Java Zen:Thinking Out Loud Monday, 2024.05.27
It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and
probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits
singing about toilet paper.

		Rod Serling


Jesus in the Checkout Line

Thankful to have survived another season of holiday shoving…er…shopping, there are a few things which stand out about the past few months, in particular, that give pause to reflect on just what motivates the galaxy of agendas among the teeming masses each November and December. By the time the corporate marketing machine had “The Big Push” to full power, I had pretty much tuned out – the paper was down to Sunday only delivery, the TV and radio off for weeks at a time, SPAM filters nicely tuned and most shopping done on-line when I already knew what I needed and from where.

I’ve never been easily led by marketing campaigns anyway. As a kid, there just wasn’t the level of saturation there is today. Since then, years of Zen meditation and Aikido practice have instilled a strong sense of balance when it comes to material things and the stuff I consume. The set point for that balance is definitely on the minimalist side of the scale where less is more. Having less stuff, less reliance on things and “services” gives me greater liberty and freedom. This type of life style kills more sales pitches than anything else I know. Back in the mid 80’s, for example, when I didn’t have a TV, the cable TV companies would go door to door pitching their service. “I don’t have a TV” squashes any deal they may be offering and renders any strategy for overcoming objections DOA. Likewise, complaints from people around me about the cost of cable service carry about the same level of interest as complaints about the cost of escalator service on Jupiter.

Curious about finding the holiday Spirit on my own, I set about to see if I could genuinely participate in the holidays this year. The goal wasn’t to concoct a distraction which would allow me to “get through” or “survive” the holidays without Janet. Rather, I wanted to know if the Spirit of the season could just happen, if I could open up and trust the world enough such that the Spirit would find me. If this could happen this year while on my own, if even for a moment, then perhaps I’d have a chance at finding happiness again some day.

To do this, it was clear, I would need to participate. So the TV stayed off and I made it a point to be out among people. The magic happened when I spent time down on Larimer Street in downtown Denver, at a Colorado Symphony Orchestra concert, walking in Washington Park, shopping for groceries at Whole Foods and at the Nine Lessons and Carols at Saint John’s Cathedral. It decidedly didn’t happen at the malls.

Having tuned out even more than usual this past year, the contrast between my recent quiet life and the frenzied pounding of marketing hype belching from the mall scene had all the subtlety of watering Bonsai trees with a fire hose. The Persuasion Industry refers to this as “clutter.” Such a nice, quaint, subdued word I might use to describe my grandmother’s house. Marketing trolls use it to describe the heaving piles of mind pounding crap sloshed at the herds of sheeple clamoring to get their hands on “what’s next.” Mounds of muck they themselves create and then complain about having to cut through. There’s no surprise here. Personally, I look upon all this as cheap entertainment. Occasionally, its a sickening insight into what this society values. I remember some years ago a scene on the TV news of moms and dads scrambling to fetch a scarce cabbage patch doll with all the vigor I’d seen in video of children scrambling up garbage heaps in Sri Lanka looking for food.

One frothing faction of marketing behavior which caught my attention this season manifest as a crusade led by a small, but vocal, set of Christians beneath the banner “War on Christmas.” There were several reasons this made me stop and think. Superficially, it just strikes me as goofy. Is the spirituality of these particular Christians so fragile they need reminders from SprawlMart on what the season is about for them? Have they noticed how much of what is today considered a traditional Christmas originally had nothing to do with Christ and everything to do with making a buck? If we are truly happy and carry within our own hearts and minds the Spirit of the season, whether its Christ, Buddha, Mohamed, Gaia or the Great Ghu, the marketing machine will be utterly powerless to either add or subtract from our celebrations.

If “War on Christmas” crusaders were to be true to their claims, they should be insisting the corporate marketing machine stay in “Christmas Mode” until Epiphany on January 6th rather then letting them wrap it up and push it to the curb on December 26th. (Actually, they probably do this on the 25th.) Why aren’t they demanding sales people greet them with “Merry Christmas” during the actual days of Christmas rather than just the commercial days of Christmas? Maybe there is a different motivation entirely behind this crusade, in that they want the corporate marketing machine bundling, and therefore selling, their religion to the masses along with the usual consumer products. Instead of “What would Jesus do?” it would be “What would Jesus buy?”

Reading the propaganda from organizations like the American Family Association, Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America is a hoot. The principle objection stems from the fact businesses are, gasp, making money during “their season.” When Lowe’s was pressured to switch from selling “holiday trees” to “Christmas trees”, Tim Wildmon of the AFA cheerfully gloated, “That quality is a rarity in today’s politically correct retail market.” The irony makes my side hurt. Would Mr. Wildmon object to a “Christmas tree” section and a “holiday tree” section side-by-side? Would it be an issue if Lowe’s sold “Christmas trees” but gave away “holiday trees?” One label is for certain. At some point after December 25th, everyone calls these trees the same thing: trash.

The Sixth Patriarch (Hui Neng) Tearing up a Sutra (Liang K'ai, late 12th - early 13th c.)
Hui Neng Tearing up a Sutra
(Liang K’ai)

Its well known the holiday season generally puts people in a generous frame of mind (more so than other times of the year, especially the month right after Christmas) and more inclined to spend money on all sorts of things. So by following their logic it is reasonable to conclude everything purchased for any reason between Thanksgiving and Christmas must somehow, however slightly, be related to the Christmas season. Lowe’s should be forced into selling “Christmas ladders”, “Christmas extension cords”, “Christmas snow shovels”, “Christmas commodes” and “Christmas paint thinner.”

Many argue, with accuracy, the Christians hijacked the decorated tree phenomena. If its strict adherence to the traditions of the season the AFA wants from Lowe’s, they should insist the banner read “pagan trees.” Perhaps it should just say “trees”, since they are not Christmas trees until taken home and decorated. At what point does a tree become endowed with the essence of Christmas? Actually, I don’t think we’re really talking about trees. For the “War on Christmas” crusaders, the agenda reaches much farther.

That a religion, in an effort to control the cretins and pagans, would seek to incorporate prevailing ceremony and custom is nothing new. It has happened probably since before written record. Times have changed since the days where the church was expected to explain all manner of catastrophe. The causes to natural disasters are generally well understood and accepted today so wide spread fear, at least before the disaster, is no longer a good leverage point for recruiting sheep to the flock. Personal crisis, however, in a society less and less inclined to accept personal responsibility, remains as available as ever. Its a battle for the mind and that means marketing.

This type of inane faux-cause is a good example of what repulsed me about organized religion as a young teenager. Not Jesus, mind you, just the monolithic and oppressive organizations puny little men built up around Him. What attracted me to Rinzai Zen as a young lad was its light hearted and irreverent nature. As I began to see and appreciate images such as Liang K’ai’s painting of the Sixth Patriarch (Hui Neng) tearing up a sutra with vigor and glee, or understand why Buddhist monks would portray Buddha as a frog, I began to understand that any external person, place or thing could at best merely symbolize the Spirit and never actually “be” the Spirit. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. That’s Hui Neng’s lesson from tearing up sacred texts. This idea isn’t unique to the East. René Magritte’sThe Betrayal of Images” is one of many examples from Western culture expressing the same idea.

This is where the dogmatic followers in the “War on Christmas” crusade are stuck – the label. The crusade leaders know this and use the effect on the followers to advance their agenda. The followers seriously believe the bits of hacked up foliage or green plastic look-alikes at Lowe’s somehow actually are Christmas. As Eric Raymond observes, “…serious is deadly. Any spiritual tradition that can’t laugh at itself, that can’t step outside its own dogmas and admit how absurd it can look from the outside, has already become a cancer.” The problem is, they are not so much deadly to themselves as they are to anyone who stands in their way. Such serious spirituality manifests itself as subtle religious persecution and escalates to violent crusades and religious wars.

Authentic spirituality is an organic part of daily life, not something driven by the calendar or dispensed by retail outlets like candy during business hours. It isn’t something to be fetched from outside and brought inside. It shines from within with no need to take it anywhere. When I think of the Christians I grew up with and those I know today, the ones who evangelize the least clearly manifest a stronger spiritual self-confidence than others in their flock. They convert by example if they convert at all. If there is no conflict within your self, there is no need for war. I view the efforts by the “War on Christmas” crusaders as fear-based, insincere, self-serving and shallow. I shudder to think of the dark, petty and conflicted place they must occupy on the inside.

The most unsettling aspect of this crusade, however, stems from the use of “War” and “Christmas” in the same context. It sets up an “Us” and “Them” frame with violent undertones. If you are not explicitly for Christmas, than implicitly you are at war with Christmas, ergo Christ, ergo Christians. With this banner leading their crusade, I, as a Buddhist, am somehow at war with these particular Christians simply because I am Buddhist, because I’m a “Them.” By declaring this a war, the mere existence of my Buddhist breath becomes an attack on their beliefs and something to be rubbed out. Expressing their beliefs beneath such a banner should give us all pause to consider that, with such rhetoric fanning flames for such a shallow cause, the same attitude in control of an unfree society would gleefully impress its beliefs upon others beneath the crushing weight of chains and stones. This brings to mind another small group of religious fringe fanatics that have been in the news for the past 5 years for waging their own flavor of religious war, doesn’t it?

While fighting to put Christ into the Cash Register, the medieval fundamentalist mindset behind the “War on Christmas” crusade struggles to do the math of many numbers, but quickly collapses before the world view challenge. By deconstructing the world into things they can keep track of while wearing mittens, they cast all that is not “Us” into the “Them” fire pit. For these types of crusaders, life is easier when the world is divided and separated to black and white, good and bad, heaven and hell, Us and Them. Makes me think of a different holiday entirely. Spooky.


In addition to my own observations, this article was inspired by 1) a column (“War on Christmas” is just hype) by Denver Post Business Editor Al Lewis, 2) the following parody posted by David Burge and 3) and the response to this parody from Eric Raymond, a self proclaimed Wiccan.


Wiccan Coven Association President Ozrius Ravenclaw announced today that his group would continue a formal economic boycott against several major US retailers “until they cease their relentless and cowardly attack on the Solstice.”

Retailers affected by the boycott include Target, WalMart, Dollar General, Mills Fleet Farm, Victoria’s Secret, AutoZone, and Hy Vee.

“This is ‘Political Correctness’ gone crazy. Where ever you shop these days, it seems like it’s ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings,'” said Ravenclaw, who was formerly known as Chuck Sundergard. “Whatever happened to a good old fashioned ‘All Glory to Gaia’ or ‘Jhakkaa Solztovo Chthulu?'”

Tractor Supply Company spokesman Kevin Neves denied accusations that his company instructed sales clerks not to use traditional Wiccan greetings.

“We welcome everybody to TSC, regardless of how they celebrate the season,” said Neves. “We even stock a nice assortment of seasonal animal sacrifice altars, back in Lawn & Garden.”

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