AN ISLAND OF PEACE
I would like to tell you a story that will help you to understand better the practice of taking refuge in the island of self. About 30 years ago, I was practising and living in the northern part of France and there was a hermitage called “Les Patates Douces” and I went to a solo retreat in that hermitage, and that morning, it was beautiful, and I decided to spend the whole day in the wood. The hermitage was situated in a kind of forest called “La foret d’Othe” and I like to do walking meditation and sitting meditation in a wood, so that morning, I decided to spend the whole day in the wood.
I brought with me a bowl of rice, some sesame seeds, a bottle of water, and off I went to the forest and wanted to stay the whole day there. I enjoyed it very much, but at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon black clouds began to gather and I knew that I could not stay longer in the wood, that I had to go home to the hermitage. Before I left the hermitage I had opened the door and all the windows so that the sunshine could come in, and now the wind had begun to blow and I knew that I have to stop my stay in the wood and go home to the hermitage to take care of it. When I arrived at the hermitage, I found the situation not pleasant at all. The wind had blown very hard, and all the papers I put on my table were blown a little bit everywhere, and then it’s cold, it’s miserable in the hermitage, cold and dark and disorder, it’s a mess!
The first thing I did was to go and close all the windows because I didn’t want the wind to continue its work of destruction, so I closed the windows and I also closed the door. And then I made a fire in the chimney and when the fire began to come alive, I began to collect all the sheets of paper on the ground and put them on the table and then took the little brick I had to put on it, and tried to make the hermitage tidy, in order. By that time, the chimney was very pleasant already. By that time it was warm, it was pleasant, it was cosy in the hermitage.
There are days when you feel that it’s not your day, everything goes wrong. And the more effort you make, the situation becomes worse. Of course you have gone through days like that in your life. You fail in everything, you suffer, you get angry, people blame you, you are not happy, you are frustrated. And you tell yourself that you have to make more effort, but the more effort you make, the worse the situation becomes, and then you know that it’s time to stop, it’s time to stop everything, it’s time to go home to yourself and take refuge in yourself. You have to close your windows, the eyes, the ears; you have to close the five windows.
You should not be in touch with the outside any more; you have to close the windows of your hermitage. Because there is a hermitage within yourself – that is the island of self that I want you to discover. If you continue to be on the outside, then you continue to suffer, you know. That is why in moments like that, you have to go home to the island of self, and the first thing you do is exactly what I did with my hermitage, to close the five windows.
And you know that eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, are the six windows you close. Don’t look, don’t listen, don’t touch, and don’t think. Stop everything in order to prevent the strong wind from the outside to continue to blow in and to make you miserable, because the eye is a window, the ear is a window, the mind is a window, and if you keep them open, the wind of suffering, the wind of disturbance will continue to come and make the situation worse and worse. Don’t try any more. Stop trying and shut the windows. You shut also the door, and you have to go to the chimney and make a fire.
You want to get a feeling of warmth, cosiness, and comfort by practising mindful breathing, going home to yourself. And rearrange everything, your feelings, your perceptions, your emotions, they are all scattered all over, it’s a mess.
You have to recognise each feeling, each emotion, and you have to collect them like I collected all the sheets of paper that were scattered a little bit all over. Practise mindfulness and concentration, and tidy up everything within yourself. You are going home, you have gone home to your island of self, and you are transformed into a place that is cosy and pleasant for you to take refuge in. Everyone has a hermitage within, very safe, very cosy, very comfortable, very calm, and they have to go home to that hermitage.
The expression that the Buddha used is “dípá atta dípá saraná.” “Atta” means self, “dípá” means island, and “saraná” means refuge. “Taking refuge in the island of self.” This is the dharma talk that the Buddha gave when he was 80 to many groups of friends and disciples. If you rely on the outside, you get lost. That is why you have to go home and rely on something that is reliable, that is the island of self.
There are many ways to go home to the island of self. One of the ways is to practise mindful breathing and concentrate on your breath. You will discover the island of self. The other way is to do walking meditation. Every step brings you home to the here and the now, and then you can open the door of the island of self and go into it. We remember the teaching of the Buddha when we are tired, when we feel that we are not solid, we feel we are victims of the environment and victims of our emotions, and then what we should do is to go home right away, to the hermitage, to the island of self.
And with the practice, we will discover that is the safest place to go back to. And after some time being in the island of self, in the hermitage of self, you recover yourself and then you are in a much better position to get in touch with the world outside. And Thay has said that it takes time, it takes practice in order to recognise, to find our island of self, because the island of self is not exactly in the body.
When we say inside, that does not mean exactly inside the body, it is not really located in the body. We have a better chance to find it in the dharma body than in the physical body. And everyone has that island. No waves can reach that island, so standing on the island, we are very safe, we recover ourselves, restore ourselves, become strong, and then we are ready to go out again, to help. And so even if you are still very young, you know that there is an island within yourself.
Every time you feel you suffer so much, nothing seems to go right, you have to stop making efforts, you have to go home to that island right away. And taking refuge in the island for five, ten, fifteen minutes, half an hour, you know that you feel stronger, much better within yourself.
THICH NHAT HANH
Author of " Old Path White Clouds"