To be or to not be…. your own refuge!
Recently we had the puja for Nehan-e 涅槃会 – the day in Japan in which we commemorate the passing in to Nirvana (Parinirvana) of Shakyamuni Buddha.
As usual, in preparation for this puja I like to read the Mahaparinibbana Sutta or rather, the Agama equivalent. Most people are familiar with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta for the teaching of “be your own lamp” or “be your own refuge” or whichever the translation states, however, this sutta is incredibly large and full of great teachings. I think most people focus on this last part because it appeals to our sense of self, to our ego. We like to be in control of our own lives, we don’t like being dictated to or told what to believe. But what exactly does it mean to “be your own refuge”? I’m not going to answer that. Instead I thought I’d share with you a section from early on in the Agama version, in which the Buddha gives several sets of 7 principles for the wellbeing of the sangha, assist the dharma to flourish and protect it from slander. Here is one set of those 7 principles;
“Again there is another set of principles that enables the Dharma to flourish and protect it from slander. the first is the principle of faith in the arhatship of the Tathagata and in the ten titles attributed to the Buddha who realized perfect enlightenment. The second is the principle of having a sense of shame regarding one’s own deficiencies. The third is the principle of knowing shame regarding one’s wrong actions toward others. The fourth is the principle of maximizing learning, examining the deep meanings of what one has learned regarding good, better and best, and carrying out the practice of pure and genuine austerity. The fifth is the principle of exerting oneself in ascetic practice, refraining from evil, and promoting good action. The sixth is the principle of bearing in mind whatever one has learned and practiced in the past. The seventh is the principle of practicing insight, knowing the law of birth and cessation, and following the essentials of the wise and holy, thereby terminating the origin of suffering. These are the seven principles that enable the Dharma to flourish and protect it from slander.” (Last Journey and Sojourns Sutra, Dirgha Agama, translated by Shohei Ichimura. Chinese Agama equivalent of the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta. – Emphasis was added by me)
Now I’m wondering how this sits with people in relation to the teaching of “be your own lamp”? I’m willing to bet that for many people, this teaching will stand in opposition and will make some feel uneasy, especially where it asks us to have a sense of “shame” and also to have “faith”. Does the sutta contradict itself? I think it all hinges on how we interpret “be your own refuge”. It’s probably not what you think…..