Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The Buddha's Last Instruction
By Mary Oliver
(1935 - )
"Make of yourself a light,"
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal -- a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire --
clearly I'm not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Buddha's last words seem, to me, to admonish his followers to listen to the inner voice, not outward authority, even if the advice comes from Buddha himself. He warns his audience not to accept any notion as truth because it comes from him, but rather to test its validity in their own minds, and then decide. Thus Buddha appears to contradict one of the primary tenets of contemporary Buddhism--to follow the dharma, the teachings handed down from the ancient past. Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation, but this is how it seems to me.
Indeed, should we follow blindly some external teacher, or should we adhere to the intuitions emanating from within, the "internal guru," who leads us well if we but listen?
The crowd at the end of the poem are frightened, possibly because they are losing their beloved teacher, possibly they are frightened at the prospect of directing their own thoughts and actions, rather than blindly following a source outside themselves.
(Note: I am not opposing all teachers and spiritual leaders--merely saying that blind allegiance is not a safe or appropriate path.)