The Light for Another

BY PARKER J. PALMER  (On Being)

In times of deep darkness, we not only need light — we need to be light for one another. That’s a message we must take to heart as we find ourselves lost once again in the all-too-familiar darkness of America’s culture of violence.

Who better to deliver that message than Mary Oliver, in a powerful poem that re-tells the story of the Buddha’s last words. Before he died, she tells us, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd” and said, “Make of yourself a light.”

We are the frightened crowd the Buddha looked into as he drew his last breath. We are the people who need to be light for one another.

There are many kinds of light. There’s the light that allows people lost in the dark to find their way home. There’s the light of compassion that comforts everything it touches. There’s the light of truth-telling about ourselves that allows us to see what we are doing — or allowing — that has helped bring this darkness upon us. There’s the light that shows us the way forward toward a better world. There’s the light of courage to walk that path no matter who says “Stop!”

No one of us can provide all of the light we need. But every one of us can shed some kind of light. Every day we can ask ourselves, “What kind of light can I provide today?”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by 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.

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