A Buddhist Interpretation of “My Grownup Christmas List”
By Peter Hata

I would like to share my personal interpretation of the popular song, “My Grownup Christmas List.” It has been recorded by pop artists like Michael Bublé, Barbara Streisand, and Kelly Clarkson, R&B artists such as Aretha Franklin, and jazz artists like Jane Monheit and the Manhattan Transfer. Of course, it is a “Christmas song,” but to me, this song isn’t really about Christmas; it expresses key Buddhist themes, themes that are not only important during the holidays, but year-round and indeed, life-long.

First, regarding the idea of a “grownup Christmas list,” during the holidays, children of course make their wish lists for Santa and look forward to Christmas in anticipation of receiving gifts. But as they grow up, they start to long for other things. Their wishes begin to change. I think that natually, as they grow up, their horizons begin to expand from their home to grade school, to college, and beyond. And today, most young adults, teens, and even “tweens” seem to know quite a bit about the problems and challenges we face locally, nationally, and globally. They are concerned about their world, and that is why young people can very much relate to this song.

Verses 1-3
Do you remember me?
I sat upon your knee,
I wrote to you with childhood fantasies.
Well, I'm all grownup now,
Can you still help somehow?
I'm not a child, but my heart still can dream.
So here's my lifelong wish,
My grownup Christmas list,
Not for myself, but for a world in need.

No more lives torn apart,
That wars would never start,
And time would heal all hearts.
Every man would have a friend,
That right would always win,
And love would never end.
This is my grownup Christmas list.

Verses 4 & 5
As children we believe
the grandest sight to see,
was something lovely wrapped beneath a tree.
But heaven only knows
that packages and bows
can never heal a hurting human soul.

[Repeat Chorus]

What is this illusion called the innocence of youth?
Maybe only in that blind belief can we ever find the truth.

[Repeat Chorus]

This is my grownup Christmas list,
This is my only lifelong wish,
This is my grownup Christmas list.

This is a song where I imagine the singer to be a young person, maybe around the age of our Jr. YBA members, old enough to witness the troubles facing their world but also, youthful enough to remember that, not that long ago, Santa was the great wish-fulfiller of their childhood fantasies. So it’s quite poignant that, witnessing the conflicts and challenges the world faces today, a young person would ask for Santa’s help. And actually, while the idea of asking Santa for peace and happiness for all mankind may seem farfetched or naïve to us adults, to me this is the central Buddhist theme in the song; I think this same heartfelt wish is known in Shin Buddhism as the innermost wish, or hongan in Japanese. In brief, this wish is our fundamental human aspiration to live the fullest, most dynamic, creative, and connected life. In other words, though we are normally unaware of it, this is the wish we all have to live fully awake, as a buddha. As a buddha, one cannot help but work for the betterment of all life. To put it another way, what is at the heart of this song is a sincere expression of one’s humanity—a wish not just for oneself, but for all life. Actually, because all life is interdependent, these are not two wishes; they are one wish. This of course is also an expression of the compassionate wish of the bodhisattva.

There is an interesting parallel between this song and the bodhisattva story that takes place in the Larger Sutra. This sutra is the key sutra of Shin Buddhism and tells the story of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who becomes Amida Buddha (the buddha in the center of our altar) when he fulfills his 48 vows or wishes. In the beginning of the story, Dharmakara asks his teacher the Buddha Lokesvararaja for help in order to create his Pure Land, the Pure Land being a symbol for buddhahood itself. In the Sutra, Dharmakara says:

My land, being Nirvana itself,
will be beyond comparison.
I take pity on living beings
And resolve to save them all.

And, likewise, in “My Grownup Christmas List,” the third verse eloquently expresses the Bodhisattva’s wish:

So here's my lifelong wish,
My grownup Christmas list,
Not for myself, but for a world in need.

Our innermost wish, like that of all buddhas and bodhisattvas, is to also attain this infinitely broad awareness of all life and to work compassionately to awaken all beings.

It’s also interesting that, from a Shin Buddhist perspective, that just as Dharmakara asks his teacher for help, the singer in this song also asks for help from a “greater power”; in the 5th line the singer asks Santa, “can you still help somehow.” I think this kind of sincere and humble request for help from a power greater than the self is also a distinguishing feature of Shin Buddhism and can be seen in Shinran Shonin’s reliance not on his self-power, but on Amida Buddha, or what we might view as the power of the Dharma itself. Because of his deep insight into his own human limitations, Shinran emphasized relying on this “power beyond the self.” Every Sunday we express this emphasis in the Shoshinge’s first line, “kimyo muryoju nyorai,” or “I take refuge in Amida Buddha,” and also in the Three Treasures, where we vow to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

In this song’s chorus, we see the singer’s compassionate acknowledgment of the suffering and turmoil in the world. This is samsara, the difficulties and conflicts that result between us when we are unawake to the reality that we actually all share the same life. To put it another way, from a young person’s point of view, it certainly seems as though we unawakened, egoistic, “grownups” have messed the world up. And yet there are no easy answers, and I think you can you see that, in a sense, the singer’s only hope is to “take refuge” in Santa. You can also see that this most important innermost wish for buddhahood, this sincere desire to help others, is not something we cultivate in ourselves. It’s something that, as we grow older, is awakened within us by this power of the Dharma. That is why this song is called “My Grownup Christmas list.”

One other central Buddhist theme is expressed in the song’s bridge:

What is this illusion called the innocence of youth?
Maybe only in this blind belief can we ever find the truth.”

First, what is meant by the phrase, “the innocence of youth”? Probably the ultimate example of this youthful innocence is a newborn baby or toddler; I’m sure you’ve all noticed how open, spontaneous, and inquisitive they are. But in comparison, don’t we adults tend to be narrow-minded, judgmental, and kind of egotistically hung up on our own viewpoints? By juxtaposing the wonderful innocence of youth with the grownup worldly problems mentioned in the chorus—for example, the wish that no more lives be torn apart and that wars would never start—the song is pointing out the central doctrine of Buddhism, which is that our suffering and difficulties in life are not caused by “life” itself, but by our ego self. Unaware of the problems our limited ego-self causes in our lives, we can’t appreciate the wonderment in each moment. And we can’t appreciate the diversity of life either, which is why we have conflicts like war. In contrast, a newborn has a mind that is not self-absorbed, but attentive, open, flexible, and creative. This a mind that is one with the moment-by-moment flow of life. Therefore, isn’t the phrase, “innocence of youth” really like a metaphor for the ultimate truth in Buddhism, that a buddha is someone who is “one with” impermanence itself? Again, our innermost wish is to attain this attentive, appreciative attitude. And share it with others.

Now, why do you think the lyrics in the bridge call this youthful innocence an “illusion”? I think it is not because such innocence doesn’t exist, but because it unfortunately becomes an illusion when we grownups forget our youthful innocence, when our egos get in the way. Doesn’t this kind of make you wonder, “Hmmm…whatever happened to my youthful innocence?” This song has a Buddhist meaning because it causes us to reflect on our true nature. But perhaps the most Shin-specific line in the song is the second line of the bridge. Here, the lyrics give us more clues about what “youthful innocence” is by basically equating it to a “blind belief.” Of course, “blind belief” sounds like it’s referring to some kind of simple-minded, uncritical belief, but I think the word “blind” actually refers to the way the Buddhist insight transcends our logical, rational, egoistic mind; our “grownup minds” cannot grasp the ultimate truth described by Buddhism. Discussing this idea of “blind belief” in detail is probably beyond the scope of a Dharma talk on a Christmas song, but I would just like to add that to me, “blind belief” refers to shinjin, which is the awakening of the innermost aspiration for buddhahood. One common English translation you’ve probably seen for shinjin is “faith.” Many people don't like the theistic overtones in the word, “faith,” but in the context of this song’s use of the phrase, “blind belief,” meaning a truth beyond our normal, logical and rational mind, I think this makes me think of faith, or rather the experience of faith, of putting one’s trust in a transcendent truth. I think Shinran clearly used shinjin or faith to refer to this existential, subjective experience that is beyond logical, intellectual, or rational explanation. Thus, “faith” or shinjin lies at the heart of the Shin Buddhist experience. The fact that this subjective experience is ultimately beyond logical explanation is why many people have difficulty understanding Pure Land Buddhism. And, as “My Grownup Christmas List” states, discovering that which is eternally true paradoxically requires a “blind belief.”

In conclusion, I think this song highlights the crucial importance of awakening one’s innermost wish for buddhahood. As the lyrics in the bridge state, at the heart of this awakening is the realization of the limitations of our “grownup minds” which have caused us to lose our “innocence of youth.” This ultimate truth can be “rediscovered,” but this requires a kind of “blind belief,” one that transcends everyday logic and intellect. However, it is important to note that this belief or faith, though “blind,” is itself not an illusion. It manifests in our lives in a very real way. It leads to the kind of dynamic bodhisattva activity we see in both the Larger Sutra and in this song when it declares, “So here's my lifelong wish, My grownup Christmas list, Not for myself, but for a world in need.”

Awakening our innermost wish for buddhahood is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. However, as the song says, “only in that blind belief can we ever find the truth.” In finding that truth—awakening our innermost wish—we can fulfill our “grownup Christmas list.”

Thanks for listening.

If you'd like to listen to this song, here is a link to Ms. Kelly Clarkson's version.

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