Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions?

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The word “resolution” is one of those versatile words used to refer to many things and employed in many contexts. It is used, for example, as the word that refers to the degree of sharpness and detail of an image produced and displayed, and employed in such scientific disciplines as optics and electronic engineering. Though its meaning varies depending on a specific context in which it is employed, the word “resolution” is also used in other scientific disciplines such as chemistry and medicine.

In addition to its usage in sciences and engineering, the word “resolution” is also used in arts and humanities. Its usage in philosophy goes as far back as Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, who defined a philosopher as someone with careful resolutions and unerring decisions. In works of literature, it is employed as the word that refers to the solution of a tangled relationship, or a complicated plot, involving many characters of a story with many twists and turns.

The versatility of the word “resolution” is not limited to sciences and humanities as we have become increasingly aware of its usage to refer to an official decision made by a group or an organization. In fact, the word “resolution” played an important part in the founding of the United States as an independent nation as John Adams uses it in his letter to Abigail Adams to refer to the decision made by the Founding Fathers on July 2, 1776 “that these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Another example illustrating the use of the word “resolution” to refer to an official decision made by an organization is Resolution 217 by the United Nations, which is known as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights adopted at the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

For most of us, the word “resolution” is used in the sense of a firm decision to do or not to do something, and is heard most often on and around New Year’s Day as New Year’s resolutions. Historians tell us that it was the ancient Babylonians that started the custom of celebrating the New Year and making resolutions on that occasion, which in their case was in the form of promises to the gods to pay their debts and return objects they had borrowed. Be that as it may, people all over the world have now adopted the custom of making New Year’s resolutions, along with celebrations with fireworks and visits to churches, shrines, and temples.

If there is anything to be said about New Year’s resolutions, it is that most people fail to follow up on them. One reason for the failure to follow up on New Year’s resolutions is that people make their resolutions to themselves, not to the gods as the Babylonians did. Moreover, most people, unlike Epictetus’ philosophers who make careful resolutions and unerring decisions, tend to make resolutions that are difficult to accomplish in the first place. Resolutions such as lose weight, exercise regularly, and eat green, which are among the most popular resolutions, are also known to be the ones people fail to live up to because they require strong commitment and will to follow up on them. Having like-minded people around them should help people to keep their resolutions. This is where a support group comes in, which is known to play an effective role for those people who are trying to abstain from drinking or quit smoking.

Do Buddhist practitioners need to make New Year’s resolutions? The answer to the question is “Yes,” to the extent that New Year’s Day is the day to look back on what transpired in the previous year and look forward to what is expected to happen in the coming year. Buddhist practitioners, as long as we make our living in the conventional world, need to reexamine what is happening in our lives from time to time, and New Year’s Day gives us an opportunity to do so with the rest of the world. On the other hand, the answer to the question is “No,” to the extent that Buddhist practitioners are committed ourselves to constant practice, observing the Dhamma at every moment, every day all the year round. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we are expected to begin anew each day with our commitment to constant practice, whether it is Year’s Day or Christmas. In other words, each and every day is another day of mindfulness for us Buddhist practitioners.