Finding Refuge in the Territory of the Dharma

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, February 15 is the day that Nirvana Day is traditionally observed in commemoration of Sakyamuni Buddha’ s passing into parinirvana, the state of great tranquility realized at the end of life by one who has crossed over the ocean of birth and death. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we will be holding our annual Nirvana Day Service on Sunday, February 9 at 9:30 a.m. We hope you will be able to join us for this service as we remember the life of Sakyamuni Buddha and reflect on our own journey to final liberation from suffering.

In the Buddhacarita: In Praise of Buddha’s Acts, an ancient record of the Buddha’ s life, it is written that when the Buddha was 80 years old and dwelling near the city of Vaisali, an unusual series of earthquakes occurred. Startled by this strange occurrence, the Buddha’ s disciple Ananda asked the Buddha why this was happening. Sakyamuni Buddha responded by saying that he would only remain alive for three more months and that the earthquakes were the result of the Buddha’ s abandoning all remaining ties to his life in this world.

Upon hearing this news, Ananda became deeply disheartened. Ananda was aware of the truth of impermanence, having on many occasions heard the Buddha teach that all those that come together will one day be separated. Nevertheless, he and the other disciples of the Buddha who had not yet realized perfect enlightenment worried about how they would be able to continue their study of the Dharma without the Buddha as their teacher and guide. At that time Ananda lamented, “In the great darkness of ignorance, beings have all lost their direction. The Tathagata (Buddha) has lit the lamp of wisdom but it will be suddenly extinguished. How will they escape?”

Observing Ananda’ s distress, the Buddha offered him the following words of comfort:

“As a teacher, I have never held anything from beings. Develop a notion of revulsion [for samsara], well established in your own territory!

“When you know your own territory, you must be attentive and diligently apply yourself! Practice alone and in tranquility, and reside in solitude! Do not follow beliefs in anything else!
“When you know the territory of the Law (Dharma), you are certain to clearly see the lamp of wisdom. It can dispel delusion . . . Having obtained the excellent Law, one is free from any self and free from [‘ I’ and] ‘ mine.’”(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 168; available online at

In commenting on these words of the Buddha, the Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura explains that the word “territory” here originally refers to a place of high ground where one can take refuge during a flood. The Buddha is telling Ananda that he must determine for himself what is true and wise, so that he may have a well-established refuge in his heart and mind that he can turn to for guidance in times of difficulty.

The guidance of a wise friend can be of great help to us as we face challenges in life, but in the end, we must decide for ourselves what our true path is, without just going along with what the people around us are doing or saying. For this reason, the Buddha teaches that our most reliable refuge can be found in the Dharma. The Dharma that the Buddha taught freely without holding anything back is the high ground to which we can return and get a clear perspective when the flood waters of confusion seem to be rising all around us.

From that elevated territory of the Dharma, we can clearly see the lamp of wisdom shining into our lives and illuminating our true path. Even in the times that we are unable to clearly see that lamp of wisdom, it never ceases to shine into our lives, guiding us to the higher ground of true understanding. In the Nembutsu, we receive that lamp of wisdom as the compassionate vow of Amida Buddha to guide all beings to liberation. As our true teacher Shinran (1173-1263) writes in his Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls: “Amida’s Vow is a great torch in the long night of ignorance. We should reflect that, although our wisdom-eyes are dark, we need not despair.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 516)

In gassho,