Be a Light Unto Yourself
The Buddha’s Last Instruction by Mary Oliver (1935 – )
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet, even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, unattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
It’s scary to go beyond the teachings and guidance of our mentors and our parents and to take responsibility for being a lamp unto oneself.
Every evening of my recent month-long silent retreat, when I listened to Dharma talks by Jack Kornfield and other experienced meditation teachers, I felt inspired to continue the demanding task of trying to bring mindful attention to my thoughts, intentions and actions.
It’s clear that nobody can do this practice for me. On my own, I must deal with the five classic impediments: sleepiness, restlessness, desire (for circumstances to be different), aversion (towards present reality), and doubt (about my capacity to learn and grow from mistakes.) In this process, I face how many habits I’ve developed over the years. I realize how easy it is to take for granted what I receive through my sense doors.
On retreat, my dulled senses awaken. As I enter the dining hall, I notice distinct aromas, rumbling sounds in my stomach, saliva in my mouth, colors and textures of food, the weight and shape of plates and bowls, and the cool, hard metal of silverware in my hand.
While I practice letting go of my usual tendency to judge and react to experiences, I notice that when I prefer something that feels pleasant, I don’t need to cling to it; when I encounter something that feels unpleasant, I don’t need to react with aversion. I taste moments of freedom from habitual attempts to control and manipulate what’s occurring around and within me.
I experience the joy of flowing with my experiences.
During retreats, our sense of inner knowing awakens, and we intuitively move towards wholesome thoughts and actions. We learn to sit with difficult emotions and to accept them as part of our human condition—our measure of joys and sorrows.
Outside of retreat, it’s challenging to feel connected with loving awareness, when the pace speeds up, the noise increases, and the distractions multiply.
But even during a crisis, we can learn to depend on a wise inner presence or witnessing consciousness—what Jack Kornfield calls “that which knows.”
This knowing presence remains steady and clear, no matter how upsetting our circumstances might be. “That which knows” accepts whatever is unfolding and remembers that even the most painful situation is impermanent.
When I look in the mirror, I see a face that looks older than it did a few years ago, but I don’t feel older inside. The timeless awareness that witnesses my aging body is “that which knows.” The body is merely a temporary physical container for undying consciousness that is unchanging, regardless of circumstances.
Recently a friend gave me a book called Wise Women, a collection of Joyce Tenneson’s striking photographs of women in a late phase of their lives. Instead of depicting frail, confused elderly people, the portraits show vital, energetic women, who radiate inner beauty.
In interviews that accompany the photographs, women like 74-year-old Coretta Scott King celebrate their long lives. Coretta says, “When you age, you become wiser in so many ways. You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve. Experience has shown you the potential of the human spirit. Committing to what is right, what is just, and what is good will bring you fulfillment.”
At 70, Krista Gottlieb bravely poses with a bare torso and asserts, “When I look at my body, I see a survivor. I am one-breasted—but I am more. I am more compassionate and open than I was before.” At 101 years of age, Clara Holm states, “A sage knows there is both the wisdom of the universe and of man—and finds a balance between the two.”
“That which knows” lives in the present moment, apart from worries about the future and replays of the past. Beyond illness, loss and death, wise awareness sees the bigger picture of new lives being born, the universe continuing to expand, the earth cycling through seasons, and the soil fostering fresh growth.
As we learn to “make of ourselves a light,” we realize that being anxious and sad, angry and scared, or hurt and lost during difficult times is part of the natural process of being human. Even feeling overwhelmed by emotions is a natural part of our life journey. If I judge myself against an impossible ideal of how I think I “should” be feeling and acting, I add to my suffering.
The following quotation helps me lighten up and let go of self-judgments:
“If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around, without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
In his book A Lamp in the Darkness, Jack says, being alive entails participating in a great, mysterious paradox. We all experience birth and death, success and loss, love and heartbreak, joy and despair. At this very moment, millions of human beings just like us are confronting difficult situations and struggling to learn how to survive them.
George Washington Carver said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong…because some day in life you will have been all of these.”
Jack reminds us that in order to heal we must remember who we truly are. Then no matter what happens, we can rely on innate courage and a wise heart, which nobody can take away from us. Everything that we have experienced is part of who we are today. It lives in us the same mysterious way that everything and everyone we have ever lost remains alive and present in our heart.
The Buddha’s last instruction empowers us to do the hard, ongoing, and gratifying work of finding our own inner light to shine on the well-trodden dharma path.