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​Lit Lamp

A lit candle or lamp is one of the six common offerings people make to the Buddha, besides water, perfume, flowers, food, and burning incense. These six common material offerings symbolize the Six Paramitas. Water shows generosity; perfume represents holding the precepts; flowers show patience; food stands for concentration; the lamp represents wisdom; and, finally, burning incense symbolizes diligence. Since ancient times, flowers, burning incense, and lit lamps or candles have been the most common offerings.
Depending on their functions, there are two kinds of lamp offerings. While an ordinary lamp is lit only during services or sutra chanting, a longer-lasting lamp constantly stays on, day and night.
The Buddhist origin of lighting lamps comes from the story of a poor woman's lamp offering in the chapter called "Poor Woman Nanda" found in the Damamūka Nidāna Sutra (Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish).

The Lamp Offered by the Poor Woman Is Never Extinguished 

During the Buddha's time, in the country of Sravasti in India, there lived a poor woman named Nanda, who lived by begging. One day, she saw everyone in the country making offerings to the Buddha and the Sanga to the best of their abilities. However, when she looked at herself, she reflected that the karma she had created in the past had caused her to be poor and unable to make offerings to the Buddha in this life. In addition to feeling remorseful, she then deeply repented. She vowed to beg harder than ever so that she could make offerings to the Buddha. She even took the only coin she acquired from begging the whole day to buy oil for the lamp offering.
The keeper of the oil shop told her that her coin was only enough to buy a meager amount of oil, and asked her for what purpose she needed the oil. Upon hearing her wish, the shopkeeper took pity on her and gave her enough oil to light a lamp. Nanda happily took the oil to the Buddha's monastery (Vihara) and put the oil in a lamp among many lighted lamps offered to the Buddha. She sincerely prayed: "May the merit of this lamp give me wisdom in the next life and eliminate the vexation and ignorance of all sentient beings." She left after lighting up the lamp and making prostrations.

By midnight, most of the lamps had burnt out, yet the lamp offered by Nanda was still on. When day broke, Mahamaudgalyayana noticed that the lamp appeared to be newly lit. Thinking that the lamplight was no longer needed in the daylight, he took to snuffing it out. Yet he could not extinguish the lamp, even after repeated attempts. Seeing this, the Buddha told him, "You will not be able to extinguish this lamplight, even with all the water of the four great seas or the strongest and wildest wind, because this lamp was offered by a person who has aroused the great Bodhi Mind."
At this time, Nanda had just returned to pay homage to the Buddha again. The Buddha then told her: in the life after two kalpas, you will become a Buddha, and your name will be the Lamplight Buddha." Hearing the Buddha's words, Nanda became very joyful and immediately asked to be admitted to the monastic life. The Buddha granted her request, and she joined the sangha.
Because of this story, Buddhists believe that the lamp offering to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will bring about great merits, and the tradition of lamp offering has been passed down to this day.

Many Benefits of the Lamp Offering

Many sutras mention the benefits of lamp offerings. For example, in the Pradipadaniya Sutra (the Sutra of the Buddha Speaking the Merits of Offering Lamps), the Buddha explains that those who offer lamps to the Buddhas will acquire a dignified appearance, abundant wealth, and great wisdom.
The Sutra of the Buddhaʼs Explanation for the Layman Śuka of Distinctions in Karmic Retribution also mentions the ten merits from offering oil lamps or candles to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, including great fortune, the divine eye, beneficial wisdom in distinguishing between wholesome and unwholesome states, gaining rebirths in the mundane worlds yet always staying out of trouble, the speedy realization of nirvana, etc.  Such sutra passages related to the benefits and merits of lamp offering reinforce Buddhists' faith in lighting the lamps. Buddhists hope to use the resulting merits and benefits to enhance the practice of the path and its resources.

Resource: Issue 294 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Text: Chiu Hui-min (邱惠敏)
Translation: Yeh Shu-jen
Editing: Alvin, Keith Brown

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