The Face that Lights the Candle

March 1, 2017

Generous is a word that is almost big enough to describe reality. After all, what could be more generous than this that allows everything to be everything? The hypothetical start of things — the Big Bang — that primal flaring forth was nothing if not Pure Generosity, no holding back — Here! A universe for you!


The nature of our sun is the same: its light given freely year after year, for billions of them! We live by the generosity of its light. Every glass of milk, every apple, every cup of coffee is given by its light, and we appear by the grace of that giving.

And what of this ever-unfurling spontaneous moment, how might we describe it but Purely Generous? Or this awareness that is the root of our being? We take our awareness for granted, we take the spontaneity of this moment for granted, and indeed they are just that: granted, given without our needing to ask.

This Vast Generosity we live within is free, unselfish, generative, unconditional — blessing us and everything with becoming. Its generosity is love itself. So if we need some guidance about how to live, this might be a good place to start — to contemplate the Ocean of Generosity we live in, and how every moment it makes its offering. There’s no need to go out of our way to do this — every given breath reminds us!

You might say this view of an Ultimate Generosity as a guide for living is overly simple, and it is. There is more to the story —

The Pure Generosity of transparent light is met by opaque matter. Light goes every which way yet doesn’t bump into itself. But matter, that other form of light, offers resistance. It absorbs and reflects. It waits in a form, and when it can sustain that form no longer it shape-shifts into another form. In each form it seeks to remain as long as possible. So now we have, in the midst of Universal Generosity: boundaries, self-definition, self-maintenance — that which does not to give itself away like sunlight, but seeks instead to maintain itself as itself.

Our lives are balanced right there — part of the Great Give-Away and yet charged to be these unique forms, for a time. Now the question of generosity as an ethic to live by has more depth. If you continually give away all the food on your plate, you’ll starve. If you never give, you’ll wither alone. How then shall we keep our balance between generosity and self-interest?

We see this question being played out in the politics of our time: for example, the desire to welcome refugees and the fear they will threaten us or weaken our identity. We see it in our personal relationships, when by always putting others’ wishes before our own we risk losing our sovereignty. My sense of this question — finding the balance between generosity and self-maintenance — is that in stating the question we’ve done most of the work. The act of holding the question reveals its answer. We find balance the way we do when we walk, by always being off-balance and then correcting. It’s a good example of how non-duality shows up through duality: left foot, right foot, giving, keeping, so the flowing flows without getting stuck at either pole.

But there’s something else here, something this little contemplation on generosity and sovereignty might faintly point to. These words — generosity and sovereignty — are stubbornly spatial: sovereignty or self-maintenance is a concept that denotes a special place, a location where “I” am sovereign. In a parallel way, the word generosity denotes a transaction from “here” to “there,” from giver to receiver. We conceive both of these ideas spatially. But that conception leaves us in a dualistic and fractional view of how things actually happen.

There’s a beautiful phrase from one of Rumi’s poems: “the face that lights the candle.” It makes us stop. What? How could this be? Candles light faces, not the other way around. But we’re invited here to escape the linear logic of our language, just for a moment, and allow the generosity of the light and the uniqueness of the face to mutually arise, without one causing the other.

Mutually arise? How?

The apple ripening in the sunlight allows the sunlight to appear, to be sunlight. Without the apple, or any “thing” of matter, the sunlight would not be revealed. It would just go on and on, and never become visible. At the same time, as we know, the sun gives birth to the apple. No sun, no apple.

And so it is with our sovereignty: our being this unique being is made possible by our generous reciprocity with All Being. No generous reciprocity, no unique being. Likewise the Great Generosity itself makes possible what is sovereign, what is unique.

The candle lights the face, and the face lights the candle.