The Bodhi tree behind
the Mahabodhi temple
in Bodhgaya

Be a Lamp unto yourself | Be an Island unto yourself


Taking refuge is something Buddhists do in Buddha, his Teachings, and the Community.
There are nevertheless a few instances where Buddha advised his audience to seek refuge in themselves. Unfortunately this is at times interpreted as an invitation to reach an undesirable state of mind i.e. ego´sm, or self-centredness and so on.

Much investigation has therefore been done in finding out what in matter of fact Buddha says when he says "Be a lamp unto yourself" (old rendering), or "Be an island unto yourself" (new rendering).

We find this exhortation in a number of texts throughout the Small Vehicle canons of the Theravādin (the Pali canon), the Chinese (the Āgama), and the Tibetan (the Kanyur).

The best known instance is that of the Dhammapāda (238) of the Pali canon where it says:
Be an island unto yourself! Strive quickly; be wise!
Without impurities and clear, you will never again come to birth and aging. (Tr. Pali-class NTU). In Pali:
"so karohi dipam attano khippaj vayama pandito bhava niddhantamalo anavgano na punaj jatijaraj upehisi" (without the nessecary diacretic marks).

We find a slightly different rendering in the Pali Mahāparinibbāna Sutta where it says:
"Therefore, Ānanda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge. (Tr.
Tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaranā ana˝˝asaranā, dhammadīpā dhammasaranā ana˝˝asaranā.

In years gone by the Pali word dīpa used to be rendered as "lamp" following such passages as "extinguish the lamp of disease (ignorance)!" (telappadīpo āropito.) which we equallly find in the above Pali Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. Walpola Rahula, in his 'What the Buddha taught' points to this discussion.

Since then translations have been made of the possibly oldest text-layers of the Pali Sutta Nipāta, more specifically book V, the teaching to Kappa (PTS F199 : 1092-1095) where Buddha says:
"There is an island, an island which you cannot go beyond. It is a place of nothingness(*), a place of non-possession and of non-attachment. It is the total end of death and decay, and this is why I call it nibbāna." (tr.H. Saddhatissa)
oghe jāte mahabbhaye
jarāmaccuparetānam dīpam pabrūmi Kappa te
aki˝canam anādānam etam dīpam anāparam,
nibbānam iti nam brūmi, jarāmaccuparikkhayam.

(*) (The 4th meditative state of jhāna/dhyana where there is no experience at all.)

Saddhatissa translated the Sutta Nipāta in the year 1994. Since that day we not only know how to translate the word dīpa, especially when it stands in conjunction with 'refuge' (saranß), but at the same time we know the full meaning of Buddha's words. He did not say: retire into yourself because solitude in itself is best, or, no-one else can be trusted, or, there you find the safest place.

Since according to the given Sutta Nipāta-fragment Buddha speaks with Kappa, a disciple of the revered Vedic priest Bāvari, we understand that Buddha used Kappa's religious parlance, but gave it his own interpretation. Talk of 'islands' must have been on the religious-philosophical menu of the day. We find a remnant of it in the Mahāyāna Lankāvatāra Sutra where "the other island" is given as the dwelling-place of a Vishnu-avatar. There it is presented as a vedic or hindu´stic concept.
The island (dīpa) in Buddha's words is no longer the dwelling-place of a godhead, it rather is identical with Enlightenment, nibbāna (nirvāna in Sanskrit), the safe ground, or terra firma as Amazonia-specialists say today. It is "the dhamma" (teaching), the fourth jhānic meditation to be found within our own mind-body-complex, hence the words "Be an island unto yourself."

April 2009

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