This is a nice quote, but every time I saw it being shared in social media or quoted in blogs it rang an alarm bell: not because the sentiment is untrue, nor because the language was of the kind that the Buddha wouldn’t have used, but simply because in many years of reading the Pali canon and various Mahayana sutras I’d never seen it in a primary source, nor had I seen it come with a scriptural citation.
I was very grateful to have a commenter suggest that it might come from one of the works of Nichiren Daishonin, but I wasn’t able to track down the reference he gave me. However with a little searching I was able to locate the original in a passage known as “The Three Virtues of Food,” which is a fragment of a letter, written by Nichiren, possibly in 1278:
If one gives food to others, one will improve one’s own lot, just as, for example, if one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.
This is a different translation but it’s from the same original.
Nichiren’s followers regard him as a Buddha, but when a quote is attributed to the Buddha then it’s Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) that is meant, and these are not the words of the founder of Buddhism.
Again, this isn’t to question the spiritual validity of the quote. I just want to straighten out false attributions.
The most common use of a lamp metaphor in the Pali canon is not actually something said by the Buddha, but something said to the Buddha, by many who had come to talk with him. Having learned from their exchanges, these learners would exclaim, in a stock phrase,
Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear.
Nichiren’s saying is a nice reminder that when we shine our own lamp of knowledge, as the Buddha did, it illuminates the way for others as well.
One of the loveliest statements of mutual benefit that I’ve seen is from the Sedaka Sutta, and although there’s no mention of lamps I’d like to share it with you:
“I will look after myself,”
so should you, monks, practice the establishment of mindfulness.
You should (also) practice the establishment of mindfulness (by saying)
“I will look after others.”
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.