Being A Lamp For Others
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
When we’ve lived our life well, we should be able to think: “I am content with everything that’s in my life, just as it is. My deepest wish is to continue gaining wisdom, and acquiring tools to work skillfully with my mind. Although it’s true that I may have to work at my livelihood, or with my family circumstances, my health, or with certain areas of my life, these are simply the “field trips” for developing my wisdom and skill. At my job, getting promoted shouldn’t be the incentive for me to work harder. There may be some short-term benefit and gratification in a promotion, but it’s much more gratifying to use this job as a field trip for working with my mind, to increase my wisdom and skill. Through that perspective, the benefits of going to work will be much greater. Without being subject to the conventional mindset of success and failure, I won’t feel so deeply attached and vulnerable, as if all I live for is that kind of conventional success.”
If we can nurture this same attitude in our marriage, in raising our children, in relating to parents and extended family members, in all types of social interactions with people inside and outside our community, then we can tie everything together as a single path of wisdom and skill. Pursuing a spiritual path doesn’t require us to be isolated. Some isolation is useful, but it’s important to have a balance between solitary meditation and engagement with work, family, and social interactions. We refer to these as post-meditation activities. With this kind of balance, our mind can grow more deeply resolved and content with every passing year.
We struggle with so many habitual passions, desires, and neuroses, which confuse us by making us feel like we’re always in a race. If we feel we’re ahead in the race, then we’re momentarily pleased we’ve achieved something; but if we fall behind, we feel that we’ve failed. Ahead means happiness, behind means suffering. But from someone else’s point of view, whatever we achieve through this kind of ego struggle will not even look like real happiness. Your colleagues, who work just as hard as you, will have a difficult time acknowledging that you’ve achieved happiness if your ego has just grown bigger and your self-indulgence and arrogance have increased. This so-called “happiness” you’re working for is just in your mind!
When you fail to meet your expectations, then your suffering is also just in your mind — set into particular motion by your goals and expectations. When things don’t turn out the way you think they should, it seems horrible. This is not the way that things were supposed to be! That’s how we feel. Some suffering we certainly must acknowledge as actual suffering. But ascribing a certain meaning to life and then feeling we have failed to achieve that is a suffering created by our own mind. Another person could be in an identical position, but have a totally different attitude, experience, and state of mind. If we go to another country, we can see clearly that people are quite happy without having all that we strive to attain. This helps us to see that happiness and suffering have to do with how we set our minds, and how we see ourselves in relation to others — as either ahead or behind in this imaginary race.
To improve our capacity and develop confidence in changing this deluded perspective, we can begin by regarding our given work, family, social interactions, and everything else in our lives as field trips. We don’t have to give any of them away, or abandon them. Instead, we can use our circumstances as tools for increasing our wisdom and our skill in working with our mind, rather than falling asleep to those situations. Success and failure are secondary compared to the growth we can achieve from staying awake and engaged in those experiences. It doesn’t matter what job you’re doing. Just know that success, failure, happiness, and suffering don’t exist from their own side. Not even two people will agree about them. So give up the neurosis of seeing things as if they exist outside of you and unrelated to your mind.
For me, this is a very helpful way to look at things, because it gives me the liberty to not turn things into problems from viewing them as outside my mind. But for a lot of people, that’s too inconvenient. People prefer to see their problems as outside themselves, so they can blame something else rather than take responsibility. You’ll have such better results, however, if you see there’s no problem with your life. Everything is in place, just where it should be. You may think your problem is something out there, something objective. In fact, it’s interdependently created from your subjective mind. Therefore, it’s not intrinsic, with it’s own inherent nature; it doesn’t exist on its own at all, but only in relation to your mind — your thoughts, your feelings, your perceptions. In acknowledging this, you’re not simply being hard on yourself, or berating yourself for having an ego. There would be no point in doing that.
When you have less confusion in your mind, then each “problem” becomes another opportunity to strengthen your wisdom. Before, you may have read books to give you wisdom and skill, but they didn’t actually become a part of your life until you encountered these field trips, enabling you to apply them. So now you can help many others, starting with your family. First you can help them by your example; then, if they are open, with verbal communication; and if they are even more open, with guidance.
We can succeed in knowing the wisdom of Dharma, but even more effectively, we can become lamps that light many others. A hundred lamps may all have the potential to be lit, but if none are lit, then none can light the others. If just one is lit, it can light the other ninety-nine. In this way, we can serve as a lamp in our immediate situation, which is where it matters most. Some people think they should be like the sun, illuminating the entire earth. With this level of ambition, they think lighting a small area has little meaning. Again, this is the attitude of seeing oneself in a race, as needing to be bigger or better than the rest. What really counts is first lighting up ourselves, and then serving in our particular circle to light many other lamps, which in turn can light yet more lamps. Since all human beings are potentially lit lamps, we can light ourselves with our own awakening and then serve as a reference for others to do the same. This grassroots way of affecting our world is a much more reliable source of happiness than striving to become wealthy, or influential, or famous.
We should compare these scenarios to becoming a small buddha, a small lamp that lights itself and never goes out, a lamp that can light others around us, within our own small circle. That is a genuinely incredible outcome. And we have that very possibility. We’re all in the Dharma for that. We need to chip away our various attachments, delusions, and mistaken notions, honing our intention and our resolve. We need to deepen our wisdom mind and our skill in working with our mind, and we will see the qualities of our realisation begin to truly blossom.
This process has to be set in motion as early as possible in our spiritual path, not at the last minute. We can’t expect it to happen on its own; we have to be consciously involved. People may put so much effort and energy into becoming good practitioners and working hard on their spiritual path, yet may still be confused, even at the end, about why they’re doing it. And some may have developed a lot of wisdom and skillful means over years of living and practicing, but haven’t consciously aimed to light their own lamps and light others that surround them. They haven’t used their fields trips as well as they could have. Instead, they’ve seen them as annoyances: “I’m a spiritual person. I want to be off by myself, meditating in retreat.” Because they feel conflicted, they can’t use these opportunities well, and can’t work effectively to help others.
So it’s important to start doing this as soon as possible, in small ways, since you already have to interact with people: your children, your spouse, your extended family, people at work and in your community. You can try to communicate something more meaningful than saying “hi.” In not wanting to go deeper or get personal, and thereby maintain your bubble, you may preserve some privacy, but it also creates isolation within your family and your society. So if you’ve thought through some things and found some deep answers to your questions and a degree of beneficial wisdom in your mind, try to engage with others a little, in appropriate ways. See if you could help them in how they use their mind, in how they’re thinking, questioning, and seeing. It’s not that you’re trying to teach them something, you’re just having deeper interactions and conversations. You may not be able to do that with your kids, especially when they’re full of hormones and totally in their own world, but even if you can sit them down for a minute, it will leave a deep impression. They will remember such parental guidance forever. And with spouses or sangha members, it’s important to engage appropriately in deeper conversations. Otherwise the conversations tend to become shallower and shallower, filled with gossip, passion, ignorance, and even aggression.
If you orient your life toward such progress, toward being engaged with the world, with wisdom and skillful means as your focus, then you’ll create meaning from your field trip opportunities, from your studies and practice, from your connection to the Three Jewels, and from the blessing of your own mind. I can guarantee you that, in the end, you won’t regret how you’ve lived, whether the karma of your life has been smooth or turbulent. You can use either for your growth.
So I do really encourage you to develop the wisdom of Dharma. The Buddha’s wisdom didn’t just somehow come to him magically. He accumulated it over countless lifetimes, collecting each piece, one by one, with keen interest, intense effort, and hardship. There is even a story that in one of his lifetimes, in order to obtain one crucial piece of wisdom he gouged holes in his flesh and filled them with oil and burning wicks so he could make offering lamps from his own body. As we know, eventually he became enlightened, and left all his wisdom as his legacy for future generations. Because of his effort, we have it easy. We’re the fortunate recipients of his generosity and diligence. We already have access to so much wisdom without having to collect it piece by piece the way the Buddha did. It’s all at our disposal, if we just press our minds a little and orient ourselves to deepening that wisdom through our own effort.