The candleholder, together with the incense burner and flower vase, are the typical offering vessels placed in front of the Buddha. Candleholders come in a rich profusion of shapes and styles and are typically deco-rated with auspicious symbols. Besides their function of providing light, lighting candles also symbolizes that the Buddha’s light shines everywhere.
In ancient India oil lamps were commonly offered to the Buddha. When wax candles were developed, the unique “candleholder” vessel developed from a rede-sign of the oil lamp. Metal candleholders may be made from copper, iron, or tin, though there are also candle-holders made from wood and stone. The wealthy some-times had candleholders cast in gold and silver.
The main function of the candleholder is to keep the candle upright and easy to light. Candleholders in-crease the height of a candle and the distance it can illuminate, and they catch the dripping wax from the candle for safety and cleanliness.
Candles come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and so do candleholders. If you’ve visited a temple, made offerings to the Buddha, or have a family shrine at home, then you’re certainly familiar with me. We candleholders are made from so many kinds of metals; we’re even carved from wood. Candles are one of the ten offerings made to show respect to the Buddha. Without the traditional offering of light, we candleholders would not be in such high demand. You can see that candles and I are just like bosom buddies—inseparable you might say. There are as many different names for candles as there are shapes and sizes. The worshippers at the shrines of the city god and sea goddess only see normal size candles. But the devotees who go to Bud-dhist temples really get to see something special. They see huge one-thousand-pound candles with my friends and I standing as tall as a man!
With the advance of science, the candle is gradually being re-placed by the electric light. Some modern monasteries located in large cities use lamps that are made to look like candles in candle-holders. These lamps are very impressive, but when I first started seeing them, I couldn’t understand why people didn’t just use regular lights instead of lamps designed to look like candles. Were they trying to trick worshippers and the Buddha into thinking that they were offering candles? Eventually I came to understand that the point was to offer light, which, along with candles, could in-clude any lamp or electric light. I decided that I could accept these changes as long as there was still a place for me! But what I couldn’t accept was that some candles used in the temple were made from animal fat! Not only were people not accumulating merits using these candles, unwholesome karma was being created by the actu-al killing of the animals. The Buddha looks with compassion upon all sentient beings and must lament how foolish they are!
Not only am I used for holding candles but I’m also made for ornamental purposes. I’m placed at each side of the statue of the Buddha in the middle of the Great Hall. Sometimes things are busy in the monastery, and sometimes things are slow. The first and the fifteenth of each month and during special Dharma functions are my busiest times. During these events, people come from far and near to make offerings of incense and candles. When it’s really busy, the monastic in charge of the offerings might rearrange or even remove some of the incense and candles that have been burn-ing for a while to make room for the offerings of others.
One time, an elderly gentleman brought his son with him to the temple to pay their respects to the Buddha. Since there were many people making offerings that day, the monastic in charge removed the elderly man’s candles not long after he had offered them. The man became upset thinking that he had wasted his money, so he took his son and left the temple. On their way home, the son was suddenly struck with an illness and died, leaving the father stricken by grief. The father bought a coffin and arranged to have his son’s body sent home. When he reached his house, the father couldn’t believe his eyes! Was that his son he saw waiting for him, or was it a ghost, he wondered. The son greeted him explaining how he had gotten lost in the midst of the many pilgrims at the temple and returned home by himself. The old man looked at the coffin. He cautiously opened it. Inside, instead of his son’s body, the old man found two large candles just like the ones he had offered at he temple. Placed on top of the candles was a small piece of paper with characters written on it. “These were not offered with sincer-ity,” the old man read. “Return to the owner.” At that moment, the man realized the message of the returned candles. He realized that when making offerings what matters most to the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas is an honest and sincere heart. It’s not important how long the offerings sit on the altar.
There have been times in the past when people haven’t need-ed me. At one time people carried my candle friends in lanterns, allowing the travelers of old to make their way in the darkness. Today people have the convenience of flashlights, but now few want to get out and enjoy the beauty and mystery of nature. Many would rather spend their evenings in nightclubs, indulging in sen-sual pleasures. In ancient times candles not only brought light to darkness but were also believed to protect from evil. When candles burn, they drip wax that looks just like falling teardrops. Sadly, the light from candles is not strong enough to illuminate the whole world. I have seen misguided people spreading the seeds of un-wholesomeness and ignorance—lying, stealing, and seeking sen-sual pleasure. When I see this happening, how can I contain my tears? What greater sacrifice can a candle make than to burn itself out serving humanity and bringing light to the darkness of the Saha world?
While candles are symbols of light and purity, the Saha world still contains evil and darkness. An egregious example of this evil is something that was practiced long ago. Criminals would be cov-ered with oil, set on fire, and burned like candles. They would suf-fer horrible deaths! I care deeply about the dignity of all sentient beings. The anguish I felt at this treatment of people at the hands of their fellow human beings just melted my heart with sorrow.
In ending my story, I want to remind everyone that when mak-ing an offering to the Buddha, a sincere and honest heart is what is important, no matter what form of light is usedâ€”an electric lamp light or the light from a candle. Finally, I exhort everyone to be mindful of the sacrifice of the candle. Work to spread the light of the Buddhaâ€™s teachings and to illuminate the darkness of the Saha world!
Only through determination
can failure in the past
be a mirror for behavior in the future.
Only through perseverance
can the moment of obstacle
be a power to promote success.
Venerable Master Hsing Yun grants voices to the objects of daily monastic life to tell their stories in this collection of first-person narratives.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Chi:Guanyin) has been a source of inspiration and devotion for Mahayana Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Asia for centuries.
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