“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…”and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries”. Just the opposite. The Buddha was probably 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. During Christmas week, I saw an incomparable “Twelfth Night” on Broadway. Featuring the great Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, and many other amazing actors from the Globe in England, candle-lit and Elizabethan in dress and every other possible detail, it was magic. During the snowy ride home, I talked with my daughter 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. I asked Alex, who has a freshly minted masters degree in medieval and renaissance studies, if Illyria was an island (it turns our to be a land on a Balkan coast). Alex told me that it is taught that Shakespeare set many of his plays on islands or island-like faraway lands or in Pagan times or imaginary times because in his own time feeling and expressing grief showed a lack of faith (In fact, Olivia’s fool makes a joke about her grief in Twelfth Night), 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.