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Atta Dipa Viharatha – Be Islands Unto Yourselves

“Therefore, Ananda, 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.”

Maha-parinibbana Sutta (DN 16)

Exceptionally lucid and pointing toward ultimate liberation, these were some of the last words spoken by the Buddha on his deathbed. In a time of great sorrow, as the sangha was already beginning to deeply mourn the painful loss of their teacher, the Buddha compassionately offered these calm parting words as final instruction to the bhikkhus – to “be islands unto yourselves.”

The original phrase as preserved in the Pāḷi is as follows:

tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

mahāparinibbānasuttaṃ (DN 16)

This translates directly, in English, to the following:

attadīpā | viharatha | attasaraṇā | anaññasaraṇā | dhammadīpā | dhammasaraṇā | anaññasaraṇā

islands unto yourselves | dwell as | refuges unto yourselves |seeking no other refuge | Dhamma as island | Dhamma as refuge | seeking no other refuge

The advice here is simple yet profound. “Be islands unto yourselves” reflects the self-reliant approach undertaken by practicing Buddhists. When a Buddhist practitioner vows to walk the path of the Buddha, they do so by their own effort – through looking inward, without reliance on externalities.

However, in being “self”-reliant, some revisionists with ulterior motives to misrepresent the Buddha have interpreted the term “self” in this phrase to refer to a metaphysical ātman – the eternal, permanent, enduring selfhood of the Vedic and Upaniṣadic traditions that the Buddha rejected. They thus mistakenly render the phrase “attadīpā viharatha as “make the Self an island.” This misguided interpretation cannot be reconciled with the Buddha’s teachings on not-self, or anattā.

Here, “atta” serves as a reflexive pronoun and simply means “oneself.” This has no trans-empirical content and instead refers only to the conventional (sammuti sacca) sense of self with which we operate in everyday life, thus conforming to the mundane or worldly (lokiya) use of language. Given the correct interpretation of its context, the phrase “attadīpā viharatha” means “be islands unto yourselves” in the sense of looking inward.

Thus, the Buddha’s path is one which must be put into practice by oneself, the individual. No one can rely on another as an external refuge.

Still, some will point out that the Buddha offered himself as an external refuge as one of three jewels in the triple gem (tiratana), but in actuality, the Buddha is the awakened mind, not some entity (self) external to other beings.

How does one make an island of oneself, a refuge of oneself? The context of this phrase as spoken by the Buddha, now preserved in Pāḷi, was thus:

tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

kathañcānanda, bhikkhu attadīpo viharati attasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo, dhammadīpo dhammasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo?

idhānanda, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati atāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ. vedanāsu … pe … citte … pe … dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ.

evaṃ kho, ānanda, bhikkhu attadīpo viharati attasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo, dhammadīpo dhammasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo . ye hi keci, ānanda, etarahi vā mama vā accayena attadīpā viharissanti attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, tamatagge me te, ānanda, bhikkhū bhavissanti ye keci sikkhākāmā.

mahāparinibbānasuttaṃ (DN 16)

In English:

“Therefore, Ananda, 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.

“And how, Ananda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?

“When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.”

Maha-parinibbana Sutta (DN 16)

This is wonderfully straightforward. When the Buddha speaks of “contemplating the body in the body … feelings in feelings … the mind in the mind … mental objects in mental objects,” he is using the same formula as in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and elsewhere. Satipaṭṭhāna is a meditative practice that involves the four foundations of mindfulness. Therefore, making an island of oneself, a refuge of oneself, involves the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna or mindfulness, the practice of looking inward to fully comprehend the nature of experience.

Thus, let us be islands unto ourselves, refuges unto ourselves.

You yourself must make the effort.
The Buddhas only point the way.

Dhammapada 276

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1 Comment

  1. […] Atta Dipa Viharatha – Be Islands Unto Yourselves  | translation of Pali canon via In the Words of the Buddha. […]

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