I am struck at the instruction to live as a light to others that occurs across so many traditions of spirituality. It is such a powerful command and one I come back to again and again. I was especially reminded of it this past Sunday, listening to the readings at church services. I attend an Episcopal church and the readings from Lectionary calendar for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany included a lot of references to this directive to make a light of ourselves.
I especially liked this piece of Psalm 112, “Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.”
It has me consider the idea that Practice is its own reward, more commonly seen as Virtue is its own reward. Living an ethical life is what provides you with light in the darkness. It is through practice that we create the cracks that let the light in. The light that creates the space within us, the grace within us, to offer compassion generously to other beings.
This section from Matthew is one I’ve heard a lot, in whole and in bits; “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works…”
That section ends with, “and give glory to your Father in heaven.”, but I think the teaching of it stands alone without that last bit. I like just focusing on this simple directive, “Let your light shine before others.”
Shine, don’t hide away the fruits of your practice. We shine so that our light helps others, it goes without saying that our service in compassion, in light, to others will glorify the Divine.
The last teaching of the Buddha is often said to be something like, “Be your own light.”*
Mary Oliver’s poem, The Buddha’s Last Instruction renders this directive so beautifully, “Make of yourself a light”, and her poem goes on to explore how in becoming a light we are transformed into something of inexplicable value.
It feels a little large, too big at times to try and live as a light to the world. I’m living through political upheaval the likes I’ve never seen in my lifetime. In the course of a few days in January my home country went from having a full democracy to a “flawed democracy”. Being a light in dark times is hard, yet so vital and more necessary then ever before.
Most of us don’t have the energy to light up the whole world, really no one does. Some days we might not even have the energy to shine very brightly for ourselves, much less the rest of the world. In order to make it feel at all possible, and to keep Nihilism away, we need this directive to be small enough to accomplish.
The founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryū Suzuki Roshi, often would turn this instruction around a bit, “In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says to light up one corner– not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are.”
He was known to tell his students variations of this teaching and on one occasion he said it this way, “We say, to shine one corner of the world — just one corner. If you shine one corner, then people around you will feel better. You will always feel as if you are carrying an umbrella to protect people from heat or rain.”
I love Suzuki’s teaching, it makes the directive to be a light seem attainable. We don’t need to worry about being enough light for the whole world, just shine a little light where you are. There is something of the adage to “think globally, act locally” in this directive when viewed this way. Just become enough of a light to make it clear in your corner of the world, that’s all you need to consistently do.
Those days when you feel strong enough to shine your light brightly out over a larger community, you’ll do that.
On the rest of the days, just shine enough in your corner to make it clear where you are. Just by doing this, by shining in just your corner alone, you offer light and encouragement to those around you.
*This is sometimes thought be something restated from the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, or more commonly simply the Nirvāṇa Sūtra. Some teachers have also attributed this directive to the Lotus Sūtra.