A Lamp unto Yourself

Be a lamp unto yourself.

-- The Buddha

Years ago an ice storm knocked out power to much of the state where I live.  I was driving on a stretch of rural highway at night with no illuminated street lamps or lighted buildings to mark the way.  It was pitch dark, and few other cars had ventured out.  At times I had the eerie sensation that I was traveling through deep space.  The only thing anchoring me to this planet was the narrow ribbon of highway rushing toward me under the illumination of my headlights.  But that was enough for me to find my way safely home.

The writer E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.  It occurs to me that Doctorow’s simile has broader application than just writing novels.  Whatever our calling in life, we depend on some source of illumination to light our way, and we can never see beyond its reach.

Where does our light come from?  Often we make the mistake of looking outside ourselves for illumination, and sooner or later discover we have lost our way.  When I was driving in pitch darkness on that rural stretch of highway, I would sometimes orient myself by following the taillights of other cars.  However, unless another car happens to be going your way, you will never reach your own destination that way.

There’s an old joke about a cop who comes across a drunk searching for his car keys under a streetlamp.  The cop asks him what he’s doing, and the drunk explains that he dropped his car keys in some bushes nearby.  “So why are you looking under the street lamp over here?” asks the cop.  The drunk tells him, “Because the light’s better.”

Once Buddha’s disciples realized he was dying, they wondered who would guide them after he was gone.  “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” he told them.  Until we stop seeking better lighting elsewhere, we will be no more successful in finding what we are looking for than the drunk under the streetlamp.  Once we learn to rely on our own illumination, we discover we can venture into life’s darkest corners and still find our way. 

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