Question: Is it a must to have a 24/7 lit oil lamp on my home shrine? I had ‘inherited’ the shrine from my Mother, which came with the lamp that was always lit.
Answer: We should first understand the primary significance of offering lamps. It serves as a reminder to ignite and strengthen the bright light of wisdom within us, so as to eradicate the darkness of ignorance. In this sense, it is not really an offering to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as being enlightened beings with perfect wisdom, they do not need such reminders.
Hence, it is more of a Dharma offering to ourselves, that we respectfully make at the shrine as a centre of our Dharma practice at home. Every time a lamp is offered, or when we see an offered lamp, we should be reminded of the need to more diligently learn, practice and share the Dharma – just as lamps share their light to guide others around. Lamps also represent the light of wisdom shared with us by the enlightened, that we best revere by realisation.
Having understood the above, it is thus not an absolute must to have a lit oil lamp on the shrine. However, again, having understood the above, we should appreciate the practice of offering light daily, which can serve as a powerful Dharma reminder.
Offering of electrical lights serves the same function and would suffice too. There is less ‘hassle’ of topping up of oil, changing of wicks, along with cleaning. It causes less pollution and there is less risk of a potential fire too. However, there is the disadvantage of electrical lights being perpetually turned on and possibly taken for granted, leading to forgetfulness of the significance above, since the routine of ‘lighting up’ will be missing.
There is a ‘Middle Path’ solution though… You can make it a point to switch on the lights after prostrating at the shrine (and making of other offerings if wished, along with chanting, meditation etc.) in the morning. When leaving home, you can switch them off, and repeat the cycle after coming home. Creating a routine such as this helps make the offering of light regular, reminding us of what it means. Of course, the routine can be varied for convenience.