“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves….” As he lay dying, the Buddha is said to have given this advice to his beloved disciple Ananda. Many of us have heard or read a translation of this teaching that encourages us to be a “lamp” or a “light” unto ourselves…..verifying the truth in the light of our own experience. In recent years, however, a more ancient layer of the earliest teachings of the Buddha has come to light, leading some scholars to come down on the side of “island” not “lamp.” (Apparently both were signified by the Pali word “dipa,” which probably isn’t any stranger than “knot” and “not”, or “bear” and “bare” in English, when you think about it).
In either case, the Buddha did not mean be cut off, to be isolated and self-sufficient. He didn’t mean be an island in the sense of that long-ago Simon and Garfunkel song about being a rock, an island…”I am a rock I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries”. Just the opposite. The Buddha was likely speaking to people who were seeking the inviolate little islands of Atman. Using a word in use at that time, he gave it a new spin, he sought to convey how being an island could mean being something not cut off but open to the world inside and out, a peaceful, grounded state, non-grasping, non-afraid.
This is how I think of it. A week or so before Christmas I saw an incomparable “Twelfth Night” on PBS, televised from the Globe Theatre in England……featuring the great Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, and many other amazing actors…..candle-lit and Elizabethan in dress and every other possible detail, it was magic on the screen…I could only imagine it live. It stayed in my head for several days…the thought about how the characters in the play travelled from the surface to the depths of their experience, from drama queen showy emotion to true love, from fake identities to true fates. Having studied medieval and renaissance literature in undergraduate school, I tried to reach deep into my memory, questioning if Illyria was an island (it was a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula which I believe is now occupied by the Hungarians). Shakespeare set many of his plays on islands or island-like far-away lands, or in Pagan times, or imaginary times…because in his own time, feeling and expressing grief showed a lack of faith (in fact, early on in ”Twelfth Night,” Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable fools, strives to straighten out the noble Olivia on the subject of mourning, jibing that she must think her brother in hell or else she is a fool).
What if we became islands unto ourselves in the spirit of Shakespeare? What if we allowed ourselves to inhabit our full human experience without judgement? What if we allowed ourselves to stop and land right in the midst of the rushing stream of this internet-driven experience, giving our attention to our full experience, welcoming in all the orphans and outlaws and fools….judging nothing.
I think then we would see that attention itself is an extraordinary gift, a means of purification, transformation, and freedom. Stopping and bringing attention is a way to land, to be grounded in the midst of it all, a way of being an island and refuge.
February is a funny month. It’s associated with love and cupid and hearts. It also holds the birthday of my dear friend and Acariya. But for me, the past four Februarys have been bittersweet. You see, four years ago, one of my best friends was killed in a tragic accident overseas while working with Doctor’s Without Borders. She was also a UNICEF delegate and wanted nothing more than to share health and wellness with every woman she met. She was an Ob/Gyn for women managing terribly painful pregnancies sprung from rapes or from one form of sexual abuse or another. Of course, there were some that were simply complicated pregnancies because the mothers were malnourished to begin with. She was involved in so much more too, like a program for vaccinations and making sure that pharmaceutical companies were not illegally dumping chemicals in village water sources….chemicals often found in the medications we take here in the US. She fought to better hospitals and educate medical professionals and sincerely worked to strengthen the resolve of so many woman who, for most of them, by the age of 9, saw atrocities you and I couldn’t imagine. She was hardened against the men who still believe women to simply be a “tool”, not worthy of happiness, education, sexual pleasure, friendship, food, clean water, proper healthcare or anything else that most of us here in the West take for granted each day. And she was softened daily by the men who cherished their mothers, wives and daughters, and treated them better and more respectful than their peers. I often asked her how she stayed so calm in the face of so much injustice…..so much violence, so much unfairness, pain and suffering…..she would tell me that the grace of the women she worked with taught her that life isn’t always fair and that balance is the only way to combat such truly horrible experiences. She would tell me that almost 90% of the women that went to her for care, showed deep grace, calm and compassion in the face of the horrific things that had happened to them. This isn’t to say they accepted it, or welcomed it, they were simply graceful and faithful. It seems to me now, as I think back on some of the things Summer wrote to me about, the women (and Summer also) she worked with taught the truest and purest form of Buddhism. Compassion, grace, non-violence….and how if one person’s actions are grounded in those tenets, they can impact another for the rest of their lives…..
In honor of Summer’s 50th birthday, this February 23rd, I’ve attached an email she sent me on February 23, 2003…her birthday….I am no longer looking at February as bittersweet….in fact, I am looking at it as very sweet.
“It doesn’t always make sense to me, but when ambiguities such as grace and love manifest themselves, I’m moved by the clarity they bring.The spring I was in the third grade, my teacher planned activities to celebrate the season. For weeks I looked forward to making treats and dying eggs. I remember telling my mom how much fun it was going to be, and I imagined what colors and designs I would choose. Before the big day, my teacher told us to come to class on Friday with a hollowed-out egg. We were also told to bring our spelling test signed by a parent, and if we didn’t, the teacher warned, we would sit out from the activities.At nine years old, I was the perfect student. I was studious, I was obedient, and I was responsible. So when I forgot to bring my spelling test that Friday, I was devastated. I knew what the consequence would be. When my class jumped from their chairs to collect art supplies, I sat still at my desk examining my perfect, hollowed-out egg, fighting the inevitable tears.It wasn’t long before my teacher pulled me aside. She knelt down and told me I should join the rest of the class. With tears in her eyes, she told me I could bring my spelling test on Monday. And then she gave me a hug.I couldn’t believe it. My disappointment disappeared with this unexpected gift.Many years later, I still remember that moment. Even though I fell short of what was required of me, my teacher graced me with love and understanding. She could have stood her ground and let me sit out as an example to the other students, but she knew punishing me for this small mistake wouldn’t teach me a new lesson. The lesson I learned that day was how much grace can lift someone’s spirit.Yet, I seem to have a hard time grasping grace in my life. I sometimes subscribe to the idea of karma: what goes around comes around. But then I remember that balancing a behavioral checkbook is detrimental to my happiness. If I’m constantly keeping count of what I feel I’m entitled to, I may never be satisfied. If I’m blessed beyond what I deserve, I might never feel worthy. I must remind myself that I know better. Not everyone is punished for breaking the rules, just as not everyone is rewarded for their efforts. Life may not be fair, but when I think about it, more often than not I’m on the fortunate side of the imbalance. And this moves me to offer the same grace to others.I believe in being gracious to others, and I believe in accepting others’ graciousness whether I’ve earned it or not. Sometimes you are blessed simply because someone loves you. And that is why grace is a gift—not a reward.”
When the man who became Mahatma Gandhi was 12 years old, he saw a play that struck a chord deep inside, telling the story of someone who stood up for the truth even when all his loved ones, and he himself, suffered greatly as a result. The boy acted out the part countless times and wept. Many years, much experience and many experiments in truth later, this great soul realized “satyagraha,” truth force: consciously and with great conscience he showed the British and the world a way of being the truth. This way helped countless people, including Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we honored this month.
When the man who became the Buddha was a boy he sat under a rose apple tree, watching his father and other men in the village plowing the fields, peaceful yet open in solitude, yet compassionate towards all beings. Many years later as he sat under a different tree patiently and courageously seeking awakening, the Buddha remembered that boyhood state. In the end, after the trials and trainings that became the great path, the Buddha showed how to return to this state, how to be islands of awareness, refuges unto themselves. This was not the end but the beginning, a platform for receiving a truth that is beyond thought, a truth that is a perception…..and communion…..with reality.
There is a kind of faith that is an act of inner opening to what is known in a dim way, deep down, without much sophisticated thought about it. This knowing comes to us as a gift, as grace, maybe even (often) in childhood or on a morning walk or when we are otherwise engaged in seemingly unimportant things. This knowing consists of knowing that there is more at stake in life than winning favor, than winning in any way. There is a force of truth.
“Sati,” the Pali word for mindfulness means to remember….to remember this act of returning and opening to a truth that cannot be thought. The spiritual path is a practice of remembering and forgetting…..seeing that we always forget yet remembering to return. The spiritual path consists in the realization of a truth (“sacca” in Pali or “satya” in Sanskrit) that is not just a verbal proposition or article of belief but seeing the nature of things as they are….as we are. To realize truth our whole being must slowly learn to open and be seen, to accept what is.
This takes a long, long time, yet we can start now, today, in a moment. Experiment with telling the truth when it feels useful and timely instead of just saying any old thing that sounds good or pleasing. Risk silence, yes, please, but also risk telling the truth in your own words and in the midst of your own messy situation…..because telling the truth to the best of your ability can establish a correspondence between our own inner being and a greater reality. Much more than an ethical principle, a dedication to telling the truth is a way of remembering, a way of opening to a reality that is greater than anything we might think we desire.