The little spruce, reminiscent of the one in A Charlie Brown Christmas, was decorated to the hilt. It’s bare and brawny branches held strong to the weight of bulbs, lights, and tinsel as it sparkled in the cold. I’d walk pass it daily and it would help me to feel less displaced, this was after all Hiroshima, a far cry from Indiana. I came to Japan on a pilgrimage of sorts. You see when I was a child my mother took me to a lecture given by the Dalai Lama. Dressed in his maroon and saffron robes, along with his infectious laugh, he reminded me of an Asian Santa Clause.
That encounter set me on a path to understand Buddhism, or so I thought. It was later I realized that what I was really searching for was the warmth. You see I was one of the lucky ones. I got to meet the Dalai Lama face to face and he gave me a hug. While in that embrace I was filled with a palpable warmth I had not felt before, or since. My mother said I was an unruly child until that hug. After that I was kinder, gentler, and a more serious student. I didn’t noticed myself, but everyone else did. Figures. It seems human nature to be the last to notice your own changes, or to see yourself clearly, period, for that matter.
Everyday I’d walk pass that tree and it would fill me with a similar warmth to that hug. One day I spied the owner caring for the land. I stopped and asked in my faltering, Nihingo, Japanese, why he decorated only that tree. He looked me up and down and when sufficiently satisfied my question was sincere he told me it was because the bare branches of that tree were the only ones empty enough to receive the grace. I blinked, my mind recalibrating, did he really say grace? I repeated the word for grace to him, megumi?, megumi?, took a deep breath, scratched my head, and said, Wakaranai, I don’t understand.
He laughed and explained that his father long ago told him this tree represented a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism. It is a Christmas tree that could be decorated most fully because it was the most, in a Buddhist sense, empty, it had less self. The tree also reminded his father of the open hands and arms of surrender to God, and the open hands and arms of Christ ready to hug you with love and forgiveness. “You cannot give a real hug with a closed heart,” he said.
He went on to tell me that this tree helped his father heal from the war. His father was an American prisoner, but it was discovered he was a good cook so he was put to use. As he cooked he learned about the enemy, their tastes, customs, and traditions. As he grew to like their food, he grew to like them, their customs and traditions, and they grew to like him, the food transformed the enemies into human beings. His father realized this was why many religions taught the feeding of strangers, it can turn a potential enemy into a friend. His father grew to appreciate Christmas and Christ.
When his father returned from the war this tree was growing on his parents land, strangely it looks today pretty much the way it looked back then. It was this tree that helped his father remember that we are all the same. If Jesus and Buddha could live on in one tree then maybe humanity could live together on one earth. Then he leaned in close like he was about to tell me a secret and he said, “I may be crazy but this tree makes me feel warm inside, like it is hugging my heart with its bare, empty, open branches; it fills me with with megumi.”
I nodded and said, Me too.