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Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
In a letter Nichiren wrote 700 years ago in appreciation of the sincere offerings made by a devout woman named Onichi-nyo, there is a passage which reads: "A poor woman cut off her hair and sold it to buy oil [for the Buddha], and not even the winds sweeping down from Mount Sumeru could extinguish the flame of the lamp fed by this oil." ("Reply to Onichi-nyo," WND-1, 1089) This story is derived from a Buddhist scripture and is known widely as "The Poor Woman's Lamp":
In the days of Shakyamuni Buddha there was a state called Magadha in ancient India. The well-known city Rajagriha was the capital where the king of this state resided. An old woman lived nearby. A person of profound faith, she had always yearned to offer something precious to the Buddha, but, alone and poor as she was, she could not fulfill her desire.
One day on the street, the old woman encountered a long procession of carts carrying a large quantity of flax oil. Upon asking, she learned that the oil was a donation which Ajatashatru, the king of the country, was sending to the Buddha. Deeply moved, the old woman also longed to make an offering, but she had no money whatsoever. She decided to cut off her own hair and sell it. (Some say she had saved a little from the alms she had received.) With that money she bought a small amount of flax oil and went to offer it to the Buddha. She thought: "With so little oil a lamp will burn only half a night. However, if the Buddha recognizes my faith and feels compassion for me, then the lamp will burn throughout the night."
Her wish was fulfilled and the lamp continued to burn throughout the night, while all the other lamps went out in the strong winds that blew from the direction of Mount Sumeru. When day broke, people tried to blow it out, but, on the contrary, her lamp continued to glow all the more, so brightly as to illuminate almost the entire world.
Then Shakyamuni Buddha scolded his disciples who were doing everything possible to extinguish the glowing light: "Stop! Stop! This old woman made offerings to eighteen million Buddhas in her previous existences and received a prophecy from a Buddha in her last life that she would attain Buddhahood." Shakyamuni Buddha then proclaimed that in the future she would certainly become a Buddha called Lamp Light Sumeru.
Needless to say, upon hearing that, the old woman was overjoyed. By contrast, Ajatashatru, even though he had donated tens of thousands of times as much oil as the old woman, could not receive a prophecy of enlightenment because he had an overwhelming sense of arrogance within himself. related article On Practice SGI President Daisaku Ikeda on the practice of Nichiren Buddhism from Discussions on Youth—For the Protagonists of the Twenty-first Century.
This is a parable, of course, but I think it could be considered philosophical in that it holds a great deal of meaning. What "The Poor Woman's Lamp" teaches us--more than anything else--is the value of sincerity. It is true that people preoccupied with mundane affairs might not have taken the slightest notice of the dedication she expressed in offering the small amount of oil.
But Shakyamuni was indeed a man of penetrating insight. You can no more sever the ties of sincerity which bind human beings to one another in the depths of their lives than you can cut through water or air. Even when all other things wane and collapse into the whirlpool of life's relentless difficulties, such sincerity will only glow all the more brilliantly. I cannot help but feel that, in the light of the lamp which the old woman offered, Shakyamuni saw the light of life which never fades away.
It is not the material worth of an offering but the spirit behind it that counts. The poor woman's single lamp meant far more than the 5,000 barrels of lamp oil which Ajatashatru, the ruler of that country, donated to the Buddha. The little lamp contained the sincerity that a nameless woman felt with her entire being. A mind which attaches importance even to the slightest matters, and which loves and treasures even seemingly insignificant things, can profoundly move people even through a small act.