Which is better: lamp or island?

I’ve seen diipa translated as both “lamp” and “island.” “Be a lamp unto yourselves” strikes me as quite different from “be an island unto yourselves.” Tamilcube’s online English-Pali also lists “help, support” as a meaning, which I would think fits even better than lamp or island, but I have yet to see that in a translation. To me, “lamp” gives a sense of being responsible for guiding myself correctly, whereas “island” seems to mean to be separate and self-contained-- not entirely possible given how things are so interdependent. I’m probably misunderstanding the original meaning in some way, as I am completely unversed in Pali. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!




the source of confusion i believe is in the fact that Pali is a corrupt Sanskrit, where dīpa and dvīpa are two distinct words

so if context doesn’t provide clues it’s impossible to determine which reading is correct

still the name of one of past Buddhas is Dipamkara in both Sanskrit and Pali if this article is accurate, and means “one who lights a lamp” according to Concise PED and “a light-causer” according to Sanskrit-English dictionary

so in the context of the Dhamma the odds tend to be in favor of dipa - the lamp rather than island although i like the latter better

“Majjhe sarasmiṃ tiṭṭhataṃ,
(iccāyasmā kappo):
Oghe jāte mahabbhaye;
Dīpaṃ pabrūhi mārisa;
Tvañca me dīpamakkhāhi,
Yathāyidaṃ nāparaṃ siyā”.

“Majjhe sarasmiṃ tiṭṭhataṃ,
(kappāti bhagavā):
Oghe jāte mahabbhaye;
Dīpaṃ pabrūmi kappa te

For those standing in the middle of a lake,” said venerable Kappa,
“when a fearful flood has arisen,
for those overcome by old age and death, speak about an island, dear Sir,
you must explain an island to me, so there will be no more after this.”
For those standing in the middle of a lake, Kappa,” said the Gracious One,
“when a fearful flood has arisen,
for those overcome by old age and death, I speak about an island, Kappa …
Sn 5.11

So wonderful any time we have the excuse to read this text! :slight_smile::slight_smile:

Island works much better than lamp in the metaphor of flood and refuge (island) for samsara and nibbana. However why not both? I think both resonate so maybe the Buddha liked the word because it had both meanings - if it did in Upper Magadha or whatever dialect he was speaking. Do we know?



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Thanks! I’m new and had trouble with the quotes.

Dīpa is a homonym, which, as noted earlier, stands for two distinct Sanskrit words, “island” and “lamp”. So neither is “better”, it depends on the context. Given that the two words are completely distinct, however, it is safe to assume that, apart from poetic or otherwise unusual contexts, one or other meaning is correct.

In this case, dīpa in the sense of “island” is a standard term used in a series of quasi-synonyms at eg AN 3.51, AN 3.52, and SN 42.7:

tāṇañca leṇañca dīpañca saraṇañca parāyaṇañca
shelter, protection, island, refuge, and haven

All these have the sense of “safe place”. In the passage alluded to at the beginning, which occurs in the Mahaparinibbana (DN 16) and several other suttas, attadīpa is paralleled with attasaraṇa, and thus clearly has the sense of “island”.

attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā
Live with yourself as your own island and refuge, and no other refuge, with the teaching as your island and refuge, and no other refuge.

This is confirmed by Sanskrit parallels of this passage. In the Mahāvastu of the Mahāsaṅghika-Lokuttarvādins we have (Mvu31#14):

ātmadvīpā bhikṣavo viharatha ananyadvīpāḥ ātmaśaraṇāḥ ananyaśaraṇāḥ dharmadvīpā ananyadvīpāḥ dharmaśaraṇā ananyaśaraṇāḥ

And in another passage from the same text (Mvu95#9)

ātmadvīpā bhikṣavo viharatha ananyadvīpā ātmaśaraṇā ananyaśaraṇā dharmadvīpā dharmaśaraṇā ananyaśaraṇā

While in the (Mūla) Sarvāstivāda Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra we have:

ātmadvīpair vihartavyam ātmaśaraṇair dharmadvīpair dharmaśaraṇair ananyadvīpair ananyaśaraṇaiḥ

There’s no really difficult interpretive problem here. Reading this passage as “lamp” was an old mistake made by Thomas Rhys Davids in his Buddhist Suttas of 1881, uncritically echoed in spiritual pop culture ever since.

This mistake proved congenial to those who wished to prove that Buddhism was merely a restatement of the Upanishadic atman theories. Such theories were lent an unfortunate respectability by Caroline Rhys Davids in later years, but I don’t think her husband Thomas was of the same persuasion. You still find this kind of thing today. As just as random example, from Buddha and Shakespeare: Eastern Dharma, Western Drama by David Jon Peckinpaugh:

The Buddha: ‘be a lamp unto yourself,’ reminds us that we can all end up adding this very illumination to the symphony of Light that is the Cosmos in Radiant Manifestation, as the very Lila (Play) of the Divine Incarnate here and now … and now … and yet again, now.

(This quote is a master class in pseudo-spiritual bullshit. Note the use of capitals—even for the Sanskrit! Wow, it must Be So Very Important. The archaic “unto” gives it that Biblical touch. And it’s not just “illumination”, but “very” illumination, another archaism which, coincidentally or not, was favored by some early Buddhist translators. The Buddha is said to “remind us”: but does he, really? Or is the author just making stuff up that has no relation to the text, and using suggestion to try to convince uncritical readers that he has access to a profound universal wisdom?)

Anyway, ‘island’ was clearly used as a term meaning “refuge, safe haven”. The interesting problem is not whether it means “lamp”, but how to render the sense into English. For of course, the English idiom is that to make yourself an island means to cut yourself off from humanity, and not in a healthy way. The Pali sense is of dry land in a flood, as noted by @suravira (which, by the way, awesome name: “Hero of Heroes”! Or does it mean “Liquor Hero”? Without diacriticals, I can’t tell.)

This is, presumably, where the sense of “help, support” is derived from. I don’t think they quite hit the mark, but perhaps “haven” or “sanctuary” might do.

Live with yourself as your own haven and refuge, and no other refuge, with the teaching as your haven and refuge, and no other refuge.


Recently, I am doing translation of DA (T. 1) from English translation into Indonesian. The corresponding word for “dipa” in the same passage of DA 2 in Chinese is 熾燃, which is the English translation translate it as “light”, whereas in the DDB (Digital Dictionary of Buddhism), it is translated as “blazing”. Perhaps, it shows that Chinese translators (especially in DA) prefer “lamp” to “island” in translating the word.

That was an excellent and helpful exposition. Thank you. I hadn’t thought of “island” as “refuge,” and that makes much more sense to me now. Hats off to you.

I know what you mean about random capitalization. I’ve seen some addiction recovery literature that’s like that-- Integrity, Gratitude, and suchlike abound. Might as well go full German and capitalize every noun. :wink:


Very nice! Thanks. The Nipata is next on my list, so it will be like meeting a friend the next time I see it.


It’s Sūravīra - given to me by Bhante G, with some irony I imagine. The Peckinpaugh quote may be enough to vanquish me, in fact.

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Interesting, I didn’t know that. DA was, it is usually argued, translated from a dialect other than Sanskrit, perhaps something more similar to Pali, and this confusion would support that. Perhaps @llt has a comment on this?

On a different note, it’s great to see that you’re working on this translation. However it has recently come to light that this translation—presumably the Numata translation—is of questionable accuracy. I don’t know that there have been any detailed studies, but there are certainly some legitimate problems, I don’t know how widespread they are. In any case, I hope you’re checking the Chinese as much as possible.

Meanwhile, Rod and Ven Analayo have essentially finished the MA translation. It is with the publisher for proofing and typesetting, which might take some time.


Yes, the translation is less acurate and I must check the Chinese because many doctrinal terms are translated improperly (the Chinese lookup tool from DDB is a great help for me)

Wow, it’s a good news. I hope they will publish it soon :slight_smile:

Excellent. It would be nice if such corrections could make it back into the English translation.

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I am comfortable with both words.
In Sri Lanka we call Deepa to lamp and the Island.
Eg: Sri Lanka is an island (Deepa)
We have a saying not to rely on others or others lamp. (get your own lamp when you walk at night)

If you are lost in the ocean (Samsara) what you need is an island (Nibbana)
If you are in the dark (ignorance) what you need is a lamp (Nibbana or enlightenment)


I’ve just read that it was translated from Gandhari into Chinese by Buddhayaśas in the early 5th century. It was probably something of a hybrid language, though, like what we see with so-called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

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Gandhari was commonly used by the Dharmaguptakas, so that would make sense.

Right, at least in the first big expansion of Buddhism in the Northwest, it seems to have been the most influential language, and the Dharmaguptaka seem to have been very widespread.

(The whole thing probably depended a lot on the time and place as well. Sometimes the Mahīśāsaka, Sarvāstivāda, and Mahāyāna also used Gandhari.)

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Dear @llt,

Is “light” a good English translation for 熾燃 in DA? Or is there another suggestion for the right rendering in English?

Thank you :anjal:

how about an ilamp?

sorry, just back from a philological forum