This translation of the Discourse on Taking Refuge in Oneself has been prepared by Thich Nhat Hanh from the Chinese: Taisho Revised Tripitaka, No.99, Samyukta Agama 639. It appears in Thich Nhat Hanh, Chanting From The Heart (Parallax Press, Rev.Ed., 2006)
It is recited regularly at Plum Village practice centers around the world, as part of our daily sitting and chanting sessions.
Discourse on Taking Refuge in Oneself
I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying in the Mango Grove in the cool shade of the mango trees along the bank of a river in the land of Magadha. The elders Shariputra and Maudgalyayana had recently passed away. It was the full-moon day of the Uposatha Ceremony and the precepts were recited.
The Buddha spread out his sitting mat and sat facing the community. After looking out at those gathered, he said, “As I look at our community, I see a large space left by the Venerables Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. In our Sangha, these venerables were the monks who were the most eloquent in giving Dharma talks, encouraging and instructing all the other monks, nuns, and laypeople.
“O monks, people seek two kinds of riches—material riches and the riches of the Dharma. In their search for material riches, they can go to worldly people. In their search for the riches of the Dharma, they could always go to the Venerables Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. The Tathagata is someone who is not searching for anything, whether it is material or the Dharma.
“O monks, do not be sad or anxious because Shariputra and Maudgalyayana have passed into nirvana. On large trees, filled with leaves, sumptuous fruits, and flowers, the largest branches always die or are broken first. On jeweled mountains, don’t the highest peaks always erode before the smaller ones? In the Sangha of the Tathagata, the Venerables Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were the greatest students. So it is natural that these venerables would enter nirvana first. Do not give rise to feelings of sorrow or anguish.
“All phenomena that are born, exist, and are subject to the influence of other phenomena, in other words, all phenomena that are composite, must abide by the law of impermanence and eventually cease to exist. They cannot exist eternally, without someday being destroyed. Everything we cherish and hold dear today, we will have to let go of and be separated from in the future. In not too long a time, I will also pass away. Therefore, I urge you to practice being an island unto yourself, knowing how to take refuge in yourself, and not taking refuge in anyone or anything else.
“Practice taking refuge in the island of the Dharma. Know how to take refuge in the Dharma, and do not take refuge in any other island or person. Meditate on the body in the body, nourishing Right Understanding and mindfulness to master and transform your cravings and anxieties. Observe the elements outside the body in the elements outside the body, nourishing Right Understanding and mindfulness to master and transform your cravings and anxieties. That is the way to take refuge in the island of self, to return to yourself in order to take refuge in the Dharma, and not to take refuge in any other island or thing.”
When the bhikshus heard the Buddha offer this teaching, they were all very happy to put it into practice.
Samyukta Agama 639
Taisho Revised Tripitaka 99