Dwelling as a Lamp unto Oneself – Attadipa sutta

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.

-Mahaparinibbana sutta

(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.

Dharma Quote - Buddha Quote- Dwelling as a lamp unto oneselfAfter 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.

Conclusion

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.)

Yogi Prabodha Jnana
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4 thoughts on “Dwelling as a Lamp unto Oneself – Attadipa sutta

  • Avatar
    September 6, 2020 at 7:05 am
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    tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā
    anaññasaraṇā,
dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

    Vanakkam brother.
    I want to ask one doubt. Anatta is one of the main principles of Buddhism. Here Buddha says Attadipa Attasarana .. It there is no Atta, how can Atta be a dipa and sarana ?
    Vinod Kumar
    TVM

    Reply
    • Yogi Prabodha Jnana
      September 10, 2020 at 12:21 pm
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      Dear Vinod, Yes, Anatta is indeed the principal teaching of the Buddha. Also, this teaching of taking refuge upon oneself and being a lamp unto oneself is not in contradiction to anatta. It is an excellent question.

      Short Explanation

      The short explanation is that the teaching of ‘be a lamp unto yourself’ is not in reference to a Self that is truly existing but in reference to the conventional usage of the word ‘I’. It refers to oneself (as experienced conventionally, and in a philosophical sense) instead of others. That is, to be self-reliant as opposed to other-reliant. It is not an assertion of a metaphysical Self.

      To give an example, it is similar in usage as what you wrote, “I want to ask one doubt”. The fact that you want to ask a question does not mean that there is a truly existing Self in you. Even if you imagine that there is a truly existing permanent Self, this doubt does not belong there. ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘oneself’, ‘yourself’, ‘Vinod’, etc., are labels used conventionally to represent the continuum of the aggregates of form, feeling, perception, compositional formations, and cognitions that arise as a result of cause and effect connections. The doubt also is a compositional formation that arises in your continuum due to causes and conditions.

      Long explanation

      I shall explain this in detail now. Please also refer to my earlier answer to you at https://www.wayofbodhi.org/mahasiddha-shavaripa-oneness/#comment-3232 (point #1).

      As I explained before, the water in a river flows and does not remain the same. There is nothing other than the flowing water in a river. Yet, you can call it a river and give it a name. You may label a river as Ganges. Yet, there is no existing Ganges that stays the same forever, other than the changing water that flows. Likewise, ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘Vinod’ etc. are names used to represent the continuum of a changing stream. The name stays while everything else flows through. There is no problem with naming in this way. But, when that name used to tag a changing entity is reified as the presence of another unchanging entity within the changing entity, one strays further into philosophical confusions.

      As the Buddha discovered, the root cause of destructive emotions and suffering is the ignorance (rather, wrong-knowledge) that causes one to cling to a non-existing Self. Due to this clinging, we emotionalize and put the effort in the wrong direction and create further suffering. When this clinging is totally abandoned, there is peace and the supreme joy of Nirvana.

      There are two kinds of ignorances (wrong-knowledge) that causes clinging to a non-existing Self (attta / ātma). The first is a form of ignorance (wrong-knowledge) that we habitually carry across lifetimes. The casual self-references such as in “I want to ask a question” is with reference to this ‘I’. This sense of ‘I’ is present not only in humans, but also in other sentient beings, even though they may not use language to label it.

      In one way of looking at it, this sense of ‘I’ is useful because it helps us organize our changing continuum around a reference and a goal. It also helps us reflect on the consequence of actions that we would experience later in our continuum. Further, it helps us to develop the aspiration to attain Nirvana, and practice towards that. Yet, this very sense of ‘I’ is also that binds us in Samsara. When we do not put it towards the Way of liberation, we generate desires, emotions, suffering, etc., by clinging on to this sense of ‘I’, and go around in cycles of birth, sickness, old-age, and death through many Samsaric lives.

      This first kind of ignorance is present because one hasn’t penetrated and developed deep insight into how one exists only as a changing continuum. One does not realize that the ’I’ is a mere label imputed over the continuum. And, this ignorance is very strong because one keeps on reinforcing this over all the lifetimes. This is so because we are operating with the clinging to the non-existent ‘I’, for every moment in every life. Because this habit is strongly reinforced, mere conceptual knowledge that ‘I’ is a mere label on a changing continuum is not enough for liberation. In fact, even flashes of direct insight of selflessness during meditative equipoise are also not enough for liberation. Post-meditation, the strong sense of clinging to non-existent ‘I’ tends to return. One has to overcome this by following the Way (magga / marga) all through life and gradually accustoming with the wisdom insight even during post-meditation. It has to be done to the point that all habitual traces of wrong-knowledge are completely wiped out.

      In the Way that the Buddha showed, he inspires us to turn our attention towards this ‘I’, but not to reify it. After turning attention towards this ‘I’, we should develop direct insight about that ‘I’. Finally, we destroy all traces of wrong-knowledge and is completely free from ignorance. In other words, one can rely on oneself to utterly destroy the sense of Self and eventually attain the wisdom of selflessness and Nirvana. The same cannot be attained through merely listening to others or following conceptual ideas from others. One has to necessarily work with one’s own sense of ‘I’. One has to observe, penetrate, and finally see that there is no ‘I’ in reality. One has to accustom with that direct insight even in post-meditation continually. That is why one has to be a lamp unto oneself and take refuge unto oneself. The refuge upon the so perceived ‘other’ (such as the Buddha whom you see outside) helps only in learning the direction – the Way. The Way needs to be traversed by relying on oneself to the point of seeing that there is no Self.

      The second form of ignorance (wrong-knowledge) is that of the philosophically acquired concepts about Self (atta / ātma). This is often in the nature of metaphysical speculations. We, humans, possess this, but animals don’t have this. This type of philosophically acquired ignorance about ‘I’ arises when we try to speculate about the innately felt ‘I’ of the first kind (that we habitually possess across lifetimes). Not knowing how to develop insight about it, people do metaphysical speculations and come with various theories about a Self, existing as a permanent, independent, and indivisible entity, as so on. Also, some people who meditate end up clinging on to alternate experiences and reify that as the truly existing ‘I’. People make a lot of theories and religious / spiritual schools around this.

      Over the last two millennium, very sophisticated theories and logical arguments have come up in the attempt to establish and refute various forms of such speculative theories. So, while the first kind of ignorance has remained similar to the Buddha’s time, the second kind of ignorance has become more sophisticated with many treatises and counter-treatises. Yet, the interesting fact is that the main culprit is not the second kind of wrong-knowledge acquired through such philosophical theories, but the innate sense of self that we habitually carry across many lifetimes due to the first kind of ignorance. The only damage that the philosophically acquired wrong-knowledge about Self does is that it prevents us from actually penetrating the habitually carried sense of self, and rather distracts us to enticing imaginations about the glory of Self.

      Yet, the philosophical acquired ignorance (wrong-knowledge) about Self can be set right rather quickly if one is ready to scrutinize the philosophical concepts and their implications logically. Setting right the wrong-knowledge about Self acquired through philosophical systems is thus a first step before one can actually work with the problem of habitually carried sense of self.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    September 6, 2020 at 7:09 am
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    “Our future is in our own hands. Nobody else can give us lasting happiness, peace, freedom and awakening. ”
    Dear brother,
    I want to ask one doubt here
    Do I have a future ? Do I have the “I” to have a future ? Who is going to have this lasting or ever lasing peace ???
    Vinod Kumar
    TVM

    Reply
    • Yogi Prabodha Jnana
      September 10, 2020 at 12:24 pm
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      Dear Vinod,

      Further to the response to your earlier question, here are the asnwers to your second comment:

      To your question, “Do I have a future ?”,

      Yes, because as far as there is a sense of ‘I’, there is either the cyclical future in Samsara or the progression through the Way towards Nirvana. The latter happens when you observe that ‘I’ closely and develop wisdom about its hollowness. As the sense of ‘I’ thins down, there is the progression towards Nirvana. Finally, at Nirvana, there is realization that there is no past, future or the present that is sandwiched between past and future. There is only timeless present.

      To your question, “Do I have the “I” to have a future?”

      If you were having an ‘I’ (Self / ātma) that is permanent, independent and indivisible, then the future could be any different from the current plight. Yes, you have a future, because there is no inherently existing ‘You” as an unchanging “Self” within you.

      To your question, “Who is going to have this lasting or ever lasing peace ???”

      The one who liberates from that sense of oneness. The one who goes beyond oneself and others. The one who does not hope to cling on to that lasting peace. The one who is neither one nor many. The one who goes beyond the three divisions of times as past, present and future.

      Reply

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