Just before the death of the Buddha, Ananda, a monk who had been to almost every discourse the Buddha had given during the Buddha’s teaching life, asked the Buddha to give the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns) some last instructions before his final passing away. Ananda was concerned with preserving the teachings of the Buddha and finding someone who would lead the community.
The Buddha answered:
Ananda, the Buddha has no such idea that it is he who should lead the community or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community?
Now I am frail Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth birthday and my life is spent.
Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, be a refuge unto yourselves with no other refuge. Let the dhamma be your island, let the dhamma be your refuge, with no other refuge.
And how does a monk or nun dwell as a light unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves with no other refuge—with the dhamma as their island, with the dhamma as their refuge—seeking no other refuge?
The Buddha then goes on to say that one dwells as a light unto oneself by contemplating the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
This passage is one of my favorites because the Buddha says that it is by practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—contemplating the body, feelings, mind and mind objects—by paying attention very closely to our own life experience, in and out of retreat, that we develop our own inner wisdom—our own inner light. The more one practices mindfulness, the more possibility there is of deepening one’s own understanding of the truth—of the dhamma. Within one moment of awareness, deeper and deeper levels of understanding are possible. This understanding is based on our own direct experience of the truth—it is experiential and intuitive, not theoretical or based on accumulating knowledge. Through the light of awareness one learns what conditions in one’s life bring about peace and well-being and what conditions bring about suffering. Through one’s own genuine inner understanding, a sense of protection (refuge) blossoms.
I have observed that people who continue to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness develop a deepening commitment to come back to the present moment, to be fully aware in that moment and not identified with what is happening. That moment may be pleasant or unpleasant, but it is the truth of what is happening. Awareness helps us open fully to our own life—any time we take one breath at a time, one step at a time, one sip of tea at a time. The more presence we experience in these simple, yet profound, moments of mindfulness, the more unshakeable confidence in awareness itself occurs. The more awareness we develop, the more inner light and refuge.