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. egoïsm 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 Pāli canon), the Chinese (the Āgama), and the Tibetan (the Kanyur).

The best known instance is that of the Dhammapāda (238) of the Pāli 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. Pāli-class NTU). In Pāli:
"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 Pāli 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 anaññasaranā, dhammadīpā dhammasaranā anaññasaranā.

In years gone by the Pāli 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 Pāli 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 Pāli 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(1), 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
akiñcanam anādānam etam dīpam anāparam,
nibbānam iti nam brūmi, jarāmaccuparikkhayam."

(1) (The 4th meditative state of jhāna/dhyāna 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' (saraná), 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 (Vishnu being an hindu deity). There it is presented as a vedic or hinduïstic 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."

This preoccupation with striving towards light occurs in several early scriptures such as in the AN ii, p.85, and Púgala Paññatti p.71: And how, monks, does one who is immersed in darkness strive towards light? (Katañca bhikkhave puggalo tamo (darkness) hoti jotiparāyano (joti = light).)
In the case of the PP it says that a being that is born into woeful conditions should strive to do good in the world. This will bring him/her towards the light of enlightenment.

April 2009 / december 2020

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