Wish lists, however, mean that the giver takes no responsibility for—no ownership of—the gift. From a Buddhist point of view this is inherently a mistake. Whatever we give to someone else we also, in a sense, receive ourselves. The gift itself has only the existence and meaning we assign it. Another way of saying this is that gifts are an extension of our karma.

> The most obvious examples of this are gifts that are dangerous or inappropriate—a rifle for an 11-year-old, a car for a 16-year-old who hasn’t learned to stop at stop signs. But consider a more benign example. Say that you have a 16-year-old daughter who is dying for a pair of $500 skis. You can afford it; you’ve budgeted that much to spend on her; and buying them will make her extremely happy, in the short term. On the other hand, you feel it’s inappropriate—even outrageous—to spend that much money on a present for a teenager.

I was all set to be down with this essay on the strength of the as-yet-mostly-unread “Hooked,” but I guess I just can’t relate to the idea of anyone, no matter how Christmas-maddened, giving their child dangerous or inappropriate gifts. I guess it happens, but “overwhelmingly?”

So … as a society we’re so bought into the power of the wish list that if our hypothetical 11-year-old dropped his kid sister, when the news reporter interviewed the sobbing parents and the mother choked out “But … but … all he had on his wishlist was a MAC 10” then the reporter would nod sympathetically and people all over t.v. land would sit back from the edge of their sofas and say “Well then … what could the parents do?”

I mean … I’m nitpicking here, I suppose, but it seems like a lot of setup to get to addressing the “Buddhist problem” with a thing that is problematic in almost any serious ethical schema, and likely only forgiven among particularly zealous families of Klingon LARPers, who might think giving their budding warrior-to-be a sharp and dangerous knife is important training, even if he does end up carving himself with it. I’d think a “Buddhist problem” with Christmas would more likely be buying all that shit in the first place, karma-shrivellingly inappropriate or not, and with the notion in mind that the act of indulging a material preoccupation is, in itself, harmful, regardless of how carefully we pick the gift.

But the essay’s coming from someone who says “After reading this essay, my wife pointed out that my Amazon wish list has 79 items on it. Many of those titles have been up there for years, and I don’t really expect anyone to buy any of them. But the little boy in me wouldn’t mind at all,” which is supposed to be self-effacing and humble and eye-twinkly in the best tradition of the veritable shit-storm of holiday essays from third-rate local writers clogging NPR right now, but actually kind of comes off like someone who didn’t so much miss the forest for the trees as decide that the trees were a more comfortable topic.

I reckon I’m done now.

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