There is an ancient parable of the Buddha that offers us a message of hope and new possibilities during this time. It is the parable of the old woman and the lamp.
In ancient India, there were two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season was so tempestuous, it made travel prohibitive, so the monks would spend their time in a meditative retreat in the monasteries. When the dry season finally came, the Buddha would travel from town to town to deliver his sermon regarding the liberation and enlightenment of the human being from the toils of pain and suffering.
However, wherever the Buddha would travel, the god of illusion -Mara - would follow. Mara was very jealous of the message of the Buddha, a message filled with Truth, and so it would dispel the illusion of Mara.
One day it was announced that the Buddha would travel to a certain town to deliver his sermon in the evening. The only requirement for attending the sermon was that each person would be required to bring a lamp. The townspeople from far and wide gathered their elaborate lamps and jugs of oil, eager to hear the Buddha’s message.
An old woman in the town wanted very much to attend this once-in-a-lifetime visit, yet she had no lamp and no money to buy a lamp. She had little to offer, except her long, beautiful hair. With nothing else to sell, she decided to cut off her locks so she could buy a very modest lamp. And so she went with all the other townsfolk In anticipation of the arrival of the Buddha.
Once the Buddha arrived and began to deliver his sermon, Mara was there to strike. He inhaled a mighty wind, and blew out all of the lamps in an effort to create an illusion of darkness, so no one could see the Truth that the Buddha came to offer.
But Mara blew out all the lamps but one. The one lamp that stayed lit was the lamp of the old woman: the one who sold the only thing she had to offer, just to hear the word of Truth. As this one lamp was purchased with such good intention and such purity of heart, her lamp was immune from the false winds of Mara and his efforts to extinguish the light. And so it was from this one single lamp, all the lamps that had been blown out were re-lighted, one by one, from this single source of light. And so it came to be that, in a sea of darkness, a single light was able to rekindle the world.
As we reflect on our own times, when things seem dark in this sea of uncertainty, it might be useful to remember the one light – the one that represents the hope that we can change the world. May each one of us be that light in the darkness, the light that rekindles the spark in all of us, and brings some measure of comfort and peace to the world.
There are additional elements to reflect upon in this parable of the Buddha, as we consider the times we are all currently living in. Today we are in the midst of our own metaphorical monsoon season. It was during this period that the Buddhist monks were relegated to life in the monastery as the dirt roads had turned to mud, and it was impossible to travel. With these outward constrictions on movement, life naturally turned inward. Today we now have an opportunity to carve out some interior space and reconnect with ourselves. We have time outside of the regular hustle and bustle of “normal” life to dedicate to reflection.
As we begin to re-evaluate life, we may come to realize that it isn’t the size or beauty of our lamp that is important but, rather, the light that burns within. In a time of psychological darkness, we can be the light that gives others hope. We must be careful not to get caught up in the winds of Mara and succumb to the anxiety and hysteria of the moment. The Truth that lives inside of us is not something that can be extinguished unless we allow it to be. Let us listen to Wisdom’s soft voice that speaks from within and reminds of what is truly essential in life.