Is Turning Into Light Our Destiny?

Is Turning Into Light Our Destiny?

The moon came to me last night with a sweet question.

She said: “The sun has been my faithful lover for millions of years.

Whenever I offer my body to him brilliant light pours from his heart.

Thousands then notice my happiness and delight in pointing toward my beauty.

Hafiz, is it true that our destiny is to turn into Light Itself?”

 Hafiz, Sufi poet 


Is it our destiny to become Light Itself? This is a profound question, a fascinating and perhaps a haunting question as well. How is it that the subject of Light rarely, if ever, is addressed in our temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches today? Most of us on the path have spent too much time neglecting the question Hafiz spent a lifetime with.

I am reminded of a sign at the end of the pavement on an old country road that read, “Choose your rut carefully. You will be in it for the next 30 miles.” There is some folksy wisdom in such advice. Ignoring the teachings on Light seems to me to be like choosing one’s rut unwisely. In the early part of the last century Albert Einstein stated, “All I want to do is study light.”  He intuitively seemed to know that the sacred mysteries of science and religion are to be found in Light.

Having some familiarity with the major scriptures of the world I find that the teachings of Light always appear embedded in the texts. As an example for Christians, it is hard to ignore that the main theme of John’s Gospel is Light! In Hinduism and Buddhism the word for ignorance is avidya. Vidya means understanding, or “made of light.” Avidya literally means the “lack of light” and thus describes one who has lost his or her way. These eastern teachings tell us that wandering in the dark results in suffering, or lack of enlightenment.

As a Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Buddhist priest and seeker, I, along with millions of others, have chanted the Nembutsu daily. It is the mythical story of Hozo Bosatsu1 becoming Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Compassionate Light.

The first two lines of the well-known Pure Land Shoshinge (Nembutsu chanting) translate as follows. “I rely upon the Nyorai2 of Immeasurable Light. I take refuge in Inconceivable Light.” So after meditating for five mahakalpas (billions of years or a very long time) Hozo became Amida, The Universal Buddha. Because of his great vow to save us all, Amida-san “radiated immeasurable boundless Light, unimpeded, incomparable, majestic burning Light. Amida’s pure Light of Wisdom, unceasing, indescribable Light that surpasses the sun and moon illuminating its rays on all sentient beings.”

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, he writes that the Living Buddha “is always shining, always enlightening trees, grass, birds, and so on, always emitting Light. It is this Buddha who is preaching now and not just 2500 years ago.”

Hanh, a Zen Buddhist priest, makes the most important point I know of concerning religion and spirituality. It does not really matter what happened millennia ago if it has no relevance for the present moment. Who really cares unless that Light is shining now, calling us to awaken to our destiny?

The enlightened Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius, made this very same point four hundred years ago.3 He writes, “Of what good is Gabriel’s message to Mary, if he cannot give the same message to me.” He is referencing Gabriel, an angel of Light that gave Mary the message4 2000 years ago about being blessed among women, as she would give birth to the Divine. From his perspective Silesius is saying unless I can awaken, unless I can give birth to the Cosmic Christ as well, the message to Mary means little to me personally.

Buddhists believe the very same thing. It is for us to awaken now, and an individual’s enlightenment eons in the past matters little. Buddhists speak of Upaya, or skillful means, that may be used to achieve this Light or Awakening, often called attaining Nirvana or attaining the Pureland.5 The idea of skillful means or techniques comes up in every religion I have ever studied. It raises the old and debated question of faith versus works; do I do it, or is it done for me? And what is the It that needs doing?

An often-quoted line from the Dhammapada6 tries to explain the Buddhist path in terms of what it is that needs doing. “To do good, to shun evil and to purify the mind,” is the advice of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. However, serious Buddhists know these three admonitions are out of order. Purifying the mind is the main issue, the hardest to attain, and the It we are talking about. To do good and to shun evil will follow if the Adept is successful in purifying the mind, bringing pure Light to the spiritual eye7 of enlightenment.

Buddhists are of two minds on how to do It. The Therevadan tradition (often called Hinayana Buddhism) suggests we must do it — this purifying of the mind — by our own diligent and seemingly heroic efforts. This can take many, many lifetimes. After the first few centuries of Buddhism, we see the rise of the much larger Mahayana8 branch of Buddhism that says there is help available. Inherent here is the idea of Bodhisattvas (literally, Light Beings) that help us do it.

In Japanese Buddhism this debate is framed as Jiriki (Self-Power) and Tariki (Other Power.) Amida, Vairocana, and Dainichi are Buddhas of Tariki. In fact, Vairocana and Dainichi are the great Sun Buddhas who shine on us, and Amida’s forty-eight rays of incomparable Light are examples of that Other Power that beckons us to the Light.

I am usually in the middle of this debate about how enlightenment is accomplished. A good Buddhist is often advised to seek the Middle Path. On one side, it is said that all one must do is believe (as in the case of many fundamentalist Christians, among others) or chant the Nembutsu (some Purelanders) and, on the other side, that you must achieve this It (spiritual enlightenment) by your own deeds (Theravada Buddhism), which can take years, or lifetimes, of meditating and chanting.

At the risk of introducing a saint from yet another religion, I offer something said by the great Hindu sage Ramakrishna. He advises, “The winds of grace are always blowing. Our duty is to lift our sails.” Just as easily, we could say that the rays of Amida’s Light are always beaming down on us, or the Sun of Righteousness is always shining on us, but we must be able to utilize the Light. We are told in Taoist and Buddhist circles that our duty (our It) is to learn as well how to circulate9 the Light and to share it with others. That sharing, by the way, is essentially the task of the Bodhisattva, or Being of Light.

In Ramakrishna’s sailing metaphor, the wind of grace may be blowing, but if we do not know how to lift the sails we have no means of arriving at our It, our destination. In the same way, without the mystical techniques and practices taught by the Adepts of Light, we are not able to utilize the intelligence factors in the Light of the Sun.

I visited this whole issue of faith and works some years ago when I was invited to speak at an Episcopal church. From the lectionary (liturgical book of scriptural readings) I found that the Gospel reading for the week was the Parable of the Ten Virgins10. I almost canceled as I reread the verses that frankly had always troubled me. It is the story of ten wise and ten foolish virgins (that is, young women) who were to wait for the Bridegroom. The Bridegroom of course is the One who invites us all to the Cosmic Wedding and the Great Banquet we may think of as the Worlds of Light. The wise ones took some extra oil for their lamps to use while waiting for the Bridegroom.11 

The foolish ones didn’t. As the Bridegroom was delayed, their lamps began to burn out so they asked to borrow oil from the wise virgins, who said no. The Bridegroom came at midnight while the foolish ones were off looking for lamp oil. When they returned late for the wedding banquet, they were not admitted. It had always seemed to me that the Bridegroom (the Divine One) who held the Banquet (in the Pure Land, or the Worlds of Light) would have chastised the wise virgins who had not shared, rather than denying entry to the foolish ones who were tardy at his arrival. But as I reframed — or perhaps decoded —  the parable in my mind, I saw the meaning had to do with preparedness. The wise virgins were ready. They were the Adepts who had spent their lives in preparation to become Light, as Hafiz suggests. It was not a matter of being stingy, of not giving your coat, too, when someone asks for your shirt, but really a teaching concerning not being able to do another’s spiritual work for them.

Jewish mysticism also focuses on Light, with its teaching of “ancilla animae,” literally, the spark of the soul. That spark is fanned into full flame by a Divine source, like Shekinah, the Light of Divine Wisdom. Adepts know that the Divine Breath that breathes life into all is a metaphor for the Light that awakens the sparks into brilliant blaze. Here again, the Spark must be prepared to expose itself to the Source. Hafiz is right. It is our destiny “to turn into Light itself” But some effort on our part seems to be required. The Bridegroom is near. He who has ears, let him hear. In the poem below Hafiz wants to let us know that the Light, the Kingdom/Queendom of God, or The Pure Land, is here among us in this present moment.

The sun’s eyes are painting fields again.

Its lashes with expert strokes are sweeping across the land.

A great palette of light has embraced this earth.

  1. Dharmakara Bodhisattva in Sanskrit
  2. Tathagata (one who comes from thusness or Buddha)
  3. Angelus Silesius is best remembered for his short mystical poetry that expresses his exquisiite and personal relationship with that Light we call God. He was born in 1624 in Breslau and died in 1677.
  4. Luke 1:26-38
  5. The Pure Land as opposed to the Polluted Land. Another way for mystics to express this is the Fifth Dimension of Light (Pure Land) as opposed to the Third Dimension of delusion (the polluted world of matter).
  6. The Dhammapada is thought to be the oldest text that contains words of the historical Buddha. It means something like the Path of Dharma or Truth or Light.
  7. I cannot resist comparing this with Christianity, where Jesus is quoted “If thine eye is single, thy whole body will be full of light.”
  8. Mahayana means “large vehicle or raft,” which can ferry many to the yonder shore of Amida’s Light. Hinayana means “smaller vehicle or raft” suggesting that it is for the very few.
  9. See The Secret of the Golden Flower for more details.
  10. Matthew 25:1-13.
  11. From the Second Prophecy to the Americas, chapter 28: “The light has gone out of the ancient religions as from a lamp without oil for men have lost sight of the sun. No religion can survive if the Light be extinguished.”

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