Our Future is in Our Own Hands
Therefore, Ānanda, dwell as a lamp unto yourself,
Refuge unto yourself, seeking no other refuge;
With Dhamma as your lamp,
Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.
(tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.)
This was the parting advice of the Buddha, the Awakened One, to Ananda, his disciple. The Tathagata spoke so a short while before their final journey to Kusinara (Kushinagara), where he entered maha-parinirvana. (He gave this advice also at another time as recorded in attadipa sutta, Samyutta nikaya 22.43.)
The Way of the Tathagata is to be followed as a Way that goes beyond religion. The Way of Buddhism is about growing up and standing on one’s own innate abilities, and not about finding perpetual shelter elsewhere.
These words clearly show how the Way of the Tathagata is to be followed as a Way that goes beyond religion. The Way of Buddhism is about growing up and standing on one’s own innate abilities, and not about finding perpetual shelter elsewhere. Ultimately, relying on one’s own understanding and effort is the only refuge. The Buddha’s words provide the guidance to help one grow into that level of understanding and courage.
Our future is in our own hands. Nobody else can give us lasting happiness, peace, freedom and awakening. Shrines, trees, stones, metaphysical Gods and so on cannot grant us those. Not even the Buddha can grant those on a platter. All that the Buddha and his teachings can do is to guide and support us in our own process of discovering those.
After all, happiness, peace, freedom and awakening cannot be produced from outside. Whereas, we these qualities are innately present in us to be discovered. They can be found as naturally present in our mind when we clear the clutter of confusions that obstruct it. The ability to cleanse those obstructions is also within us. If we pacify disturbing emotions and clear delusive ways of thinking, then happiness, peace, freedom and awakening will be naturally experienced. The Buddha, through his teachings (the Dharma) points us to this fact. Making use of those abilities and traversing the Way can only be done by oneself.
The two parts of the above advice, namely, “Dwelling as a lamp unto oneself, refuge unto oneself and seeking no other refuge” and “Dharma as the lamp, Dharma as the refuge, and seeking no other refuge” may appear contradictory at the first look. But, they are one in meaning. The reliance upon the guide (the Buddha), the teachings (the Dharma) and the supportive companions (the Sangha), leads to the discovery of the inner refuge – of being a lamp unto oneself. In other words, by relying upon and practicing the teachings of the Tathagata, one discovers how to rely upon oneself. After all, the Dharma that is not turned into a lamp of realization within, is not the real Dharma.
Now, let us examine these in more details.
Dharma as the Lamp
We saw that nobody, not even the Buddha, can grant us in a platter from outside, the fruits of awakening and freedom from suffering. Nevertheless, the Buddha having traversed the Way and having reached the state of total freedom and perfect awakening, the Buddha can guide us in our own journey. Thus, one goes for refuge to the Dharma (Pali: Dhamma) – the Way shown by the Buddha.
Our future is in our own hands. Nobody else can give us lasting happiness, peace, freedom and awakening. Shrines, trees, stones, metaphysical Gods and so on cannot grant us those. Not even the Buddha can grant those on a platter.
Nowadays, the notion of following a ‘Way’ is confused by many to be like getting into a vehicle with a cultish mentality and hoping that someone else will drive that and take you somewhere. Such a religious approach is not the intent here. The ‘Way’ that the Buddha taught is not a rigid roadmap or a custom that one has to blindly follow in a narrow-minded way. Instead, he taught how to clearly observe many aspects of our own nature that we are otherwise ignorant about. As we observe those clearly, we develop insight and that melts away the confusions that obstructed our freedom and awakening.
The Buddha teaches how to explore our own nature and the nature of the world with clear awareness, mindfulness and meticulousness. And, in essence, to be aware, mindful and meticulous means to be a lamp unto oneself. Thus, the Dharma as the lamp teaches how to dwell as a lamp and the refuge unto oneself.
Dwelling as a Lamp unto Oneself
How does one dwell as a lamp unto oneself? It is by cultivating awareness, mindfulness and meticulousness. And by being clearly aware, mindful and meticulous, there is the elimination of confusion, sorrow, suffering and thus the attainment of freedom and happiness.
The ‘Way’ that the Buddha taught is not a rigid roadmap or a custom that one has to blindly follow in a narrow-minded way. Instead, he taught how to clearly observe many aspects of our own nature that we are otherwise ignorant about. As we observe those clearly, we develop insight and that melts away the confusions that obstructed our freedom and awakening.
The Tathagata, explained this in attadīpa-sūtta (Sutra of the dwelling as a lamp – Samyutta Nikaya – 22.43). An ordinary person who lacks orientation confuses fleeting experiences to be permanent and one’s own identity. For example, one takes a form (such as one’s body) to be the Self (ātmā), or the Self as the possessor of that form, or the form as being in the Self, or the Self as being in the form. One does so also with other aggregates (skandha) of experiences such as feelings (vedanā), perceptions (samñā), mental-formations (samskāra) and cognition (vijñāna). Each of those is mistaken as the Self, possessed by the Self, being in the Self, or the container of the Self. Due to such mistaken views, whenever there is a change in any of those experiences and it becomes different from what it was before, there arises sorrow, lamentation, suffering, foul state of mind and grief.
The Tathagata further explained how this can be reversed. When one learns to observe them directly and closely, then one sees each of these experiences to be impermanent, subject to change and not-Self (anātmā). Recognizing experiences in this way, as they really are, there is the perfect insight (sammappaññā). With that, one abandons sorrow, lamentation, suffering, foul state of mind and grief. Thus, one lives at ease. In general, one transcends suffering by eliminating its causes through the cultivation of insight. One thus comes to the ease of being in the natural state of perfection.
By relying upon and practicing the teachings of the Tathagata, one discovers how to rely upon oneself. After all, Dharma that is not turned into a lamp of realization within, is not the real Dharma.
As we can see, the ‘Way’ is about cultivating the ability to clearly and mindfully observe our immediate experiences and thus to remove confusions regarding their nature. Whatsoever appears, the ‘Way’ is about seeing them directly as they are (yathābhūtam), without confusing them with obscuring concepts. Always maintaining perfect insight (Pali: sammappaññā, Sanskrit, samyak-prajñā) is how one dwells as a lamp unto oneself, and as a refuge unto oneself, seeking no other refuge.
When a person training in this way is able to maintain perfect insight with regard to whatever arises, disturbing emotions and confusions vanish. Then, the natural qualities of supreme happiness, peace, freedom and awakening manifest vibrantly.
The Buddha said (in Dhammapada verses 190-191),
The one who goes for refuge to
the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha
Sees with one’s own perfect insight
The Four Noble Truths –
Suffering, the cause of suffering,
Cessation of suffering,
And the Noble Eightfold Way
That leads to the cessation of suffering.
(yo ca buddhañca dhammañca saṅghañca saraṇam gato
cattāri ariyasaccāni sammappaññāya passati
dukkhaṃ dukkhasamuppādaṃ dukkhassa ca atikkamaṃ
ariyañ caṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ dukkhūpasamagāminaṃ)
Thus, by relying on the triple jewels (the Buddha the teacher, the Dharma the teaching, and the Sangha the supportive companions who cultivate Dharma within) as the lamp and the refuge, one learns and cultivate one’s own insight to see the nature of everything as it is. Thus, the nature of suffering is fully known by oneself, and its causes distinguished and eliminated by living in the Noble Eightfold Way, and thus the state of unconditioned perfection of the natural state of being is attained.
This is how, one learns to dwell as a lamp unto oneself, a refuge unto oneself, seeking no other refuge.
May all be auspicious!
(See Buddhism – a path beyond religion for a comprehensive discussion on what it means to go beyond religion.)