“Be a light unto yourself.” – Buddha
Buddhism is very different from Christianity in that rather than the “light,” the good and perfect, being embodied in a demi-god-being bridging the realms of the Divine and the worldly while humanity exists in the profane world of “fallen,” Buddhism holds that what is true and good is in the nature of everyone, for that matter, in everything. The Buddha is not meant to be the object of worship, simply the model of a fully realized human being. As a very logic-based, rather than magic-based religion, Buddhism simply teaches that it is logically impossible that the perfect harmony that is the Universe is not at the very core of every manifestation of the Universe, including humans. This, of course, presents a problem for us, as clearly there are destructive forces in the world which cause us to recoil. There is the dance of life and death, the wolf killing the fawn, the virus bringing horrid illness and death; there is cancer and famine. There are terribly destructive earthquakes, hurricanes and wildfires caused by lightning. There is pain and suffering. We feel that this cannot be light; this cannot be harmony and good.
There is also a particular kind of human darkness and evil beyond the realm of Nature’s catastrophes. There are Hitlers and Charles Mansons, the evils of hate, war and vicious criminality. There is also all the everyday petty meanness, cruelty, dishonesty, and hurtfulness that people inflict upon each other, while society seems to be organized around the mundane heartlessness of corporations and bureaucracies. It is right to ask: where is the perfect harmony, the good and perfect, the light in all this?
Buddhism teaches that while within us is the perfect harmony of the Universe, just as it is within every squirrel and bird, there is a problem in that in humans this core of harmony gets covered over with social/cultural/psychological conditioning telling us all kinds of crazy things about who we are and what the world is. We do not experience ourselves within an infinitely connected, harmonious and balanced universe. Rather, we experience ourselves alone and struggling, with but a few tenuous connections of family, friends and affiliations which all too often feel broken. Buddhism calls this Dukkha – a unique kind of suffering experienced by humans caused by our misperception of ourselves in separateness and our clinging to an identity and value system based in this separateness. This is a violation of what Buddhism calls Dharma, the Way of the Universe or Nature, with its infinite interconnection and interdependence. Our light is obscured and our harmony upset, but Buddhism, and all true spiritual traditions, point out that while the light may be obscured, it is not, cannot be, extinguished, for, and here I move into mystical language, The Light is who we are.
Life needs death, Creation needs destruction; they are inextricable. This is Dharma. The difference in Nature is that all death is in the service of Life; all destruction is the necessary making way for creation. Hurricanes and forest fires caused by lightning are natural occurrences that cleanse and clear away so that new growth can occur. An ecology needs predators to maintain balance so that the herbivores do not strip away vegetation causing imbalance that will lead to the reimposition of balance through death by starvation. To the surprise of many, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park has reestablished a balanced ecology where all species flourish more abundantly. Life moves to balance. Always.
But humans do not destroy and kill within the laws of harmony and balance; they clear-burn and clear-cut forests, forever destroying ecologies. They callously, thoughtlessly, industrially raise, slaughter and process animals who never experience a moment of freedom or comfort in their short lives. They make war on each other and Nature. They steal, swindle, lie, cheat, abuse, kill and destroy so as to make and take more for themselves, and this creates imbalance in The World – it creates dukkha. Cynics, nihilists, and some atheists point to this enduring fact of human history as proof that there is no transcendent intelligence, no balance, no hope, no Light, yet, they typically neglect that it is NOT true that we are moving inexorably toward darkness. To the contrary, history proves that we are moving toward The Light, and that The Light has always been with us and within us.
The nihilist view neglects that for thousands of years humans lived in magnificent and rich cultures on the American, Australian and African continents in complete harmony with Nature. It neglects that Western and Asian history has moved from tyrannical and violent monarchical class systems into ever growing democracies, being pulled by the light of reason and compassion to move their societies toward justice, fairness and compassion, no matter how much further is still needed. The Light is in us and pulls and guides us as human collectives and as individuals, even while the darkness misleads and confuses us. This is the dance of the human experience. What seems undeniable is that the Universe has given us just a bit more Light, for otherwise, all would have been completely lost long ago.
As it is a commonality of all religions to call us to move to The Light in whichever way the religion depicts it, perhaps we can reframe the entire notion of religion to that which calls us to our basic “religious” task of uncovering this basic ground of goodness and bringing it into the world, whether we consider ourselves identified with an organized religion or not. Perhaps we can make our religious task to be that Light unto ourselves that Buddha called us to when darkness and confusion surround us so that we can then bring this Light into the world. Our journey into healing can be found it would seem, individually and collectively, not through adding on more complicated psychological, religious or spiritual jargon and practices, more political or economic complexity and cleverness that is all too often egoic deceit. Rather, our journey is in turning inward towards our own silent knowing. It is to find The Light within while also looking outward into the quiet simple truths in the infinite energy of Nature, harmonizing these inner and outer worlds until it is recognized there is no inner and outer. It is to realize there is just the Universe and its Dharma of interconnection and balance, of compassion, kindness, and love, that manifests through the dance of creation and destruction in the service of Creation, what Native Americans called “The Great Giveaway.” This is The Light that is in each of us and all of us.
We might recognize that we are all Light and dark, essential harmony AND egoic confusion, but we must have faith that The Light is our truth and is actually stronger than the dark, for this egoic kind of dark is an aberration, and is destined to disappear into lumination as individuals, societies, and eventually the species, find the wisdom to walk guided only by The Light. Each of us is a unique expression of the Universe manifesting a unique person, dancing the dance of Light and dark. Our sense of religious task can be to strengthen The Light and better manage the dark, for the dark does have an important purpose. Just as death and destruction are natural in the dance of Creation, so too our own darkness can be an important element in our dance of creation, destroying and reorganizing, giving new life and perspective to our world-view and expression of ourselves. This is how we evolve. This is how we move to The Light.
What is important is that in this dance of light and dark, we must commit ourselves religiously to being guided by The Light. We must realize that whenever we are seduced by the dark and it becomes our guide, we of course become lost, for we cannot see clearly in the dark, and so we become dark ourselves. This, our histories as individuals and societies, have taught us. Look to The Light that is you, to the you that is Dharma. Know your darkness well and own it so that it does not own you. Knowing darkness can lend itself to creativity and insight, yes, but for knowing and being who you truly are, you must move to your Light.