CASE #19: One Small Candle
Shakyamuni taught: “As the light of a small candle will spread from one to another in succession, so the light of the Buddha’s compassion will pass from one mind to another endlessly.”
A small candle The earliest known candles appeared in China around 200 B.C.E. The term used in many early Buddhist texts, including the Dhammapada, may refer to the small wick-fed oil lamps which were popular in India and the surrounding regions from Neolithic times. It may also refer to small torches made by soaking rushes in fatty oil. A two-foot rush lamp would burn for up to one hour. A smaller one could be used to transport a flame from one place to another. This smaller “hand torch” is probably the origin of the Buddha’s simile.
There are two ways a candle flame can be extinguished. The first is when the wind or some other force acts upon it. To keep this from happening, we can cup our hands around it, or build a permanent housing made of paper, stone, or glass. The second involves simply letting it burn. For even if no other force acts upon it, eventually the fuel will be exhausted, and the flame will go out. The only way to protect the flame is by passing it on to other candles.
This truth of this is as old as the planet itself. Each species is a flame handed down from deep time to deep future from one individual to the next. Protecting the Self is like protecting the candle. Protecting the Other is like protecting the flame.
Do you want to know
How Buddha Shakyamuni
Made the whole world bright?
Don’t worry about candles,
Do worry about the light!
Read all the Green Koans.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.