Chapter 5

The True Refuge

We read in the “Maha Parinibbana Sutta” (Digha Nikaya 16, The Book of the Great Decease, 100-101) 1 that the Buddha spoke to Ananda about his old age, being in his eightieth year, and that he said that his life was spent:

Therefore, Ananda, be an island to yourself, a refuge to yourself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.  And how, Ananda, is a monk an island to himself, a refuge to himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?  When he dwells contemplating body in the body... feeling in the feelings, mind in the mind, and mental objects in the mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island to himself, a refuge to himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge. Those monks of mine, Ananda, who now, or after I am gone, abide as an island to themselves, as a refuge to themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge; it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.

When we were sitting near the Bodhi Tree for a Dhamma discussion, Acharn Sujin said that we are an island to ourselves when we develop understanding ourselves. We listen in order to have more understanding and we consider what we heard. It has to be our own understanding, nobody else can develop it for us.

Bodh Gaya

We read in this Sutta about the four Applications of Mindfulness: physical phenomena, feelings, cittas, and dhammas, that is, cetasikas and other realities under different aspects not included in the other three Applications of Mindfulness. Acharn Sujin explained that when we read about these four Applications of Mindfulness, we should not merely think of their names. They should remind us to be aware of the reality that appears now. When people read in the section on the Application of Mindfulness of the Body about mindfulness of breath or the cemetery meditations, they wonder in what way they should apply this. People have different accumulated inclinations and therefore, there is no rule that everybody should also
develop samatha. Some people have accumulated skill to develop high degrees of calm even to the degree of jhana, absorption, and they may develop calm with meditation subjects such as breath or the foulness of the body. There is no rule that people should develop samatha, calm, to a high degree before they develop insight. But no matter what one’s inclinations are, one should know and understand that what appears because of conditions is impermanent and non-self. After each section of the Applications of Mindfulness, it has been repeatedly stated that one should contemplate the origination and dissolution of realities. This understanding can only be acquired by the development of insight, right understanding of the reality that appears now. Also the citta that develops mindfulness on breathing as a meditation subject of samatha is impermanent and non-self. We should not forget that the four Applications of Mindfulness include all the common realities of our daily life, such as pain, pleasant feeling, hearing, tasting, sound or tangible object. These are the objects of satipatthana.

We have ignorance and wrong view of all realities, we see all the pleasant things of life as a true refuge.  We do not realize that all conditioned dhammas are susceptible to change and decay. We should listen to the Dhamma as it is explained by the right friend in Dhamma. In India Acharn Sujin proved again and again to be our right friend in Dhamma. We should consider carefully what we learnt through her and apply it by the development of right understanding of nama and rupa. Gradually the characteristics of nama and rupa can be understood as they really are and they can be seen as impermanent, dukkha (unsatisfactory or suffering) and anatta, non-self. In this way we shall realize that Dhamma is our true refuge, that there is no external refuge.

We should know what can be the object of sati and panna when satipatthana is developed: one reality at a time as it appears through one of the sense-doors or the mind-door. When we taste a flavour we usually are forgetful of realities and we think of the concept of the flavour, such as an apple or a sweet. When we have studied the Dhamma there may be conditions for the arising of sati that is non-forgetful of the reality that appears. It can be mindful of the flavour and then understanding can develop of its true nature so that it can be realized as a rupa appearing through the tongue. Flavour has a characteristic that can be known directly, without the need to think about it or to name it flavour. We can change the name flavour, but its characteristic is unalterable. Thus, characteristics of realities can be directly understood when they appear one at a time, without the need to think about them. Satipatthana is at first very slight, we hardly know what it is. But when it arises more often we know. It is followed by thinking, but we can realize that it is thinking.

Acharn Sujin said: ”The theory of satipatthana is not too difficult, but there may not be enough conditions for the arising of right awareness. One is not used to the characteristic of awareness. If there can be thinking of nama and rupa, why can’t there be awareness of them? Right now there is the test of one’s understanding of seeing, hearing or thinking. While one is listening all realities arise and fall away because of the appropriate conditions... Panna can know at which moment there is satipatthana and at which moment there is not. Sati of satipatthana arises and falls away very rapidly and one thinks about satipatthana and the object of satipatthana. Later on the difference between such moments can be known.  Panna should be keen enough to see the difference. The eightfold Path is difficult because it has to be developed with detachment. Having the intention or the wish to develop it is not the Path; if one wishes to know a reality even if that reality seems to be clear, it is wrong, and panna should be very keen to realize this. The Path cannot be developed by the intention to know realities. The wrong practice can only be eradicated by the path-consciousness (magga-citta) of the sotapanna, the person who attains the first stage of enlightenment.”

Satipatthana is not concentration or trying to focus on a specific reality. There are so many pittfalls by which we mistake for satipatthana what is not satipatthana. For example, we experience for a moment just sound, no other reality and then we believe that this is satipatthana. However, akusala citta with attachment can also experience the paramattha dhamma that is sound. Acharn Sujin spoke about hardness that can be experienced by different types of citta. She said that we all notice when something hard impinges on the bodysense, that also a child can notice this. Body-consciousness experiences hardness, it is vipakacitta, result of kamma, and this citta is not accompanied by awareness. One may fix one’s attention with lobha on a paramattha dhamma such as hardness , but that is not satipatthana. Or there maybe a moment of sati and then quickly after that there is again lobha trying to hold on to the object.  Cittas arise and pass away so fast. Panna must be very keen to discern all those different moments. We are likely to have many misconceptions of what sati is. We forget that sati falls away in splitseconds, just like all other conditioned realities. Do we believe that sati does not fall away and, while it is lasting, that it can be aware now of this reality and then of that reality? We may have intellectual understanding of the fact that sati falls away immediately, but, unknowingly, we may still tend to hold on to sati as if it could last. We take sati for self and that is a hindrance to its arising.  Listening to the Dhamma and considering what we heard can condition the arising of sati. It depends on someone’s accumulated inclinations how deeply he will consider what he hears. Nobody can control the arising of mindfulness, it all depends on the accumulated conditions for it. Nobody can control the object of mindfulness either. As we were often reminded: nobody can choose to see, nobody can choose to hear, nobody can choose to have sati. It will arise when there are the right conditions. We may try to have conditions as a support for panna but this is motivated by clinging to the concept of self. Acharn Sujin stressed that we need more understanding of the truth of non-self as a firm foundation that can condition the arising of right awareness. She said:

“When a characteristic of a reality appears, do we just remember the name of that reality, or is there sati arising because of its own conditions? A reality such as seeing may appear, but it appears for a very short time, and then it falls away. Sati arises for a very short moment and then it falls away. Sati that is aware without trying to focus on a reality is right awareness. But the clinging to the concept of self comes in between all the time. It is very difficult to become detached from it. Gradually we can become familiar with the different characteristics that appear.”

Acharn Sujin explained many times how important it is to be sincere as to one's own development. We should realize when there is satipatthana and when there is not, we should realize what we understand already and what not yet. She stressed that it is the task of sati to be mindful of realities, not our task. If we deeply consider this, we shall be less inclined to think of sati with attachment, or to try to induce sati.  By listening to the Dhamma and considering what we hear, right understanding of the way to develop satipatthana grows, and thus, conditions are gradually accumulated for the arising of sati of satipatthana. When sati of satipatthana arises and is aware of a characteristic, panna can understand what sati is and in this way the difference can be discerned between the moment that there is sati and the moment that there is forgetfulness of realities. When sati is mindful of a reality, panna, understanding of that characteristic, can gradually develop.  Acharn Sujin reminded us many times that we should have no expectations with regard to the arising of sati and panna:

“One can live happily with regard to the development of understanding, and this can be very natural. If there is very little panna, one sees one’s own accumulations and one knows that one cannot have what has not been accumulated. Someone may dislike his accumulations, but if there is more understanding he can take life easy. When panna arises there are no expectations, the function of panna is detachment. If there is not enough understanding and there is desire for sati and panna, they cannot arise.  We should know, if there is interest to listen, that it is not self who has an interest, but that it arises because of conditions.”

When we were in Sarnath, the Head Monk, the Ven. Kahawatte Sri Sumedha, showed us great kindness and hospitality, inviting us to use his office for Dhamma discussions, and later on arranging for a “high tea” to be offered to us. While we were sitting at a long table in his office we heard every now and then the call of a bird that was kept there. When we hear sound, almost immediately we think of a concept.  We should not try to avoid thinking of concepts, thinking arises naturally and it is also a kind of nama.  When we hear a bird’s call or the voices of people it is natural to think of concepts, of mental images we have of animals and people. However, we do not think all the time, there are also other realities such as hearing, seeing or experiencing hardness. They arise and fall away in splitseconds, but we do not realize this and we remember concepts on account of what was perceived.  Nama and rupa are not concepts, they are not imaginary, but they are dhammas each with their own characteristic. When a characteristic of nama or rupa appears, sati can be aware of them without thinking of their names.  During our journey Acharn Sujin stressed often that no names or words are needed when there is awareness of characteristics of realities. This is a reminder for us, since we are so used to think in words about realities instead of being directly aware of them. She explained:



“Awareness should be natural; it just follows the moment of experiencing an object by “studying” it with awareness, so that there is a beginning of understanding, instead of just thinking in words. Without thinking in words there can be right awareness of a reality, and awareness falls away. There should be no expectation of other moments of awareness.”

Listening to Acharn Sujin’s explanations is a condition for more understanding of paramattha dhammas, such as hearing and sound. Intellectual understanding of them is a foundation for the arising of direct awareness, provided we do not obstruct the arising of satipatthana by wishing to have sati. When sound appears there must be the nama which hears that sound, but panna has to be developed so that it clearly understands nama as nama and rupa as rupa. Acharn Sujin explained:

“ Rupa cannot experience anything and nama is quite different from rupa. When sati of satipatthana arises it is aware of only one characteristic at a time, for example of sound. There is nobody who hears, there is nothing else but sound and hearing that hears the sound. There is nobody at all, nowhere. If there is an idea of somewhere, there is thinking of some place, memory of place and people, of me, of the whole body. When understanding of sound is developed, it is just sound. People try to focus, to concentrate with the idea of self. Sound is appearing and citta experiences it, there are only these realities. There is nobody in this room. This can be directly experienced by gradually developing right understanding and this is the right Path.”

When we meet other people and we talk to them, we forget that, in the ultimate sense, there is nobody, that we are alone with nama and rupa. If we do not know the characteristic that appears we think of this or that person. There must be citta that experiences an object. Colour appears, thus there must be a citta that is seeing. Visible object or colour is the only rupa that is visible, that can be seen. Seeing sees for an extremely short moment and then it is gone, and also visible object falls away, nothing remains. When we look at people they seem to last, and this is because we think for a long time of shape and form of people and of things. There are many different moments of thinking and these fall away. Thinking is a paramattha dhamma, but the concepts that are the objects of thinking are not paramattha dhammas. We can learn to discern when we are in the world of concepts and when in the world of paramattha dhammas. We cannot immediately have right understanding of paramattha dhammas, but we can begin to develop it. I asked Acharn Sujin why, in particular, visible object seems to appear for a long time. She answered:

“It seems to appear for a long time, but when there is more understanding of it, it will appear more shortly. Only one kind of rupa can be seen. When we are thinking of shape and form, it is remembrance of a concept, different from visible object. There is thinking and remembrance of what is seen. Other rupas such as hardness or sound do not interest us as much as visible object.”


The Relics

The Buddha has taught us the truth of paramattha dhammas he had realized when he attained enlightenment, and that is why we can develop today right understanding of all phenomena of our life.  From the following Sutta we can learn that the Dhamma is our true refuge when we see the five khandhas 1 , conditioned nama and rupa, as they are: impermanent, dukkha and anatta, non-self. This understanding is developed through satipatthana. We read in the Kindred Sayings (III, Khandha-vagga, The First Fifty, Ch 5, On Being an Island to oneself 2 ) that the Buddha said:

Monks, be islands to yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands to themselves... should investigate to the very heart of things: “What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?” Here, monks the uninstructed worldling... regards the body as self, the self as having body, body as being in the self, or the self as being in the body. Change occurs in this man’s body, and it becomes different.  On account of this change and difference, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair arise. (similarly with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness.) But seeing the body’s impermanence, its changeability, its waning, its ceasing, he says, “formerly as well as now, all bodies were impermanent and unsatisfacory, and subject to change.” Thus, seeing this as it really is, with perfect insight, he abandons all sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not worried at their abandonment, but unworried lives at ease, and thus living at ease he is said to be “assuredly delivered.” (Similarly with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.)



1. The five khandhas are: rupakkhandha, physical phenomena; vedanakkhandha, feelings; sannakkhandha, remembrance or perception; sankharakkhandha, mental formations including all cetasikas except feeling and remembrance; vinnanakkhandha, consciousness.
2. I used the translation by M O’ C. Walshe, Wheel Publication No. 318-321.