As the Buddha neared death, Ananda, his faithful attendant, feared that if the Buddha died before appointing a new leader of the community, the Buddha’s lifework would die with him.
The Buddha’s response to Ananda is revealing on two counts.
First, the Buddha said, and I paraphrase, “If I thought of myself as the leader of the community, I’d think about appointing someone to lead it after my death. But since I don’t think of myself in that way, I have no instructions about who should lead in my stead after I die.”
By this response we can see that Ananda was fearful because rather than simply seeing the Buddha as a virtuous example and skillful teacher of those willing to be taught, he’d grasped onto the Buddha as a personal protector and as something like a king.
But the Buddha did not see himself or his relationship to the community as kinglike, nor did he think of his legacy in terms of power or leadership. His legacy is his Teaching. This Teaching, when practiced, allows one to become one’s own refuge and a refuge for others as well.
So, rather than offering Ananda consoling words to assuage his fear, the Buddha challenged and encouraged Ananda to recognize his own capacity to realize the Way on his own through practice: “Be your own island, Ananda, be your own refuge! Do not take any other refuge! Let the Teaching be your island, let the Teaching be your refuge: do not take any other refuge!
Be A Refuge
In the Buddha’s words then, each one of us, practicing the Teaching, each one of us living the Teaching, this is taking refuge in the Teaching; this is becoming an island of protection and safety for one’s self and for others. A big part of practicing the Teaching is willingly ordering our lives, however haltingly, toward virtuous living.
As I write, every living being and all encompassing nature needs safe harbor from the human wrought calamities now unfolding around us. Largely, these calamities are the result of human choices and actions. Yes, at the individual level, we are immersed in social and economic systems that make it extremely difficult to act in ways that benefit and protect nature and our neighbors near and far.
Nevertheless, if we as individuals and as members of society want peace, safety, good health, and an equitable and sustainable way of life—a true refuge–each of us must act in ways that contribute to creating peace, safety, good health, and an equitable and sustainable way of life. None of this is remote from living a life guided by or oriented toward virtue.
The values that order human institutions and power relations in the world today esteem actions that ultimately corrode human solidarity, undermine virtue, and destroy the natural world. These values have more in common with nihilism than with virtue. They put money and markets above life itself. These values regard people and nature as things.
Therefore, waste, murder, violence, inequality, falsehood, verbal abuse, sexual exploitation, nationalism, misogyny, racism, and intoxicating substances and entertainments seem to rule the day. Is it any wonder that nature is faltering, institutions are failing, leaders have little credibility, and people have little faith in or regard for each other?
Yet, as many of us know, human solidarity, human welfare, and the integrity of nature, especially given the enormous technological power humankind can now unleash vis a vis nature, comes down to good faith and the good will between people.
Where people understand and care for nature’s limits, nature’s sustainable bounty remains superabundant. And, in nearly every case, those people who are honest, fair, gentle, competent and dependable earn the trust of others. Such people build concord between people and between people and the world of nature.
People who engender solidarity and promote social harmony govern themselves by living lives attuned to wise limits, to virtue. And, in agreement with the wise ones who came before him, the Buddha also discovered that living a life governed by virtue is fundamental to becoming both a refuge and one worthy of the name “buddha”– one who can correctly be called awake.
If each of us wants peace and a refuge in this life, a direct way forward is for each of us to act in ways that make us a refuge. First, we do this by abandoning acts that cause the destruction of life. From there, If each of us abandons stealing, stops using false, abusive, harsh, or self aggrandizing words, if each of us abandons sexual misconduct, and stops using intoxicants that lead to headless and tragic behavior, then there will be peace in the world and the consequences of the wanton destruction of nature will, in time, be healed and repaired.
A Life Oriented by Virtue is a Gift
- Destroying life
- Ignoble words and phrases
- Sexual exploitation
This would be an immeasurable gift to each one of us, to nature, and to future generations.
Yet, we seldom think of leading a life of virtue as a refuge or as a gift to others. More often, people think of a life committed to personal virtue as a life of onerous, stuffy, stultifying sacrifice.
According to the Buddha, “By abstaining from the destruction of life, and from stealing, having abandoned sexual misconduct and false speech, and by abstaining from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, a person gives to an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction, and that person in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction, Abandoning these five behaviors is a great gift to the world, primal, long standing, never repudiated by the wise.” ~ Anguttara Nikaya 8:39
Refrain from these five,
for the benefit of your family, for the benefit of your neighbors and friends. You will become a better member of your religious tradition, a better activist, politician, judge, doctor, nurse, machine operator, mother, father, brother, sister; you name it.
Each of us can become a refuge if we practice being a refuge.
Reflect on this. Even if you are perfect with respect to the virtues, it is really no small matter.
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 The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: The Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness by Nyanaponika Thera, page 157