…when all other lights go out – JRRT, FotR
(Chouja no mantou yori hinja no ittou;
“A pauper’s single light is greater than a rich man’s ten thousand.”)
There is greater honor in a poor person sincerely giving what they can, than a wealthy person’s extravagant show of philanthropy. A single lamp that actually means something to the person who paid to have it lit is worth more than ten thousand lamps whose motivation is just conspicuous consumption.
We begin with the noun 長者 (chouja), literally “long person,” by extension a “leader” or simply a “wealthy person.” The associative particle の (no) marks this as the possessor of number-noun 万灯 (mantou), “ten-thousand lights. A little further on we find a parallel phrase that begins with 貧者 (hinja), “poor person,” marked by another の (no) as the possessor of number-noun 一灯 (ittou), “one light.” The two phrases are joined by the particle より (yori), which marks the latter as “rather than” or “more than” the former.
This Buddhist phrase comes from a story in a text called the 『阿闍世王受決経』 (Ajase ou juketsu kyou), something like the “King Ajatashatru Receive-Decision Sutra.” The story goes that Ajatashatru (a conqueror of multiple smaller states) decided to become a follower of the Buddha, and invited him to visit. When the Buddha was returning home in the evening, the king caused ten thousand lights to be lit along his road. And old woman saw this and gathered up her savings to add a single light to the row – and even after the king’s lights had burned out, the woman’s miraculously burned throughout the night.
The term 長者 has a particular connection to the leader of a “post town” (宿場, shukuba), Edo-era waystations on major routes connecting to the capital city that were established to provide food, shelter, and other functions for travelers, especially government officials. However, in this kotowaza we should simply read it as “an especially rich person.”
This phrase may be contracted to simply 貧者の一灯, either as shorthand for the whole, or simply to express “a person of little means who is giving everything they can.” One variant specifies the poor person as 貧女 (hinjo or hinnyo, “a poor woman”); another reduces the rich person’s count to just 千灯 (sentou, “one thousand lights”).
(“Kotoshi no tanjoubi de moratta purezento no naka de, ichiban kandou shita no wa imouto ga kureyon de kaita e datta. Ichinichijuu ganbatte kaite, watashi no suki na mono mo takusan egaite kureta kara, donna ni heta na e de mo hinja no ittou na no de taisetsu ni suru tsumori da.”)
[“Out of all the birthday presents I got this year, the one that moved me the most was a crayon drawing from my little sister. She worked hard on it all day, and she drew a lot of the things I like; it may not be much, but it’s everything she had to give, so I’m going to treasure it.”]