I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss this saying. My father likes to come back to it every so often, because Osho also said it as advice for his sannyasins. But my father uses it more as an excuse not to look at other teachers - he is a light unto himself so he doesn't need to keep searching, he can self-illuminate according to his own casual wandering.
A traditional translation might read:
“Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”
― Buddha Shakyamuni
So I found a blog which talks about it a bit more...
This is a very famous quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta which chronicles the events and teachings at the very end of the Buddha’s life. He speaks about diligently practicing in order to know what it true for ourselves, not relying solely on the teachings of others, including the Buddha himself.
And I noted a response to the above blog, which I thought was quite insightful:
The Buddha's words, according to Mu Soeng, actually should be translated "Be an island unto yourselves. Fare forward with appamada—diligent care." Of course we Americans prefer "be a light unto yourself," a version heavily infused with the Christian beliefs of early translators, and resonant with our individualistic ideals for self-improvement and self-authorization. I like Mu Soeng's version, because it affirms the central importance of sangha, of community, while still maintaining the distinction of the revolutionary and unique teachings of the Buddha, in marked contrast to the other teachers of his time. Be an island unto yourselves: encourage each other, teach each other, support each other, brighten the dark places, take good care of each other and your path together.
— Peg Syverson, 2010
It's interesting because at first glance it's an insular saying, about depending on your own practice, where in fact Mu Soeng's translation seems to depend on there being a multitude of listeners, who were encouraged to be an island together. It's quite a key difference.
I personally think that communicating with others is one of the great opportunities of our precious human life... you can partake of the wisdom of great thinkers, examine them, test their teachings against your own truth. It allows you to expand your understanding beyond the range of your own thought or drive, and so there is little sense in stopping with just the Buddha. I therefore quite like Mu Soeng's translation, which encourages us to interchange our thinking, after considering deeply on our own.
What do you think about this teaching?