“there is no other refuge”: how to be an island to yourself

Live as an island to yourself. Live as a refuge for yourself, without any other refuge. Dhamma is the island, Dhamma is the refuge. There is no other refuge.”

Guatama Buddha, Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself
SN 22.43 PTS: S iii 42 
CDB i 882

Is there any comfort in the world?

A question for you to think about: does there exist any genuine, true comfort in this world? Is there anything in this world that is truly dependable and that will not fail you?

It is an interesting question and an important one to ask, because we all need comfort from something in this world. We all need security, we all need somewhere to go that makes us feel safe and happy; we all need a home, people to love us, and things that we like to do. We do all depend on various things – so we are asking now, are any of those things really reliable?

Is there any source of comfort and happiness that is really secure, and that is fit to be called a source of comfort?

Let’s see. What is your comfort zone? Where do you go when you feel lonely, or sad, or anxious? What makes you feel better and takes your heaviness away?

This is a question for you to answer yourself. It’s different for everybody. For some people it will be family of friends, for some people it will be a boyfriend or girlfriend, for some it’s a sport, or an activity of some kind; for some it’s a good book, or a good movie, or a pet. Maybe it’s a place where you go; maybe it’s a god or object of worship in which one takes refuge.

We are our own worst enemies

In general, there are two kinds of comfort in this world: either it is something that makes you feel loved by others, or it’s an activity that gives pleasure and satisfaction and/or keeps the mind busy, so that for a while it is not occupied with troubled thoughts.  

We can see by this that we human beings are not very good at being an island to ourselves; we are not good at loving ourselves and being our own source of energy; and nor are we very good at being our own source of comfort and security.

In fact, far from being islands to ourselves, we are our own source of discomfort, our own source of insecurity.We are constantly running away from the terrible prospect of being left alone with nothing and nobody for company but our own thoughts. How many people sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or a dentist’s waiting room are happy to just sit and wait and do nothing – especially if they have to wait there fore more than a few minutes? How many reach quickly for their phones, or for magazines, or go to talk with their neighbour?

A sleepless night is one of the most horrible tortures; lying awake tossing and turning, thoughts running round and round in the mind. Solitary confinement is recognised as a method of torture. You go mad, sitting by yourself in a room for 23 hours a day. They remove all the sharp objects from those rooms; they remove anything that could be used as a rope. You are so far from being a refuge for yourself, so far from being an island to yourself, that simply being left alone with yourself is nothing less than a real form of absolute torture.

So already we can begin to see how deep it goes, the idea of being an island to oneself. It is not just a nice thought to take into your day, something to add to your life like doing yoga in the morning. It means making really quite a profound change in oneself.

Are you dependable?

Not only are we not comfortable being alone with ourselves, we cannot even trust ourselves. Have you ever lied to yourself about something? Have you ever been a hypocrite inside? Don’t try to evade the question or claim that you have always been completely honest with yourself all the life – we are all dishonest with ourselves in one way or another, we all fool ourselves into thinking it’s okay to do something that we know really is not a good idea; into neglecting something that we know really has to be done, into believing that we are an Absolutely Perfect Human Being, carefully avoiding to look at anything inside ourselves that we don’t like. If someone is dishonest, are they trustworthy?

So if I am not honest with myself, can I trust myself?

When you are not comfortable being with yourself, and cannot even trust yourself, of course you have to go and look for comfort and security in various things outside, of course you have to seek something to rely on and depend on outside of yourself.

Then here’s the problem: if I know that I am not even completely honest with myself, if I’m not a refuge for myself, how can I really be honest with anyone else? How can I be a true source of comfort for others, if I can’t be one for myself?

And, to ask the same question but from a different angle, if I myself am not even trustworthy, how can I rely on any other human being in this world?

So we come back to the original question: is there any genuine source of comfort in this world, is there any security, any home, any refuge?

The problem with comfort zones

An island is a piece of dry land, surrounded nothing but the sea, which is cold, dark and full of danger. When you are shipwrecked, lost at sea, hanging onto nothing but a few pieces of wood and a lifebelt that is steadily deflating – the sight of an island makes you want to cry with relief. Solid ground! Dry land! A place of safety where there is literally no other safety. This is the nature of an island.

Being an island to oneself, therefore, it means that you must make yourself into this place of security – in a world that is, importantly, without any other comfort. To truly become an island to oneself, one has to first realise this:

“Nothing in which I take comfort is really a comfort, nothing in which I find security is really secure. All other things to which I turn for refuge, are just like branches and bits of wood floating in the ocean: they may keep me from drowning for a little while, but they are temporary, flimsy, unreliable; they get torn away by the wind and waves, they rot into the sea.

“There is no comfort in this world – therefore, I have no choice but to make an island of myself.”

You see, as long as you are comfortable in whatever comfort zone you have outside, as long as you are happy to live in it and depend on it, you cannot have the drive and the determination to work to become a refuge for yourself, by yourself. It is so much easier to depend on outside, that of course you continue to do so – as long as you see your current comfort zone as being really pleasant and comforting.

If that is taken away from you – if you are put in solitary confinement, for example, now you will be forced to do something. Either you have to learn somehow to become a refuge for yourself, or you can go insane. But as long as this we are not in such a squeezed situation, why should we give up the things that bring us pleasure and happiness?

Renunciation by saturation, renunciation by grief 

There are hundreds of stories from the time of the Buddha about various kinds of people who became monks or nuns. There is an interesting pattern in these stories: those who decide to renounce the world, go to live homeless and dedicate their lives to practicing meditation, generally fall into one of two categories. Either they have lost everything they had, and are fed up; or they are saturated with all that can be had in this world, and are equally fed up.

One story is the story of a young mother, who, in the space of about one week, witnessed the death of everyone she held dear. Her husband, her two young sons, and her parents, all of them died in tragic circumstances one after the other. Her name was Patacara, and she is often referred to as the “miserable mother.” With nothing left of her world that she could hang onto, she went some little while later to hear a teaching of the Buddha, and understood his teaching from the depth of her heart. When he said “Be a refuge for yourself, have the Dhamma as your refuge, there is no refuge,” she could see and understand this for herself right awayhaving already had all her refuge utterly destroyed. When such a thing happens to you, you don’t want to go looking for another comfort zone. You become fed up.

On the other end of the spectrum there are many stories, but the clearest and most striking is that of the Buddha himself. He was born a prince, and as a young man, had the maximum of what sensuality could give in his world – or in any world. The most beautiful wife, the richest and wisest of kings as his father, three palaces, no less; loyal servants, the best possible food – ask anyone “what would you do if you won the lottery?” he had every desire they could possibly name. If anyone was brought up in comfort, surrounded by the maximum of worldly comfort and security, it was he.

So what made him decide to give up everything he had, to renounce every material comfort, and go to live alone, homeless and penniless, with nothing? Why would he do such a thing? Was he crazy?

In fact, he himself had suffered a shock of a different kind. He had never seen a sick, old, or dead person in his life, having had an overprotective father who wished to hide from him these harsh realities of life. At 29 years old, he suddenly was faced with the sight of all three of these things for the first time. At his first sight of death, old age and sickness, all the sense of his world was overturned. What is the use of all the pleasures I have, if all of it is decaying and dying, if everything I have will be lost? What is the good in this life if that is where it ends up, for every single being in the universe? Where is the comfort in something that is inevitably, inescapably torn away?

So he saw there must be another way, a different path to walk; a way to find a solution. The place that was his comfort zone having suddenly become a prison for him, he left it and started his search for a real solution to the suffering of life.  

You see? One has all joy and comfort crushed before her eyes; the other has the best possible comfort zone imaginable, but suddenly realizes that even this is not a true source of comfort. The highest refuge we can possibly have in this world is finally no refuge at all – therefore, this world is not the right place to look for refuge.

Then where must one search for it? Where do you look?

To practice Dhamma is to be your own island

The second part of the famous saying is that The Dhamma is the refuge – there is no other refuge.

“The Dhamma” is a word with quite a huge scope of meaning. It’s not a person. It’s not a God. There is no word in English that is a perfect definition of it. The best definition of it is that it is the law of nature, the law by which all living beings have to abide, and that cannot be changed. It could be called simply the truth, or the reality of things.

It makes sense, therefore, that the Dhamma is the only true island, the only true refuge. What could be more solid and secure than truth, reality, the law of nature?

The most interesting thing about this saying, this teaching, is that actually there is no difference between being an island to oneself, a refuge for oneself, and having the Dhamma as an island and a refuge. The nature of this truth is that it has to be seen for oneself, found for oneself. It is not to be found in anything outside.

The teaching of the Buddha is therefore the teaching of how to see truth for oneself, by looking inside, and not outside.

The Dhamma is also the name for the teaching that explains how to live in accordance with the law of nature, and when you live in accordance with the law of nature, it naturally happens that you become a refuge for yourself, something dependable for yourself. For, at every level, living in accordance with the law of nature is a practice for being secure, being happy, being free, and being independent.

Acting in accordance with the law of nature means: acting wisely, doing nothing that causes harm to yourself, or others, or both; not doing wrong actions like stealing, lying, killing, or sleeping with someone else’s partner. When you do actions made in awareness and based on wisdom, this is creating a base of security for yourself, a security that does not depend on anything outside, a security that does not need anything or anyone else in the world. By this, you keep yourself secure and safe from the problems caused wrong actions, and you give yourself the gift of freedom from regret. You guarantee yourself a calm and happy mind, and because you practice being honest with yourself, you can trust yourself.

 The practice of meditation is the practice of becoming an island to yourself. At each moment that you look into the mind, and you watch the intention there, seeing anything ugly or selfish that is born there and deciding to drop it, at this moment you are an island to yourself.

This is what is meant by “loving yourself,” too. When you look inside yourself, and right in the present moment, you replace selfishness with generosity; greed with renunciation; fear with compassion; laziness with joyful effort and determination; dishonesty with honesty – each time you replace a fault with a quality, putting beauty where there was ugliness – you make yourself into something you can genuinely love.

Loving yourself is when, by actively working to remove all impurities in yourself, you firmly know in yourself that you do good. It doesn’t mean being proud, arrogant or feeling superior about it! One is simply joyful and contented inside, free from regret and full of love and compassion for everyone. When you live like this, you do not need to spend your life hiding bad qualities from others so that they may love you, and you don’t need to anxiously search for love and approval from everyone around you in order to comfort yourself and feel good.

So you see how, when you depend on Dhamma and practice Dhamma, your source of comfort is inside you and nowhere else: acting in accordance with the law of nature, you depend on the law of nature. You take refuge in the truth, in reality, and work to see this truth and reality for yourself. This is the one island that is really an island, the one security that is not torn away  – the one refuge that is worthy of the name.

Leave a Reply