By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
|Bodhi Tree? - Christmas Tree?
As a Buddhist child in Christian America, I always felt awkward and uncomfortable in
December. As a father, it became a challenge to explain the rationale of a Christmas Tree and
gift exchange in a Buddhist family. How can we be part of an American tradition when we are not
part of that belief system? It has become apparent to me, that there is a basic difference in how
we view the world. The prevailing sentiment in the Judeo-Christian West, is the notion of an
absolute truth. For those who adhere to this system, it is paramount that one views it in the vision
of their prophet. Those who differ from that perspective, are deemed outside of that system. The
limitations of this system, is that different prophets have prescribed different views. Thus we see
conflict among the divergent ideologies of the Abrahamic traditions (Christians, Jews, Muslims).
On the other hand, Buddhists recognize and honor the diversity of perspectives regarding
Truth. We have the example of the blind men voicing various parts of an elephant as the truth of
the whole elephant. This perspective allows the short-sighted opinions of one human to be as valid
as another. Thus there appears to be little conflict among Buddhists sects and indeed toward
For a Buddhist, a Christmas tree may be seen as a Bodhi tree. It is this tolerance and
acceptance of the “other” that marks one strength of Buddhism. It is only a weakness or failure in
the eyes of the “one-view-of-truth” system. This profound view of truth has guided many countries
of the East. I feel that there is a thirst for this view in America.
The recent election process demonstrated the problem of the “one-view-of-truth” system.
Trump and his supporters focused on what he saw as not working well. I have been suggesting that
a focus on what we don’t have can engender a sense of discontent (duhkha). In contrast, by
focusing on the elements and conditions that support us, we begin to appreciate the
interconnected nature of all things that have made our lives possible. This awakening to our
interdependence might inspire us to acknowledge this interdependence by supporting others. In
contrast, the election demonstrated the insatiable needs of the ego.
Shin Buddhism has much to offer in this dilemma of the individual ego within society. On the
surface, it is easy to identify candidate Trump with the dangers of his attachment to his ego. He
selectively rejects some parts of our society and embraces other parts. His pejorative speech,
conduct, and attitude made this clear. His binary assessments and shallow perception of complex
issues also runs counter to the Buddhist view of a deep and broad reality that cannot be
comprehended by a single individual. This opens up another dimension of Buddhist thought. We
might realize that if we are disappointed with the election result, it is a reflection of our own ego
attached, shallow views.
The Buddha taught the middle path and Shinran emphasized our inability to diminish our ego-
centric biases. It seems that many supporters of Trump see themselves as victims of a changing
global stage where they feel at the mercy of forces beyond their control. As their expectations of
the status quo are unfulfilled, anger was projected toward outside forces. It may be difficult to
admit that other segments of American society have endured these conditions for generations.
What is missing is wisdom and compassion.
Wisdom would inform us that life continually changes, with little regard to individual welfare. The
Buddha’s wisdom is to teach that it is our how we respond to these changes that determine our
discontent or satisfaction. The results of this election may be viewed as a human caused tsunami,
that has damaged some of our most cherished principles of democracy. And if we feel that way,
it must be addressed with the same determined effort of recovery from a natural disaster.
Compassion teaches us to feel what the other is feeling. Future decisions of this president,
administration, and party will determine many factors that may only be seen by our children or
grandchildren. Enjoying the good life now, may be viewed that it is at the cost of a long range
view of sustainability. Trump must heal his divisive rhetoric of the campaign by demonstrating a
humane inclusiveness in presidential and congressional legislation and not only by words. The
meaning of his words seem to change with each news cycle.
As Buddhists, we can offer that a diverse view of reality is in harmony with all faiths at all times.
We can compromise our own needs for the welfare of others, especially our children. The Buddhist
path forward is to demonstrate that our “many-views-of-truth” insure that all voices are heard and
respected. May Wisdom and Compassion prevail.
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