Almost at the end of his life, Shakyamuni said


Common Renderings

This has been variously translated, as

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


You are the light, abide in this, rely on your self, rely on no one else, the Dharma is the light, abide in this, rely on the Dharma, rely on nothing else.

I would like to comment on some of the translation difficulties and offer an alternative.

What is Dīpā

Firstly, there is no consensus about whether dīpā means "light" or "island". Light seems more likely to me and the majority of commentators seem to agree although this was not always so. Early renderings tended towards "island". In some ways it makes little difference to the sense whichever way you translate the rest as i shall explain below.

What is the Punchline?

The crucial points are where you put the emphasis and how you render the term atta. Many commentators have taken the emphasis was being self-reliance and have taken the general drift as being "Rely only on yourself and use the Dharma as support for doing so." I think this is wrong. It seems to me pretty clear that the punch line is dhamma-saraṇā. Dhamma-saraṇā is what Buddha taught throughout his ministry. It was the teaching he gave to the first two people ever to become Buddhists whom he met on the road when travelling after his enlightenment, before even he gave the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma discourse, and that discourse is also a commentary on how to take refuge in Dharma. All along, Buddha teaches, "Take refuge in Dharma," so it is totally consistent that this should be the teaching that he wants to leave people with. So this is not a teaching about self-reliance, as many Westerners and self-power Buddhists would like to make it. It is a teaching about taking refuge.

What About Atta?

Atta means self. The controversy about the term atta (Sanskrit atma) has generally revolved around whether it implies something about the Hindu idea of a soul (atma) or, at least, about an enduring self and what this says about other non-self teachings by Buddha. However, I think this misses the point. Here atta is a reflexive pronoun. The word atta means self and, as in English, it can become a noun, as in "the meaning of the self is a problem in philosophy", but it is more commonly used as a reflexive pronoun or adjective meaning roughly the same as auto- as in self-sufficient, self-contained, self-starting, self-generated, self-confident and so on. I think this is how it is used here and this means that the term atta-dīpā is a term of this kind, indicating a light that does not rely upon anything else, an unconditional light that needs no fuel. This is not a statement about the atma it is a statement about the Dharma. The Dharma is the only atta-dīpā - the only light that is eternally shining, that relies on nothing else, that is not impermanent. Such a light could be also described as an island, unconnected to other land. 

I therefore suggest that this passage is a single whole in which all the lines give different perspectives upon the one vital theme which is take refuge in Dharma. It is not a combination of two statements, one about "the self" and the other about "the Dharma" with no apparent connection between them - even a hint of a contradiction. If you take it in the way most commentators do, there remains a difficult problem of explaining how the first four lines connect with the second four. It is quite common in Western Buddhist books for only the first four to be mentioned. We are told that Buddha's last words were that you should rely upon yourself. I think this is a gross distortion, trying to make Buddhism into Westernism.

The Dharma is "self-lighting". Atta-dīpā is the Dharma. Dharma is spontaneous truth, uncontrived, independent, unconditional. Therefore it is atta-dīpā.

Some Other Small Points

Viharatha means to dwell or abide. However, it is worth pausing over the word for a minute. The term vihara came to mean a small Buddhist monastery, but it seems to have originally meant a park. In the time of Buddha many towns had parks and it would be in such a park that ascetics would gather, stay and give teachings. In due course, the Buddhist sangha was given some lands which were generally parks, groves or orchards and they put up huts there and this was the origin of monasticism. However these base camps were mostly only used in the rainy season retreat when one needed some shelter from the monsoon. A few monks would remain through the year to look after the place, but the main basis of Buddhist life was wandering. This is why the term "monk" is not really quite right. Buddhist bhikkhus were friars. Anyway, the relevant point here is that at the time of Buddha's demise viharatha probably still had the implication of "dwell in the open" and therefore had an a sense of not getting enmeshed in the household life, the life of conditions, an implication of freedom. This implication is wholly consistent with the point that the Dharma is an unconditional light or unattached island.

Anañña-saraṇā means take no other as refuge. Saranā means refuge taken. Añña occurs in the Abhidhamma term añña-mañña (the 7th paccaya in the section on Conditional relations) meaning interdependence or co-dependence - the illustration given is the legs of a tripod that cannot stand without each other. Given modern usage codependence might be the better translation. Relying upon the Dharma frees one from codependency. We are inclined to seek refuge from dukkha in various forms of codependency and Dharma is the remedy. In anañña-saraṇā, therefore, there is also a hint of an injunction against codependency.

Viharatha and anañña-saraṇā, therefore, both have implications of steering clear of worldly involvement represented by the household life and enmeshed relationships. The whole passage tells us that the way to avoid such enmeshment is to rely upon the Dharma which is the natural, spontaneous radiance.

Final Words

My preferred translation, therefore, runs as follows...

Spontaneous light
Abide therein
Spontaneous refuge
Seek no other
Dharma light
Abide therein
Dharma refuge
Seek no other

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank-you Dharmavidya. That has always been such a troublesome passage in Buddhist discussions.It's especially true when trying to reconcile Teachings such as the 3 Refuges and Eightfold Path with Pureland teachings.It's too often used as a way of branding Buddhism as all about having a strong SELF and divorced from dependent origination.Your take on that passage makes so much more sense to me. Namo Amida Bu, Steve

Thanks Dharmavidya. It's easy to see how that could prove a bone of contention in the scholarly world and a source of dispute among different traditions. Thousands of years and countless translations are bound to confuse matters, and meanwhile the Dharma shines on regardless! Namo Amida Bu(   :

I recently heard someone quote Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (from his book After Virtue) as saying " a living tradition is one that is in a constant ongoing conversation with its past." This makes good sense to me. We weren't there when these discourses were given. We cannot know with certainty the way in which any text was meant, as those to whom it was directed no longer exist, and the world context has changed. Yet somehow in this kind of reflective dialogue we can reanimate the original in a way that is meaningful. I do like Dharmavidya's thoughtful translation.
That's an excellent quote Carol and so very true.We must persist in re-engaging our tradition to keep it alive and meaningful in our lives.



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