This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the sutta “About Cunda,” the Buddha gives a profound teaching following the death of the beloved monk Sariputta. Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggallana were two of the Buddha’s dearest friends as well as the two chief disciples—the arahants, or fully awakened beings—whom the Buddha first asked to teach the dharma.
Not too long before the Buddha’s own death, both Sariputta and Moggallana passed away. In and of itself, the illness and death of Sariputta, as well Moggallana and the Buddha, offer a potent message: all human beings are subject to sickness, aging, and death.
As the sutta relates, Cunda, Sariputta’s attendant, went to Ven. Ananda to inform him of Sariputta’s death. Ananda was the Buddha’s attendant (and first cousin) and a key member of the community of monks who followed the Buddha during his 45 years teaching the dharma in northern India. This community of monks—the sangha—was a tightly knit group, dedicated to the Buddha, the dharma, and each other. This bond was an important component in the way of life followed by the Buddha and his students—the great blessing of friendship.
So upon learning of the death of his dear friend and comrade in the dharma, Ananda immediately went along with Cunda to see the Buddha and tell him the news.
Ananda related his grief to the Buddha, saying, “It was as if my body were drugged . . . I lost my bearings, things weren’t clear to me.” It is a poignant moment, in which Ananda displays his humanness. Ananda was no different from the rest of us. He felt the pain that we all feel when we experience a great loss.
The Buddha also expressed his pain—the inalienable pain elemental to human life—in the days after Sariputta and Moggallana died. Addressing a gathering of monks, he remarked, “This assembly, O bhikkhus, appears indeed empty to me, now that Sariputta and Moggallana have passed away” (SN 47.14).
In response to Ananda, the Buddha offers a teaching that all of us can take to heart. He begins by asking Ananda, “when he attained total Unbinding [death], did Sariputta take the aggregate of virtue along with him? Did he take the aggregate of concentration . . . discernment . . . release [from suffering] . . . the aggregate of knowledge & vision of release along with him?” No, Ananda responds, he didn’t take these qualities with him. The point the Buddha is making here is crucial. The good qualities that are innate to human beings are ever-present. They are, to use the Pali word, akaliko, part of the ever-present truth. These qualities are timeless; they transcend birth and death.
Our goodness, the Buddha tells Ananda, remains. As human beings our task is to develop our goodness, which is what Sariputta did. So it’s what he left behind. We also leave behind our goodness, to the extent that we develop it and let it shine in the world.
But even while acknowledging the Buddha’s teaching, Ananda continues to lament the loss of his dear friend. “It’s just that he was my instructor & counselor,” he says, “one who exhorted, urged, roused, & encouraged me. He was tireless in teaching the Dhamma [dharma], a help to his companions in the holy life. We miss the nourishment of his Dhamma, the wealth of his Dhamma, his help in the Dhamma.”
The Buddha responds by reminding Ananda of the great truths he has taught his disciples through the years: that each of us is subject to sickness, aging, and death, that each of us will eventually be separated from all that is dear to us. It is the way it is, the Buddha tells Ananda. “What else is there to expect?” the Buddha says. “It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”
Then the Buddha gives one of his most well-known teachings. He tells Ananda that “you should remain with your self as an island.” Given that Sariputta is gone, given that he himself will soon be gone, given that all human beings are “subject to disintegration,” the Buddha, delivering a vital message to Ananda and his fellow monks, says: “each of you should remain with your self as an island, your self as your refuge, without anything else as a refuge. Remain with the Dhamma as an island, the Dhamma as your refuge, without anything else as a refuge.” Our task, the Buddha says, is to rely on what’s inside us. Our task is to develop our goodness—the qualities of virtue, concentration, discernment. Our task is to find our own release from suffering. The dharma, the teachings that the Buddha has passed on, provide the path by which we pursue these tasks.
The Buddha, however, doesn’t leave it at that. He doesn’t just say, “Be an island unto yourself.” The Buddha’s teachings are never meant to be showcases for rhetorical flourish and verbal brilliance. His teaching are, always, eminently practical. The Buddha, above all, teaches skills. Here, he notes the skills that we need to cultivate in order to be “an island.” The main skill, the Buddha indicates, is the skill of mindfulness. Specifically, right mindfulness. The Buddha culminates this teaching to Ananda by delineating the four foundations of mindfulness, the four primary ways of practicing mindfulness that the dharma student is asked to develop.
In practicing the first foundation of mindfulness, the practitioner “remains focused on the body in and of itself.” All the mindfulnesses that we practice begin by putting the mind on the body—the breath is the anchor point in the body, the place where, first and foremost, we learn to put the mind. In practicing mindfulness of the breath/body, the dharma student develops concentration, the capacity to remain in the present moment, in the body, with a quality of ease and well-being.
The second foundation of mindfulness, in which the dharma student puts his attention on “feelings,” entails being mindful of the sensations in the body—the way the body feels, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—and the way we’re relating to these feelings.
Practicing the third foundation of mindfulness, the dharma student is mindful of the different states of mind—desire, aversion, delusion, and their myriad subsets—and how we relating to them.
In practicing mindfulness of feelings and states of mind we develop discernment and concentration.
The fourth foundation of mindfulness offers ways of being mindful in which we put our attention on certain mental qualities, such as the four noble truths, in the service of developing discernment.
It’s through cultivating these specific skills of mindfulness, the Buddha teaches, that the dharma student is able to “remain with his self as an island.”
In the end, it’s up to us to find happiness in this life. And, the Buddha tells us, we have an extraordinary capability; we have everything we need to do that. There is a goodness that is ever-present in life. There is a goodness in us. And, within, we have the ability to develop our goodness. If we do this, the Buddha teaches, we will come to know true happiness.
Peter Doobinin’s previous sutta studies take a look at the Thana Sutta, Yoga Sutta, Nava Sutta, and Lokavipatti Sutta.
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