Hoi An, Vietnam, is an enchanting little town with a long history dating back centuries. It's importance was heralded by international traders because of its location on the banks of the Bon Thu River that flows directly into the East China sea. The Hoi An riverside is just as lively today as it must have been over 300 years ago when traders from as far a land as Netherlands and India flocked this town.
A tradition that got lost along the way and is now coming back in full force is one of handcrafting gorgeous lanterns that have added tremendous beauty to this small rural town since time immemorial. Instead of traders, Hoi An now has an influx of international tourists who are wowed by the mesmerizing beauty and ambience the lanterns create at night. It is truly a sight to behold.
Newly wed couples take turns posing in front of the lanterns while shopkeepers smile pleasantly and express immense gratitude if they receive a compliment or a cash tip for this accommodation. At times, they make a sale also. Vietnamese are very polite and humble people with beautiful hearts to match the charm of their artistic creations that turn Hoi An into a magical land. They seem genuinely happy that their art is being appreciated even if they often don't receive a monetary benefit in return. Only if Bon Thu river could spread this infectious attitude to all the waters of the world, we could have peace and tranquility all around us.
As I walked around Hoi An, I was equally mesmerized by the quaint ambience of the surroundings, the ancient architecture that dates back to 17th century, the local and foreign shoppers in the night bazaar, the street vendors selling banana pancakes, the aroma of grilled rice pancakes with garlic, dried shrimp and pork, and a plethora of other sensory attractions. Perhaps, the most serene of all were the floating lights in the river. Local women were selling paper floats with lit candles that were offered to the river after making a wish. There were tens of candles floating in the river even as people were enjoying boat rides in the serenity of the night.
Then I passed a lantern seller who had on display lanterns made with thin bamboo strips. Some of these lanterns were lit and others were hanging in a cluster awaiting their turn to be lit up for display and eventually sold to smiling customers.
The unlit lanterns seemed unremarkable and almost without life. The contrast was striking. That's when I saw the truth behind the enchanting beauty of the lanterns and the lure they created for the locals and the tourists alike. The outer beauty of the lanterns was so mesmerizing that we all had failed to see the source behind their splendor - their inner light. We were all so captivated by the outer beauty that we completely missed the source of it. The lanterns were dead without this light and lost all their luster. In fact, before selling any lantern, the shopkeeper had to display it with a light to the interested buyer as if to offer convincing evidence of it's beauty. Without the light, the lantern would linger on the shelves until it's glory got covered by dust.
The lanterns then became a metaphor for maya - the lustrous material and sensual world - that keeps us entrapped in search of happiness. We find pleasure in outer beauty in everything around us and greet it with awe and appreciation. We often remark how witnessing the beauty made us happy or improved our mood. What we fail to realize is that the real the source of happiness is the Light behind the outer beauty - the Light of the Creator, the Light of the Universe, the Light of the Divine. Without this Light, every so-called beautiful object would wilt and wither away under the dust of insignificance. Turning on the inner Light can brighten even the most unwanted and neglected - be they inanimate objects or mortal beings.
Sometimes the dust covering the beauty is so thick that it completely blocks the Light from shining through. Such is the case with the children who have suffered unspeakable abuse and neglect for extended periods of time. It's hard to see the Light in their eyes. What excites me is the beauty we would discover if we could collectively work to gently and carefully wash away the layers of darkness that are covering the Light of these innocent souls. Hoi An would be no match to the glitter and joy created by so many "little lanterns" coming to life. All we need is to use our inner Light of compassion to generate a spark of hope inside them. We owe this to the lanterns that will light the world after we are long gone.