“If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your own path.”


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.

10 thoughts on ““If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your own path.””

  1. I would like to share some of your translations and quotes. Plus I’m happy to attribute the quote as you have corrected. But how do I best give credit to your work, translations and site along with the original author.

    In this case for instance, I can post:
    “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.”

    But then how do I give due credit to your work too?

    1. Hi, Jyozen. You can reference anything I’ve written here by referring to the title of the website, the relevant post’s URL, and my name (Bodhipaksa).

      1. 「人のために灯をともせば、
        “If you light a lamp for a person (people),
        In front of you also becomes bright. “ Nichiren
        I read this in a book of quotes. The translation is as close as I can get.

        1. Thanks. Your translation isn’t very different from what’s above: “If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.”

  2. Here’s more details.

    The Three Kinds of Treasure

    I have received the various articles from your messenger, including a white quilted robe and a string of coins, as well as the goods mentioned in Lord Toki’s1 letter. The persimmons, pears, and fresh and dried seaweed are particularly welcome.

    I am most grieved over your lord’s illness. Although he has not professed faith in the Lotus Sutra, you are a member of his clan, and it is thanks to his consideration that you are able to make offerings to the sutra. Therefore, all of your gifts are in effect prayers for your lord’s recovery. Think of a small tree under a large one, or grass by a great river. Though they do not receive rain or water directly, they nonetheless thrive, partaking of dew from the large tree or drawing moisture from the river. The same holds true with the relationship between you and your lord. To give another example, King Ajatashatru was an enemy of the Buddha. But because Jivaka,2 a minister in the king’s court, believed in the Buddha and continually made offerings to him, the blessings accruing from his actions are said to have returned to Ajatashatru.

    Buddhism teaches that when the Buddha nature manifests itself from within, it will obtain protection from without. This is one of its fundamental principles. The Lotus Sutra says, I have profound reverence for you.’ The Nirvana Sutra states, ‘All living beings alike possess the Buddha nature.’ Bodhisattva Ashvaghosha’s Kishin ron3 says, ‘The essential truth of mind constantly permeates and exerts its influence. Therefore, when [the attainment of enlightenment] quickly causes illusions to cease to be, the body of the Law will manifest itself.”4 Bodhisattva Miroku’s Yuga ron5 contains a similar statement. What is unseen will be rewarded with visible results.

    The Devil of the Sixth Heaven probably knew the aforementioned principle, and he therefore possessed your colleagues, causing them to invent that preposterous lie6 in order to prevent you from making offerings to the Lotus Sutra. However, since your faith is profound, the ten demon daughters must have come to your aid and thus caused your lord’s illness. He does not regard you as his enemy, but since he once acted against you in giving credit to the false accusations of your colleagues, he has become seriously ill and the malady persists.

    Ryuzo-bo,7 whom these people count on as their pillar of strength, has already been toppled, and those who spoke falsely of you have contracted the same disease as Ryuzo-bo. Ryokan is even more slanderous than they. He will probably encounter some bad accident, or stir up major trouble and find himself in serious distress. Surely he will not escape unharmed.

    As things stand now, I have a feeling you are in danger. Your enemies are sure to make an attempt on your life. In backgammon, if two stones of the same color are placed side by side, they cannot be hit by an opposing stone. A cart, as long as it has two wheels, does not lurch all over the road. Likewise, if two men go together, an enemy will hesitate to attack. Therefore, no matter what faults you may find with your younger brothers, do not let them leave you alone even for a moment.

    Your face bears definite signs of a hot temper. But you should know that the gods will not protect a short-tempered person, no matter how important they may think he is. If you should be killed, even though you might attain Buddhahood after your death, your enemies would be delighted, but we would feel only grief. This would indeed be regrettable. While your foes busy themselves plotting against you, your lord places greater confidence in you than before. Therefore, although they appear to have quieted down, inwardly they are no doubt seething with hate. So you should at all times behave unobtrusively in their presence. Pay greater respect to the other retainers of the clan than you have in the past. For the time being, when members of the Hojo clan are visiting your lord, refrain from calling on him, even if he should summon you.

    If the worst should happen and your lord should die, your enemies would become masterless and would have nowhere to turn, though they do not seem to consider that fact. Unreasoning as they are, when they see you report to work more and more frequently, their hearts are bound to be fired with jealousy and their breath to come in pants.

    If the members of the Hojo clan or the wives of those in power should inquire about your lord’s illness, no matter who the person may be, get down on your knees, place your hands properly, and reply thus: “His malady is entirely beyond my poor skill to cure. But no matter how often I decline, he insists that I treat him. Since I am in his service, I cannot help but do as he says.” Leave your sidelocks uncombed, and refrain from wearing well-starched court dress, bright quilted robes or other colorful clothing. Be patient and continue in this way for the time being.

    Perhaps you are well aware of it, but let me cite the Buddha’s prediction about what the latter age will be like. In essence he states, “It will be a muddied age in which even a sage will find it difficult to live. He will be like a stone in a great fire, which for a while seems to endure the heat but finally chars and crumbles to ashes. Worthy men will advocate the five constant virtues,8 but they themselves will find it hard to practice them.” Thus the saying goes, “Do not remain in the seat of honor too long.”

    Many people have plotted to undo you, but you have avoided their intrigues and emerged victorious. Should you lose your composure now and fall into their trap, you will be, as people say, like a boatman who rows his boat with all his might only to have it capsize just before he reaches the shore, or like a person who is served no hot water at the end of his meal.

    While you are in your lord’s residence, if you stay in the room assigned to you, nothing will happen to you. But on your way to work at dawn or returning from it at dusk, your enemies are bound to be lying in wait for you. Also, be very careful in and around your house in case someone should be hiding beside the double doors, inside the family sanctuary, under the floor or in the space above the ceiling. This time your foes will use even more cunning in their plots than before. In the end, no one will be more dependable in an emergency than the night watchmen of Egara9 in Kamakura. No matter how disagreeable it may be to you, you should associate with them amicably.

    Yoshitsune10 found it utterly impossible to defeat the Heike until he won Shigeyoshi11 over to his side and in that way vanquished the rival clan. The shogun [Minamoto no Yoritomo12] sought to take revenge on Osada13 for his father’s death, but he would not behead the murderer until after he had conquered the Heike. It is even more vital for you to [master your emotions and] ally yourself with the four night watchmen. They had risked their lives to acquire their dwellings, and these were confiscated by their lord because of their faith in the Lotus Sutra, but more directly, because of their belief in Nichiren. Be considerate of those who believe in Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra, no matter what they may have done in the past. Moreover, if they frequent your house, your enemies will be afraid to attack you at night. It is not as if they were trying to avenge their fathers’ deaths; certainly they do not want their plot to come out into the open. To one such as you who must avoid being seen, these four are the most dependable warriors. Always maintain friendly relations with them. But since you are hot-tempered by nature, you might not take my advice. In that case, it will be beyond the power of my prayers to save you.

    Ryuzo-bo and your elder brother plotted evil against you. Therefore, heavenly gods so contrived that the situation would develop exactly as you wished. Then how can you now dare to go against the wish of the heavenly gods! Even if you had accumulated a thousand or ten thousand treasures, of what use would they be if your lord should forsake you! He already looks to you as if you were his own parent, following you as water follows the shape of its container, longing for you as a calf longs for its mother, relying on you as an elderly person relies on his staff. Is his regard for you not due to the aid of the Lotus Sutra! How envious your fellow retainers must be! You must hurry and bring the four men over to your side and report to me how the matter goes. Then I will fervently pray to the heavenly gods for your protection. I have already informed them of how deeply you grieve over your deceased father and mother. Shakyamuni Buddha will surely extend them his especial consideration.

    Over and over I recall the moment,14 unforgettable even now, when I was about to be beheaded and you accompanied me, holding the reins of my horse and weeping tears of grief. Nor could I ever forget it in any lifetime to come. If you should fall into hell for some grave offense, no matter how Shakyamuni might urge me to become a Buddha, I would refuse; I would rather go to hell with you. For if you and I should fall into hell together, we would find Shakyamuni Buddha and the Lotus Sutra there. It would be like the moon illuminating the darkness, like cold water pouring into hot, like fire melting ice, or like the sun dispelling the darkness. But if you depart from my advice even slightly, then do not blame me for what may happen.

    The plague which is raging at present will, as you predict, strike those in the higher ranks of society at the turn of the year. This is perhaps the design of the ten demon daughters. For the time being stay calm and observe how things develop. And do not go around lamenting to others how hard it is for you to live in this world. To do so is an act utterly unbecoming to a worthy man. If a man behaves in this way, then after he dies, his wife, overcome with sorrow at losing her husband, will tell other people about the shameful things he did, though she has no real intention of doing so. And that will in no way be her fault but solely the result of his own reprehensible behavior.

    It is rare to be born a human being. The number of those endowed with human life is as small as the amount of earth one can place on a fingernail. Life as a human being is hard to sustain-as hard as it is for the dew to remain on the grass. But it is better to live a single day with honor than to live to one hundred and twenty and die in disgrace. Live so that all the people of Kamakura will say in your praise that Nakatsukasa Saburo Saemon-no-jo is diligent in the service of his lord, in the service of Buddhism, and in his concern for other people. More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all. From the time you read this letter on, strive to accumulate the treasures of the heart!

    I would like to relate an incident that is customarily kept secret. In the history of Japan, there have been two emperors who were assassinated. One of them was Emperor Sushun. He was the son of Emperor Kimmei and an uncle of Prince Shotoku.15 One day during his reign as the thirty-third sovereign, he summoned Prince Shotoku and said, “We hear that you are a man of holy wisdom. Examine Our physiognomy and tell Us what you see there!” The prince declined three times, but the emperor insisted that he obey the imperial command. Finally, no longer able to refuse, the prince reverently examined Sushun’s physiognomy and then reported, “Your Majesty’s countenance indicates that you will be assassinated by someone.”

    The emperor’s complexion changed color. “What evidence do you have to support such a contention?” he asked. The prince replied, “I see red veins running over your eyes. This is a sign that you will incur the enmity of others.” Thereupon the emperor asked, “How can We escape this fate?” The prince said, “It is difficult to evade. But there are soldiers known as the five constant virtues. As long as you keep these warriors on your side, you will be safe from danger. In the Buddhist scriptures these soldiers are referred to as ‘forbearance,’ one of the six paramitas.”

    For some time after that, Emperor Sushun faithfully observed the practice of forbearance. But, being irascible by nature, he violated the precept one day when one of his subjects presented him with a young wild boar. He withdrew the metal rod that was attached to his sword scabbard and stabbed the boar in the eyes with it, saying, “One of these days this is what We will do to that fellow We hate!” Prince Shotoku, who happened to be present, exclaimed, “Ah, what a fearful thing to do! Your Majesty will surely arouse the enmity of others. These very words you have spoken will be the sword that wounds you.” The prince then ordered articles of value to be brought out and divided among those who had heard the emperor’s remark, [hoping to buy their silence]. One of them, however, told the high minister Soga no Umako16 about the episode. Umako, believing that he was the one the emperor hated, won over Atai Goma, son of Azumanoaya no Atai Iwai, and had him kill the emperor.

    Thus even a ruler on a throne must take care not to give unreserved expression to his thoughts. The worthy man Confucius held to his belief, “Nine thoughts to one word,” which means that he reconsidered nine times before he spoke. Tan, the Duke of Chou,17 was so earnest in receiving callers that he would wring out his hair three times in the course of washing it, or spit out his food three times in the course of a meal, [in order not to keep them waiting]. Think carefully about what I mean by this so you will have no cause to reproach me later. Such care and circumspection is surely a part of Buddhism.

    The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is expounded in the Fukyo chapter. What does Bodhisattva Fukyo’s [Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s] profound respect for people signify? The real meaning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance in this world lay in his behavior as a human being. How profound! The wise may be called human, but the thoughtless are no more than animals.


    The eleventh day of the ninth month in the third year of Kenji (1277), cyclical sign hinoto-ushi

    Reply to Lord Shijo Saemon-no-jo

    Lord Toki: See P. 261.
    Jivaka: See P. 250, footnote 11.
    Daijo Kishin Ron: “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana,” a treatise which preaches the fundamental doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism And attempts to awaken people to true faith. It has been widely read by Mahayana sects and there are many commentaries on it.
    Property-of-Law aspect of life: One of the three properties of the Buddha’s life. See Three properties in the Glossary.
    Maitreya’s Yuga Ron: “Treatise on the Yogachara Practice,” translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Hsuan-tsang during the T’ang dynasty. It is said to have been dictated to Asanga by Maitreya – not Shakyamuni’s contemporary and close disciple but a Buddhist scholar of third- or fourth-century India.
    That preposterous lie: The report made by Shijo Kingo’s colleagues to Lord Ema that he forcibly tried to disrupt the Kuwagayatsu debate in order to embarrass Ryuzo-bo.
    Ryuzo-bo: A priest of the Tendai sect. He originally lived at Enryaku-ji temple on Mt. Hiei, the head temple of the Tendai sect, but was banished from Mt. Hiei for allegedly eating human flesh. Later, he appeared in Kamakura and continued preaching from a cottage at Kuwagayatsu. Although be came to enjoy considerable popularity, he was defeated in debate by the Daishonin’s disciple, Sammi-bo, in June 1277.
    Five great principles of humanity: Also called the five constant virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and good faith. They ” ere set forth by Confucianism as the principles by which one should always abide.
    Night watchmen of Egara: Shijo Kingo’s four younger brothers. Their lands were confiscated on account of their belief in the Daishonin’s teachings. forcing them to take the lowly position of night watchmen.
    Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159 – 1189): A younger half brother of Mina moto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura government. In 1180, when Yoritomo raised an army against the rival Taira or Heike clan, Yoshitsune joined forces with him and later defeated the Taira army- After the battle, Yoshitsune incurred Yoritomo’s displeasure and escaped to the northern part of Japan. but was finally killed by a powerful family it) that district.
    Shigeyoshi: Taguchi Shigeyoshi, the head of a powerful family in Awa, a province in the southern part of Japan. Though a member of the Taira clan, he informed Yoshitsune of the internal conditions of the Taira family as well as the weak points of their position. This helped bring about the downfall of the Taira clan.
    Minamoto no Yoritomo (1 147 1 199): The founder of the Kamakura shogunate. He defeated the rival Taira clan at the final battle of Dantio-Lira in 1185, and established a military government in Kamakura. However, he made no attempt to dismantle the government machinery already in existence in Kyoto and deliberately sought recognition for his actions from the emperor and the court. In 1192 be succeeded in obtaining the prestigious military title of shogun.
    Osada: Osada Tadamune, a samurai in Owari Province in central Japan. In 1159 Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the father of Yoritomo, battled with the Taira army and was defeated. Fleeing, he hid at the house of Osada Tadamune. On the Tairas’ order, Osada led Yoshitomo into the bath and there killed him. Later, when Yoritomo raised an army, Tadamune and his son, Kagemune, sided with Yoritomo, but were killed at Yoritomo’s command after the fall of the Tairas.
    The moment: A reference to the Tatsunokuchi Persecution.
    Shotoku: See p. 13, footnote 30
    Soga no Umako (d. 626): The chief minister, who Succeeded to this position in 570 upon the death of his father, Soga no Iname. In 587, he defeated the Mononobe family, the strongest opponents of Buddhism. In the following year the prince chosen by Umako ascended the throne to become Emperor Shushun. Under the protection of the Soga clan, Buddhism soon began to flourish, and by the end of the sixth century it was well established in the Yamato area. Unfortunately, Soga no Umako’s political record did not favor pious efforts to promote Buddhism, for he proceeded to consolidate his power by acts of outrageous treachery. He had Emperor Sushun assassinated, and placed on the throne his own niece, Empress Suiko.
    Tan, the Duke of Chou: Younger brother of Emperor Wu. After Wu’s death, Ch’eng, Emperor Wu’s son, was still a child, so Tan administered the affairs of state for him as regent.
    Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. 2.


    Designed by Will Kallander

  3. Daisaku Ikeda writes on page 93 of Faith in Action:

    “Nichiren Daishonin writes, “If you light a lantern for another, it will also brighten your way” (Gosho Zenshu, p. 1898) Please be confident that the higher your flame of altruistic action burns, the more its light will suffuse your life with happiness. Those who possess an altruistic spirit are the happiest people of all.”

    Am aware of the differences between the True Buddha and Historical Buddha depending on which Buddhist sect one subscribes to.

  4. I think you missed the point on your comment ” 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.” It’s the opposite.
    The quote says when you brightens SOME ELSE’s path it will illuminates yours. That means when you stop being selfish and do something for somebody else, you end up learning something or getting gratification by doing it.

  5. Thank you so much for clarifying it! Great job with the research and studies.
    Keep the good work my friend 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.