Be a Lamp Unto Yourself: Finding Hope in Our Unwritten Story

On his deathbed, Shakyamuni Buddha encouraged his followers to “be a lamp unto yourself; be a refuge to yourself…Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge.” He understood that the true Buddha was not a human body, but rather is Enlightenment itself and that the “Wisdom of Enlightenment will exist forever in the truth of the Dharma, and in the practice of the Dharma.” By his death, the Buddha reaffirmed the impermanence of human existence and the eternal nature of Enlightenment.


The Dharma is transmitted from heart to heart and from mind to mind. Each of us is

responsible for embodying the teachings in our thoughts, words, and actions. We all know how our deepest held values are passed on from one generation to the next only through the intentional living out of those values. The Buddha’s story did not end with his passing over 2,500 years ago but rather continues to this day. We are writing the story of the Buddha’s teachings into the very fabric of our lives.


Similarly, it is with intention that democracy endures and thrives. We have seen how fragile our democracy is and how important it is for each of us to do our part to maintain its integrity. In her poem “The Hill We Climb,” national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman challenges us to embody the light of our highest ideals, thereby passing it on to future generations. She says,


When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.


Just like the final teaching of the Buddha, we are being asked to hold fast to the ideal of democracy and to make it our light. America is not any one person but all of us collectively living out her values. That it is only in the practice of democracy that it endures. Each of us is responsible for embodying these ideals through our thoughts, words, and actions.


During the long dark winter of the past few years, our values have been tested and we have realized that we are, according to Gorman, “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” We have the difficult task of mending ourselves, our communities, and our nation. This process will be uncomfortable and sometimes painful but if we work together, we can and will heal.


Our American story is not yet finished. We are writing new chapters every single day. As we move forward together with a renewed sense of hope, let us make of ourselves a light guided by the Buddha’s teachings and our highest ideals as Americans.


Namo Amida Butsu.