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  • Thomas Bien

The Island of Self

At the end of his life, the Buddha told his attendant, Ananda, that he should take refuge in the island of self. Later, Buddhists would develop the practice of taking refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma (the teaching), and Sangha (the community). Clearly these are important things. To have a teacher and a teaching, to have a community to practice with and to find support from can be very helpful. So why did the Buddha not recommend these, but instead, recommended we take refuge in the island of self?

For those of us in the west, the words of the poet John Donne no doubt echo in our ears, reminding us that none of us is an island, but we are all interconnected. But in this teaching, the Buddha isn’t saying that we are separate. He knew very well how closely everything is connected to everything else.

For in the end the Buddha had to take the last steps alone. While there were people to help, including the best teachers of his time, he could only take the last steps of the journey under his own steam, with his own insight.

And this is true for us. Even though we have the benefit of Buddhist and other spiritual teaching, we still have to check that teaching against our own insight. And in this sense, we need to come back to the island of self, and find there our best protection. A community that isn’t based on deep attunement to ourselves is at best a collective.

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