Located next to the Buddhist temple on Park Boulevard, Buddha’s Light Bookstore has a large selection of books, accessories, and statues. Inside, Charles Hardy, 43, works around a Buddhist shrine in the center of the store. Born in San Francisco, Hardy came to San Diego ten years ago and converted to Buddhism from the Episcopal Church two years ago. He explains the Buddhist view of Christmas with the clarity of a professional spokesman. “Jesus would be considered a bodhisattva in the Buddhist perspective. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who can go to nirvana but chooses to stay in this world and assist others in being enlightened themselves. Christmas is totally OK. Actually, I can’t generalize for all Buddhist faiths, but in general, I would say that Buddhism has no difficulty at all with the concepts and practices of Christianity, Christmas included. Any other religious faiths and practices are OK with Buddhists. We have no problem with them.
“At the temple here, we have a holiday open house. We invite people in for a kind of Christmas celebration here in the neighborhood, to meet and greet everyone. Christmas is just fine with me as a Buddhist. I don’t decorate my home, because my wife and I never decorated our home for Christmas in the first place, but we do send out Christmas cards.”
Among the Buddhist faiths Hardy spoke of is Nichren Daishonin Buddhism. Brenda Omusi, a client at North Park’s Controversial Bookstore, practices this brand of Buddhism. Originally a Seventh-Day Adventist, Omusi is a convert. “There’s different types of Buddhism, but this is true Buddhism. We don’t have a temple in San Diego anymore, although we have a community center. But I have an altar in my home, and I recite my mantra every morning and evening.” Omusi does not believe in Christmas, but she does celebrate at Christmastime. “I enjoy the season. I don’t worship the Christ-like thing, but I enjoy the presents. I give presents and send cards that read ‘Season’s Greetings’ and things like that.” If Christmas is one religion trying to impose itself on everyone else, Omusi doesn’t feel it. “I think that years ago it used to be like that, but not anymore — at least with the people I hang out with.”
The Hare Krishna Temple on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach is the center for one of San Diego’s most visible Hindu sects. Badri Narayan Dass directs all the temples of Southern California, although he resides primarily in Pacific Beach. “That’s my Krishna name. I’m a servant of all the other devotees. Officially, I oversee temples in Los Angeles, Laguna, Boise, Denver, and Utah. We also have another temple in Encinitas, and we’re opening one in Escondido. I’m a member of the governing body.”
Narayan converted to Hinduism from the Episcopal Church. As he describes his life and beliefs, he speaks with a cheerfulness that is contagious. “The soul is eternal — but I’m actually 49! I met my spiritual master in 1969, and I took vows as a full-time student monk in 1970.”
Like Buddhists, Hare Krishna members have a place of respect for Jesus, while not viewing Him as the key to salvation. “We recognize Jesus as an avatar. ‘Avatar’ means ‘one who comes down.’ We accept Him exactly as He says He is, the Son of God, and that He’s come to preach the pure love of God. So we always have a nice celebration on His birthday, the 25th.” That celebration does not include Christmas decorations. “We are coming from an Eastern tradition, so we don’t want to steal their thunder! But we give presents. What is it they say? ‘You can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the man.’ We’re all raised in America, so it’s a traditional time to give gifts to friends, family, and children, and people’s families get together. It’s a tradition that we’re raised with in this culture.
“I don’t want to minimize it. We do respect Jesus. We’d say that we’re sincerely following Him.” While the Krishna path may include following some of the teachings of Jesus, there are other traditions of Christmas that they reject. “We’re not violent. So we’re not into all those poor birds being roasted. Toss out the Christmas goose! [He laughs.] And, of course, there’s the stock answers about commercialism. I mean, you know, Christ and Christmas. We do agree that it’s not just a time of festive consumerism, but it’s supposed to be a time of reflection and rededication to higher spiritual principles.”
Up the stairs in a small building on Park Boulevard, San Diego’s Taoist Sanctuary offers classes in tai chi and meditation and philosophy. Bill Helm, 51, has been the director and senior instructor for 12 years and has lived in San Diego since 1970. “I was raised as a Methodist and sort of fell out of Methodism in the ’60s and discovered Taoism as a philosophical tradition, then later discovered it as a living tradition, in the sense of practice, where you’re actually doing something rather than sitting around reading a book and thinking about it.”
As Helm describes it, Taoism is more a philosophy and discipline than a religion. “Taoism is a wisdom tradition that emphasizes principles of nature and cosmos and the development of a harmonious relationship for the individual with nature, the cosmos, and society. Traditional Taoism doesn’t have a conversion or salvation approach like Christianity and Buddhism.” In fact, Helm says that one can practice Taoism and still be a member of any religion one chooses. “As far as the Taoist philosophy and practices are concerned, they are not exclusive in terms of where a person may want to find a deity or their particular worship.”
Helm’s description of Christmas from the Taoist perspective is complicated. “A Taoist view of Christmas would focus around the contingency of Christmas and the winter solstice occurring in very close proximity. In the Taoist tradition, the winter solstice is a period of time where the rebirth of the yang, or the light, is observed. That’s the point in the cycle — and Taoism emphasizes natural cycles — where the yang is just being reborn and the yin is at its highest. In a sense, it’s similar to what Christians consider the birth of Jesus to be, in the sense of the birth of the light and the birth of the Savior.”