Make of Yourself a Light

We are in the last full day of the Leadership Pilgrimage Intensive retreat in Taos, NM. Our theme for the week has been "Becoming a Compassionate Leader," and our study text is Norman Fischer's Training in Compassion. During our last morning meditation I spoke about the way in which becoming a compassionate leader is, in a sense, becoming a light in the world. I was reflecting on the Buddha's final teaching and the famous quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta which chronicles the events and teachings at the very end of the Buddha’s life — “Be a light unto yourself.” Much could be said about this statement, but in my comments I was suggesting that he was recommending that we practice in order to bring light where there is darkness and sight where there was once blindness. He is suggesting that we become that light and learn to have faith in our own life-light.

A very wonderful Japanese teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi (1938-2002), would often use “light” as a metaphor for sitting practice and for life energy. He was a delightful teacher and a poet. One of the first quotes given to me by my own teacher (Zenkei Blanche Hartman) was the following from Kobun Chino. She gave it to me before the first seven-day sesshin I was about to enter with her.

"The main subject of this sesshin is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light. Practice takes place to shape your whole ability to reflect the light coming through you, and to regenerate your system, so the light increases its power. Each precept is a remark about hard climbing. Maybe climbing down (to the very ground of your being). You don't use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality or fulfilling your dream of your highest image. You don't use the precepts in that way. The precepts are the reflective light world of one precept, which is Buddha's mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha. Zazen is the first formulation of the accomplishment of Buddha existing. The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task so, naturally, such a person sits down for a while. It's not an intended action, it's a natural action."

There is an enormous amount of teaching that can flow from this statement by Kobun Chino, certainly much more than I will comment on here in this small post. It made a big impact on me the first time I read it and it has stayed with me through the years, continuing to unfold its meaning. I discovered the truth of “climbing down” in practice, just as I had in psychotherapy, but the difference was that in zazen I was climbing toward nothing; no gain: no accomplishing of my own personality or of fulfilling the dream of my highest image. This was naturally something that made me sit down for a while, and I’ve remained on the cushion in one way or another since then.

Here is another beautiful reflection on the use of “light” by Kobun Chino Roshi. It is found in A Light in the Mind: Living Your Life Just As It Is, an homage to Kobun Chino’s life and teaching by his long-time student and Zen teacher Carolyn Atkinson. In this segment she is describing a moment late in his teaching life.

“We sit,” Kobun began slowly, “to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” He looked down at his hands as he spoke. He was quiet for a long time. Then he continued, “We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” Again he waited, as he perhaps reflected upon his own life. “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” Once again, he paused, so long at this point that I wondered if perhaps he had finished. But finally, he continued, “If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” He stopped and looked around at us in our small circle. He moved from face to face with his eyes, seeing deeply into each one of us, his long-time, oldest students. Finally, he nodded slightly, and concluded, “Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

She captures what I imagine was a tender moment with her teacher, sitting together in stillness and silence. His “life light” must have touched everyone in the room. Such illumination was not brought about by his being grand or special, but by being ordinary and wholehearted. His vulnerability opened the way for wisdom. His willingness to nakedly face himself and his students opened the way for compassion. This is being a light.

Interestingly, the American poet Mary Oliver has written a poem entitled “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” speaking to this same teaching about becoming a light. It underscores the relational quality of our practice-realization and life-transformation. Over time we inevitably discover that this is not a solitary practice that will lead us to individual achievement. It is a practice of profound meeting and intimacy.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
~ Mary Oliver

“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, disattached, 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.

“Clearly I’m not needed/yet I feel myself turning/into something of inexplicable value.” Relinquishing self and reveling out True Nature; Kenosis (self-emptying) and realizing identity with the Divine; Mind and body of themselves, dropped away. There are many ways this essential paradox has been expressed. And in the end, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.” The poet doesn’t say, “and then everything was OK.” She also does not imply that, “then he gave his final wise teaching.” The suggestion is that the looking itself was the teaching. This is life light — this willingness to look and truly see. This is what enlightens and frees all beings. This is making ourselves a light.

Evening light at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos.