Feb 20 2013

Mary Oliver – The Buddha’s Last Instruction

Published by at 10:17 am under Poetry

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

— from House of Light, by Mary Oliver

/ Photo by christopher /

This is as much a story as a poem, a retelling of the final moment of the Buddha’s life.

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.

Mm. This simple affirmation of illumination at the moment of death continues to resonate… through the lines of this poem, and through the centuries.

Mary Oliver immediately recognizes this as a statement, not of death, but of renewal and the continuation of life.

I think of this every morning…

We are brought, by Mary Oliver’s line, immediately to the dawn. Not the last dimming of light, but the beginning of the new day.

Knowing it is his last moment, with a life of great striving and penetrating insight behind him, “he might have said anything.” Of all the possible philosophical summations and encapsulations, he chooses instead the radiant wisdom embodied by the sun, which lights and warms the whole world.

The poet seems stunned by such a clear, unencumbered statement with the Buddha’s final breath. Stunned, we stumble into deeper awareness.

clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.

I love these lines. Contemplating the passage of death while affirming the fulness of light and life, somehow we, along with the poet, no longer stand at the center of the world’s narrative.

When we really pay attention to the story being told all around us, a story that’s been unfolding for ages, the attention shifts away from that perpetual certainty that it is all about “me.” But rather than feeling empty or betrayed, we find ourselves alive and aware and filled with a bubbling glee. We find ourselves made of a gossamer-thin tissue of light.

Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

These closing lines are so striking. We’ve had an entire scene laid out for us, villagers gathering to be present at the death of this great teacher. The weak and dying Buddha raises his head and looks into the faces of the crowd… and they are frightened. Now, why is that?

I imagine it is because of what they see in the Buddha’s eyes: the great mystery, naked and unguarded in that last loving glance.

Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935.

As a young writer, Mary Oliver was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and, in fact, as a teenager briefly lived in the home of the recently deceased Millay, helping to organize Millay’s papers.

Mary Oliver attended college at Ohio State University, and later at Vassar College.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is deeply aware of the natural world, particularly the birds and trees and ponds of her adopted state of Massachusetts.

Her collection of poetry “American Primitive” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

More poetry by Mary Oliver

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14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Mary Oliver – The Buddha’s Last Instruction”

  1. Aravindaon 20 Feb 2013 at 1:40 pm

    What a poem! It is one of my favourite poems. I go back to it every once in a while. Thank you for sharing it, Ivan, and thanks for introducing me to this poem in particular.

  2. ellenon 20 Feb 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Ivan, thanks for your comments on the poem. I myself didn’t realize the sun and make of yourself a light. were kind of intertwined.
    i always love the poem whether I “get” it or not. I guess i think or thought it to mean make of yourself a light to brings light to yourself and others.
    sometimes when there is death, it does feel like some great light is around some light that feels different than regular everyday light.

    alot of time i don’t really understand alot of poems. i am so wrapped up in “me” and my aging self and my aches and pains and i forget about love and kindness and the other dimentions around us.

    anyway thank-you. i am a poet even though i don’t always understand poetry.

  3. ellenon 20 Feb 2013 at 3:36 pm

    it’s my birthday today so I am so grateful for this poem,
    i love Buddha and Mary

  4. Madathil Nairon 21 Feb 2013 at 12:30 am

    Buddha didn’t die. He is said to have attained nirvana and these were his last words:
    “And now, O monks, I take my leave of you; all composite things are transitory; strive onward diligently.”
    Ref: http://www.as.miami.edu/phi/bio/Buddha/death.htm

  5. bharation 21 Feb 2013 at 2:13 am

    When i think of my death i see my body diminishing and the life force concentrating as a brightening flame/heart. So if i imagine Buddha’s death or that of any other realised person, that is the end i would imagine.
    When i read Talks with personages like Ramana or Nisargadatta i read the question posed to them and shut the book and give my own answer. Then i read the response they gave. The two are generally very different, yet both seem valid.
    This long note is to express that Mary’s poem is valid, as are historical records. The two do not exclude each other. They add dimensions to the flat narrative (of a multidimensional event) which is all we in this age can access.

  6. Pegon 21 Feb 2013 at 7:56 am

    Oliver’s lyrical poem works within duality and this 3D life. In the past, this would have worked for me without me questioning what she is saying. I love the tempo, phrasing, the story, and the unsuspecting change at the end. It is a beautiful fiction story and I enjoy it. However, it is obvious that Oliver has not reached and does not understand the true workings of spirit, kundalini, how after all the new brain workings and connections are complete that the head is fully encapsulated within the liquid light fountain of ever flowing new life. No lie, falseness could have been spoken.

    At this stage everything is healed within the body; all past and current physical, mental and emotional pain is no longer in the body. The ego is gone and life is all about love, all words and actions resonate in truth as service to oneness. All energy and movement would have been expended within onesness with God, source, or however you choose to name. Therefore, there would have been no exertion, no exhaustion.

    Budda at the moment of his transition to his full lightbody would have recognized his greatness within the greatness of the whole/oneness, which is God/source. There is an expansion not a movement to smallness. Smallness relates to ego and when a student is trying to get the ego under control in order to make spiritual progress towards enlightenment.

    The fear in the crowd could be from the light that would have shown around Budda when he transitioned from his physical body to his full lightbody. Interestingly enough, Oliver does allude to this through most of the poem–the light. The crowd’s fear could be their fear of the loss of Budda or that in the face of ultimate truth, they each have to face their own fear. The first time I looked at my fear, the deep down dark black ball of goo, it was scarey. After doing so, though, all that gunk was so trivial and minor, a mountain that is blown away by a gentle wind.

    I was not afraid of dying. I was most definately afraid of physical pain. Death just didn’t make sense to me at some level that I could never put words to. Now, I know that I do not and will not die, I will take a breath into my lightbody.

    Happy Birthday Ellen and thank you so much for your comments. Much love and blessings to all, Peg

  7. Jimon 21 Feb 2013 at 11:32 am

    Thank you Ivan
    The beauty of your insight is breathtaking.

  8. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 24 Feb 2013 at 8:27 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for your choice and commentary. So simple and profound. I will use the mantra “make of yourself the light.” throughout the day. And thanks to those who comment. You teach me too.
    Blessings Therese Monaghan

  9. Rena Navonon 25 Feb 2013 at 12:30 pm

    “clearly I’m not needed,
    yet I feel myself turning
    into something of inexplicable value.”

    This paradox rings true to me in some mysterious sense I would love to realize as well as believe. A spirit of wonder, Mary Oliver never ceases to marvel at the endless surprises streaming through her physical world and being shared by her senses. I am always humbled by her infinite flow of energy and enthusiasm. She is superwoman in nature.

  10. […] See Mary Oliver’s poem “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” for a gorgeous rendering of that exquisite moment. Share this:MoreLike this:Like Loading… […]

  11. […] Make of yourself a light. […]

  12. Trust | Nothing Profoundon 25 Feb 2014 at 10:18 am

    […] – See more at: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2013/02/20/mary-oliver-the-buddhas-last-instruction/#sthash.gSF… […]

  13. Judithon 31 Aug 2018 at 8:10 am

    There is also looking into the face of fear. Remembering that Buddha was a man with fears to face.

  14. June Schulteon 17 Jan 2019 at 5:28 pm

    On this, Mary Oliver’s day of transformation from this life into the next…

    I have always read this poem as about Reincarnation. You get to the last line, feel slightly confused wondering what you missed, and start to read it again. Only then is it fulfilled.

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