I always leave one high-efficiency LED light on in the hallway and open the door just a crack when I go to bed. At some point in middle school, I stopped sleeping with my Snoopy nightlight, and for many years, I tried to make my room as dark as possible before going to bed. Even a little bit of light in the room would make it hard for me to get to sleep. That habit changed suddenly for me one night almost ten years ago, shortly after my wife and I moved to Oxnard, California, where I had received my first assignment as a minister in the Buddhist Churches of America. We were settling into life in California and getting used to living in a spacious single-family home after having spent a couple of years in a tiny downtown Kyoto apartment. Our entire Kyoto apartment would have fit inside the kitchen of our Oxnard house.
This was before our children were born, at a time in our lives when we slept soundly through the night without interruption. We had yet to develop the attuned nighttime listening of parents with small children who are accustomed to waking up in the middle of the night to change diapers or comfort crying children. Late one night we were awakened from a deep sleep by the ear-piercing screech of an alarm sounding in the hall outside our room. In a panicked daze, I jumped out of bed and rushed toward the bedroom door to investigate. Running through the pitch-dark room in my groggy state, I miscalculated the location of the door, both in terms of distance from the bed and position in the room. I was running at a full sprint when my face collided with the wall two feet to the right of the door to the hallway. I reeled momentarily before fumbling on the wall to find the light switch. Once I switched on the lights and opened the door, I could see that the noise was coming from the smoke alarm where the “change battery” light was flashing. I climbed up on a chair, removed the battery from the screeching smoke alarm, and the device fell silent. I then staggered through the house to the kitchen, made an ice pack, and climbed back into bed, where I eventually drifted off to sleep with a wet towel filled with melting ice cubes resting on the bridge of my nose.
Today we can light up a dark hallway instantly with the flip of a switch, but for much of human history lanterns have been used to bring light into darkness. The Buddha’s teachings are likened to a lantern that shines the light of wisdom and dispels the darkness of ignorance. Japanese Buddhists have a custom of hanging lanterns at this time of year in observance of Obon, the festival of grateful remembrance for deceased loved ones. According to popular Japanese folk belief, lanterns are hung outside the home during Obon to guide the spirits of deceased loved ones back home to rejoin the family for the three days of Obon, during which the deceased enjoy a brief respite on their journey through samsara, the cycle of continuing death and rebirth.
In contrast, followers of the other power nembutsu extolled by Shinran Shonin take comfort and guidance from the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, which assures us that those who take refuge in Amida Buddha attain final liberation from birth and death when they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at the end of this life. The lanterns that we hang at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple during Obon are not intended as a guide for our deceased loved ones because they have already arrived at their true destination. It is I who am in need of guiding light as I fumble through life, mired in the darkness of delusion. When I run through the darkness as fast as my legs will carry me, it is no wonder that I continually crash into the walls of greed, anger and misunderstanding. How many hours will I spend nursing my aching head before I turn about and allow the lantern of the Buddhadharma illuminate my mind? In his Hymns on the Pure Land, Shinran writes:
The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 325)
As we light the lanterns this Obon season, let us open our hearts to the true light of wisdom that illuminates the path to liberation from suffering. Let us gratefully receive the guidance of those loved ones who have already arrived at the Other Shore of liberation. As we remember their lives, we awaken to the truth that they continue to guide us with the light of wisdom each and every day throughout the year.
Namo Amida Butsu