saṃyamena2 damena ca
Dīpaṃ kayirātha medhāvī
yaṃ ogho n’ābhikīrati.
By sustained effort, earnestness, discipline, and self-control let the wise man make for him an island, which no flood can overwhelm.
The Elder Cūḷapanthaka
A monk named Cūḷapanthaka could not memorize a verse of four lines despite trying for four months. He was advised by his brother monk to leave the Saṅgha. But he was reluctant to do so.
The Buddha took Cūḷapanthaka and made him sit facing the east and rub a piece of white cloth with his hands. He was instructed to repeat the word rajoharanam (“taking off impurity”). Very soon the cloth absorbed the sweat from his hands and the dirt from the outside. Cūḷapanthaka then observed the impermanent nature of all things.
The Buddha then said, “It is not the cloth alone that is made dirty by the world; within onself there also exists dusts. Only by removing the dirt could one achieve the goal of enlightenment.”
The Pali word dīpaṃ means an “island” and it represents a person ability to raise himself to higher ground and avoid the floods and much of the world represented by sense desires (kama), false beliefs (ditthi), craving for existence (bhava) and ignorance (avijja).
Those who are familiar with Western literature may interpret this verse differently. We are taught by the famous essayist John Donne, “no man is an island.” The meaning is that in this life we are all interdependent and that every person who dies effects us all, because we are all part of a greater collective called “mankind.” This is not the meaning of island in this verse.
The Buddha did not intend for us to be detached from the world in our practice. Instead, each person should create an island of dry safe ground from sense desires so that they can create a clean sanctuary for ourselves and offer assistance for others to build their own “islands.” In this way we become MORE engaged with the world by getting out of the muck and mire that takes so much of our energy and detracts us from real happiness.
How to create an island
One of the easiest ways to create our own island of high ground is to start “pushin’ the cushion.” Through daily meditation we are able to develop that concentration and awareness to rise above the floods of worldly sensual desires– or at least enough high ground to see the nature of those desires and navigate our lives more mindfully.