Today, I’m editing my translation of DĀ 6, which is parallel to DN 26, the Cakkavatti Sutta. This sutra shares a passage made famous in the Parinibbāna Sutta in which the Buddha says:
“Attadīpā, bhikkhave, viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.
“Mendicants, live as your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.
Island, here, is read as a synonym for a protected place of refuge, making this appear to be a typical case of Buddhists repeating themselves in different ways for clarity. However, when we look at Chinese Āgama parallels, this passage takes on a different meaning. This is because dīpa also means lamp or fire in Indic languages like Pali, but not in Sanskrit, which separates the two meanings into dīpa (lamp) and dvīpa (island refuge). This makes a number scenarios possible, such as BHS dīpa (island or lamp) being misread as Skt. dīpa (lamp). However, we shouldn’t immediately assume the Chinese passages are mistaken, especially since they corroborate each other’s reading of dipa as lamp or fire instead of island. We may have an example of a northern Buddhist use of light metaphors, which the Theravada tradition doesn’t share.
Let’s look at the parallels.
DĀ 2 (Parinirvana Sutra) and DĀ 6 (Noble Wheel-Turning King Sutra) both have this reading:
You must be your own fire and burn in the Dharma; don’t burn something else. You must be your own refuge and take refuge in the Dharma; don’t take refuge in something else.
Here, the translator has translated dīpa as 熾燃, which literally means to burn intensely, like a raging fire, suggesting the original may have been a verb “to light” or “set fire.” This would be a Dharmaguptaka reading of the passage, which isn’t terribly clear. Either it’s understood that a lamp or torch is being lit, or the practitioner is lighting themselves like a lamp or torch, but it would seem most likely a metaphor of creating a source of metaphorical light (wisdom).
We also have the good luck that the Sarvâstivāda canon didn’t place the Noble Wheel-Turning King Sutra in their Dīrgha Āgama, so we find a parallel in the Chinese Madhyama Āgama. The parallel passage in this case is at the beginning of MĀ 70:
“Monks, you must light the Dharma lamp yourself and make the Dharma your own refuge. Don’t light another lamp, and don’t take refuge in another Dharma.”
Here, again, we get a better sense of dīpa being read as a lamp, but there’s also a verb (然) meaning “to light” it. This is an interesting metaphor because it occurs in others contexts in Chinese translation. Lighting the Dharma lamp is found in a number of texts, often Avadāna and Mahayana texts, and it seems to mainly refer to making the Dharma known to others or the world, and thereby putting out the darkness of ignorance. Examples include:
- The Asoka Avadāna and Divyāvadāna material that was inserted into the Saṃyukta Āgama (T99.168b13 & 178c12)
- The Kāśyapīya Saṃyukta Agama, No. 94 (T100.407a16)
- Past Stories of the Bodhisattva (T153.69b19)
- The Flower of Compassion Sutra (T157.202c18, 219b28, 224a7) - particularly notable because these passages seem to reference Cakkavatti Sutta
- The Chinese Lalitavistara (T187.603b22)
- The Chinese Buddhacarita (T193.87b11)
Needless to say, this wouldn’t be an unknown metaphor using a source of light to describe how wisdom banishes ignorance from the world when shared with others. It’s interesting to look at this case in the context of other passages in which Theravada sources seem to erase metaphors of light, perhaps because they took on essentialist interpretations in later eras.