Nov 17 2023

Mary Oliver – The Buddha’s Last Instruction

Published by at 9:39 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

/ Image by Tyler Nix /

Like all of you I have been profoundly upset by the war on Gaza. What can one do but feel anguish when witnessing so much death and destruction and displacement? We can turn away, of course. Or we can numb ourselves with rationalizations. Or we can shrug our shoulders and declare it to be tragic for those people over there.

Seeing an entire population as a problem is an invitation for disaster. Nations inevitably try to contain or eliminate such “problems.” But those policies are doomed to fail. Trauma leads to rage, rage leads to more violence, more violence leads to new trauma. And so the terrible circle expands. Sometimes slowly, sometimes with horrifying rapidity.

What can we as individuals do? There are always actions we can take, appropriate to our own lives, whether that is pressuring our politicians, engaging in conversation and respectful debate, protesting… I try to regularly ask myself what is it I feel called to do?

While action and asserting oneself is important, there is something more fundamental. We need to be inwardly connected, centered, aware. Action and stillness both naturally proceed from that center point. When we are at rest within the awakened heart, we naturally radiate out into the world. Our actions take on a flow and strength and clarity. All the while stillness remains with us.

As Mary Oliver’s Buddha says, let us make of ourselves a light. Then we naturally shine. Effortlessly, we touch the world around us, warming it, bringing healing and comfort and illumination.

Speaking up is important. But being a bright presence in the world is everything.


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 through 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.

Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
More Books >>

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

US (1935 – 2019) Timeline
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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4 responses so far

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

  1. DesertDebon 17 Nov 2023 at 1:17 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    Thankyou for your continued curation of fine poems. But I must caringly offer that wars and other abuses toward humanity are the outpucturing result of vast error consciousness. Yes, many suffer, whether in body or mind. In truth, God’s peace and love are everlasting and unchangeable. I hold this truth with love for all humankind.

  2. Barbara Clarkon 17 Nov 2023 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you, thank you for this poem and your comments. It gives me insight into an experience two years ago during an emergency surgery…it was surgery or die with a significant chance that I would not live through the surgery. When I awoke there were only three words bubbling from my soul…”Be the Light”. The journey since then in my old age (80’s) has been quite different than before…Be the Light casts a very different “light’ on all the people I meet and associate with since that time…they share from their hearts.

  3. Carolon 19 Nov 2023 at 4:49 am

    Thank You Ivan for this poem by Mary Oliver. She was the first poet who started my
    love of poetry and I have been very thankful for her writing. I got out my House of
    Light book and found I had noted this poem ‘The Buddha’s Last Instruction’ back
    through all those years, and now we certainly can use her remembrance of the
    Buddha’s instruction through these difficult times.

  4. Naseemoon 24 Nov 2023 at 8:21 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    Thank you for the wonderful poems you send and for your inspiring thoughts and insights.
    I appreciate your mails !
    May God guide us all to peace and may He light our lives …
    Thanks again.
    Take care,

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