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Festivals of Light - Buddhism

Seated Buddha, 1700-1800. Museum no. IM.227-1920

Seated Buddha, Tibet, 1700-1800. Museum no. IM.227-1920. This image of the seated Buddha Sakyamuni is cast in copper and gilded; the facial features and hair are painted. An image of this size would have been made for worship in a temple in Tibet, where it would have stood behind an altar.

Buddhism dates back to the 6th century BC and was founded by a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who was later given the name of Buddha.

Legend recounts that he was born miraculously from his mother's right side, his limbs shining like the sun with dazzling brilliance. He was married at 16 and had a wife and son. When he was 29 he was exposed to human suffering (poverty, illness and old age) and as a result left home and wandered as a beggar and an ascetic.

He then spent some time meditating under a Bodhi, or sacred fig, tree. While meditating he was tempted by the demon Mara, who tried to stop him reaching a state of enlightenment. Buddha resisted the beautiful women and other temptations put before him and at the moment of his enlightenment a rainbow light is said to have emanated from his body.

In Buddhist art rainbow light is often shown emanating from Buddhas and Bodihisattvas. Buddhas are beings who have achieved enlightenment. They are often represented with halos of light and sometimes even with a flame above their heads. These symbolise the inner light from within the individual Buddhas. Bodihisattvas are individuals who have also achieved enlightenment but remain on earth to help others.

Buddha Sakyamuni, 550-77. Museum no. A.36-1950

Buddha Sakyamuni, 550-77. Museum no. A.36-1950. This marble sculpture shows the historical Buddha, the Buddha Sakyamuni, with a halo or aureole. Originally this would have been brightly painted.

Many other faiths have the concept of inner light but it may not be represented in a visual form. Both Sikhs and Quakers, for example, believe in the inner light of God and how this can make one behave or feel. There is no need for a physical representation. Some Christians believe that the spiritual light of God can be experienced through music and good deeds.
'The Lamps are different, but the light is the same: it comes from beyond . . .'

It seems that this quote by Rumi, the medieval poet and Islamic theologian, is true to many of the world religions, but in faiths such as Buddhism, the light comes from within the individual through enlightenment and not from another spiritual source.

Meditation and Buddhism

From the very beginnings meditation has formed an integral part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to salvation (the Eightfold Path is a wheel, the Wheel of Law, with eight spokes and each one is there to remind the Buddha's followers of one part of the Path. Buddhists need to follow all these paths at the same time to reach enlightenment.) In this context it is seen as forming 'Right Mindfulness' and 'Right Concentration' leading the practitioner beyond the normal human states of consciousness towards a direct perception of the Buddha state. In Tibetan Buddhism there are many different approaches to meditation which is practiced by devout laymen, as well as by various levels of monks and nuns. In several traditions the focus is on the visualisation of deities that encapsulate spiritual qualities the practitioner wishes to develop within themselves. In others various means of concentrating the mind lead to the experience of inner light as a greater reality beyond the normal sense of self.

The Bodhisattva Guanyin, 1740-1800. Museum no. T.97-1966

The Bodhisattva Guanyin, 1740-1800. Museum no. T.97-1966. The last dynasty of China was the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911. The style of multi-armed image represented by this woven picture of Bodhisattva Guanyin conforms to one of the Qing dynasty schools of Buddhism with Tibetan affiliations.

Visualisation is a powerful tool which can help develop positive states of mind and emotions. For example, if we are feeling tense and stressed then it can be very relaxing and calming to imagine that we are sitting on a beach, picturing  beautiful white sand, the blue of the sea, gulls drifting overhead and listening to the sounds of waves lapping on the shore. Sports psychology has shown that athletes tend to be more successful if they visualise themselves achieving their goals before competing.

Modern psychology has shown that we can also visualise how we would like to be at some future time and picture ourselves as being successful, happy and fulfilled in our lives.The American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 - 1910) wrote:

'There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your  mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture there for long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking'.

Tibetan Buddhism also has a tradition of visualisation which is associated with certain qualities that meditators want to develop in themselves - for instance the qualities of energy, calmness, wisdom or compassion and many other variations of these - kindness or courage, for example. They visualise symbols associated with particular qualities - a flower symbolising receptivity or a Buddha figure symbolising wisdom.

A guide to inner light meditation

The meditations usually begin with picturing a clear blue sky which reminds us of our potential, that there is more to life than we sometimes are aware of. Variations of these visualisations are done by monks and nuns as well as by lay people. Most cultures and religions consider light as a very powerful and positive symbol. The following visualisation practice uses light as a way of empowering the meditator in the universal quality of compassion, and is an example of how it could be practiced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.


The whole meditation can last any time from 5 - 50 minutes or more. It is best to practice it for short periods at first, and then increase the time as you become more experienced and confident in the process.


Make yourself comfortable, turn off the phone and sit securely - either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor.Whether in a chair or on a cushion, make sure your back is not arched backwards or slumped forward and have your hands gently supported in your lap,  perhaps on a cushion or pad of some sort. If you are sitting in a chair, have each foot flat on the floor with your legs uncrossed. If you are sitting cross-legged  on a cushion, make sure your knees are not sticking up in the air without support - you can place a cushion or two underneath them if necessary. You can also kneel with your bottom on a cushion or two if you find sitting cross-legged uncomfortable. It's best not to meditate lying down, as most people tend to fall asleep in this position.

1. Preparation and gathering concentration
Close your eyes and allow your attention to settle on your breathing.Observe how it gently enters and leaves your body. Don't control or force it in any way - just let it be whatever it is, shallow or deep or something in between; slow or fast or something in between. Perhaps imagine that your breaths are like gentle waves on the seashore - each one is different. Just observe each breath and enjoy the feelings, sounds, smells and images that may be coming into your mind as you follow your breathing. 

2. Visualisation of light
Then visualising a clear blue sky which stretches in all directions around you. The clear blue sky is a symbol of our potential and is a traditional way of beginning meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Now imagine a radiant light appearing in the middle of this clear blue sky, which is just like the rising sun - warm, clear, expansive, invigorating and relaxing at the same time. The light can be golden or white, whatever feels the most appropriate for you. If you are tired, some people experience white light as invigorating; if you are a bit 'speedy' then golden light can be calming and soothing. In the Buddhist tradition meditators often visualise the light emanating from the heart of a Buddha figure they have visualised and which is symbolic of an aspect of the experience of Enlightenment - wisdom, energy or compassion.

3. Experiencing illumination and compassion
With each in-breath imagine these rays of light flowing into your heart, deeply touching and favouring you with warmth and peacefulness, illuminating all your potential and strengths and feeding their growth.

4. Sharing the benefits
With each out-breath, imagine this empowering  light flowing back out towards everyone around you, whether they are near or far away, old or young, known or unknown to you. Continue to receive the light into your heart and with each out-breath imagine the light flowing to everyone in the whole world, just as the light of the sun shines on everyone, without discrimination. Imagine this white or golden light shining on all sentient beings creating an atmosphere of peace and possibility for each and every one of them.

5. Dissolving the visualisation
While continuing to receive light into your heart,  imagine it slowly dissolving back into the clear blue sky, just like a rainbow gently dissolves away.

7. Re-entering the day
Allow yourself a few minutes to come back into the present after you finish the light meditation - you may have become very concentrated in a very short time. Open your eyes slowly, move and stretch your body and allow some space between the end of the visualisation and your next activity.

Guide supplied by Marian Monas / Dayachitta 

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