“There is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now.”

quote-there-is-only-one-time-when-it-is-essential-to-awaken-that-time-is-now-gautama-buddha-66-79-62

This quote was passed on to me by Joseph Young, who intended to use it but wanted to be sure that the attribution he’d seen—to the Buddha—was correct. I have to say it’s heartening whenever I hear that someone is interested in accurate citations!

“There is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now,” is not a quote from the Buddha. It’s actually from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” where it can be found on page 33. BLIB is not a collection of sayings by the Buddha, but of contemporary expressions, adapted by Kornfield. Unfortunately the title misleads people into thinking it’s a book of scriptural sayings, which is understandable, especially if people are unfamiliar with the Buddhist scriptures.

Once a Fake Buddha Quote has appeared, however, it will tend to be passed on uncritically and to spread. This quote is found, attributed to the Buddha, in many books, including “Compassionate Coaching” (2011), “Zen and the Art of the Monologue” (2002), and “Awakening the Spirit Within” (2001), which is the oldest use of this Fake Buddha Quote that I’ve found. It’s always a bad sign when a quote from someone who lived centuries ago only appeared recently!

This quote is very similar to “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” and “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.” Neither of these is a genuine scriptural quote, although they’re often attributed to the Buddha.

“There is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now,” doesn’t sound like something from the Buddhist scriptures. When the Buddha talked about awakening, it was as a process unfolding over time — sometimes a considerable period of time. So when awakening was talked about, it was as something that would happen in the future, or sometimes as something that had happened in the past. As far as I know, the concept of some continuous NOW in which we perpetually live didn’t exist.

There is one lovely passage about time:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.

This passage is unusually poetic for the Buddhist scriptures, which were originally passed down orally and are often rather clunky and repetitive.

There’s one term that’s often translated as “here-and-now” and could easily be rendered as “the present moment” or simply as “now,” and that’s sandiṭṭhika. It’s found in a common pericope outlining the major qualities of the Dharma, which means “the teachings” or “the Buddhist path,” but which in this case could be rendered as “reality.”

So the Buddha says things like:

“The fact that when greed is present within you, you discern that greed is present within you; and when greed is not present within you, you discern that greed is not present within you: that is one way in which the Dhamma is visible in the here-and-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.”

The part of the passage from “visible in the here-and-now” onwards is found scores of times in the scriptures.

The late Maurice Walsh translated sandiṭṭhika as “the present moment” in a lovely little discourse that portrays an encounter between a deva (god) and a monk called Samiddhi. I take this to be a representation of Samiddhi’s inner struggle, where some part of his mind tried to tempt him to abandon his monastic path and to embrace sensuality. The deva says to Samiddhi:

“Get your fill, monk, of human pleasures. Don’t reject the present moment (sandiṭṭhika) to pursue what time will bring.”

Samiddhi’s answer turns this around:

“I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment.”

What a lovely insight! Incidentally, this is a figure of speech known as a chiasmus, where terms are inverted. A chiasmus can have the effect of demolishing one proposition and presenting another as preferable. Probably the most famous is JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

With regard to awakening “now,” both Thanissaro and Walsh use “here and now” to translate “diṭṭhe dhamme,” which literally means something like “in (or among) visible things.” For example in the Mahānidāna Sutta the Buddha outlines a list of eight emancipations, and says that when a practitioner knows them back-to-front and has broken the last vestiges of craving and delusion, then “having directly known it and realized it in the here and now, he is said to be a monk released in both ways.”

That’s about as close as we’re going to get to Jack Kornfield’s quote, and it’s not at all similar.

The purpose of Jack’s quote is very worthy. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t continually assume that awakening is going to happen in the distant future. In fact being overly focused on the future can become a serious spiritual problem since it makes us think that the future is where happiness is going to happen, and that the present moment is rather dull and unsatisfying in comparison. When we have that perspective, we want to escape our present-moment experience rather than accept it and look deeply into it. And yet acceptance of and close observation of our present-moment experience is the only way we can wake up to reality.

Jack’s quote is wonderful, and spiritually valuable: it’s just not something the Buddha said.

“Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.”

This is a quote that Lama Yeshe has used in his books and articles, for example in this piece:

Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.

It’s crept into a couple of publications (such as a “quote of the day” ebook), but otherwise isn’t very widespread at the moment. In fact this quote — of this exact form of words — seems to originate with Lama Yeshe. That’s not necessarily evidence of it being fake; after all, he might have translated some Buddhist verse himself, and so these exact phrases might be unique to him. But they don’t strike me as being genuine. Pema Yangchen, who passed this quote on to me, was concerned about the phrase “mental illness,” which the Buddha, of course, wasn’t likely to have used.

I was struck more, however, by the first part: “Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine.” Although there’s a tendency for modern teachers to emphasize this and to claim it’s what the Buddha taught, it actually boils down to a kind of pandering to our modern fear of dogmatic religion. Most of us who come to Buddhism in the west are put off by, and critical of, the way, first, that theistic religions demand that we “believe” certain propositions that can’t be empirically verified and thus have to be taken on faith, and, second, the way in which those same religions insist on the “rightness” of their own belief and the “wrongness” of any others. When westerners come to Buddhism, they bring those fears with them, and they’re relieved to be told that the Buddha said not to be attached to his teachings, and that we need to test them in our own experience.

Those statements aren’t exactly false, but there’s a bit of spin involved. The Buddha did point out, in the Kalama sutta, that the truth of a teaching was to be seen in whether it increased or reduced attachment, ill will, and aversion. But he was talking there about teachings in general, not his own. I don’t recall him ever specifically saying that his teachings were to be tested.

Of course saying that teachings, in general, are not to be clung to implies not clinging to the Buddha’s Dharma, but that isn’t something, to the best of my knowledge, that he emphasized. He wanted people to practice his teachings, not to be constantly doubting them.

Here’s one way that the Buddha talked about not clinging to views:

A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, he says, because of that, that all other views are inferior; therefore he is not free from contention (with others).

In fact he sometimes talked about the need to correctly grasp his teachings:

There are here, O monks, some foolish men who study the Teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the Teaching only to use it for criticizing or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the (true) purpose for which they (ought to) study the Teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings.

“Suppose, monks, a man wants a snake, looks for a snake, goes in search of a snake. He then sees a large snake, and when he is grasping its body or its tail, the snake turns back on him and bites his hand or arm or some other limb of his. And because of that he suffers death or deadly pain. And why? Because of his wrong grasp of the snake.

He goes on to say that “these teachings, being rightly grasped, will bring welfare and happiness for a long time.”

His emphasis in this teaching is that we should recognize and apply the spiritual purpose of the teachings, which is personal transformation leading to awakening, rather than seeing them as being a set of “correct” teachings that we can use in debate in order to feel superior. Of course that’s pretty much what we’d mean by “not grasping” after the Dharma! The word “grasping” here is being used in a way different from how we’d understand “attachment” or “clinging.”

Slightly further on in the same sutta I’ve just quoted, the Buddha uses the famous simile of the Dharma as a raft. He explains how a raft is used to get from point A to point B, and that having arrived at the destination we don’t then carry the raft around with us.

In the same way, monks, have I shown to you the Teaching’s similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to.

“You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even (good) teachings, how much more false ones!

Of course on the way to the further shore, we need to rely upon and even “correctly grasp” the raft, even if we don’t cling to it in the sense of using it as a way to aggrandize our sense of self by using it as a basis for disputation.

My point isn’t that the Buddha thought we shouldn’t be attached to, or cling to his teachings. It’s just that he didn’t, in any neat way, seem to have articulated the kind of message that Lama Yeshe attributes to him.

As for madness, the Buddha did say:

…beings, destroyed by wrong-view,
go mad [khittacitta], out of their minds [visañña].

The quote as a whole is fine as a paraphrase of the Buddha’s teaching, but it’s not something he said. I suspect that Lama Yeshe has coined such a paraphrase, and that he has come to see it as a direct quote, when in fact it isn’t. It’s not uncommon for paraphrases to turn into quotes in this way.

In fact, in his “Freedom Through Understanding,” he says the following:

Lord Buddha said that we should not be attached to even the realizations of Nirvana or enlightenment. He also said that it’s wrong for his followers to be dogmatically attached to his doctrine, that that’s another type of psychological sickness or disease.

It may be that this was the original, and that Lama Yeshe mistakenly turned his own words into a quote.

“Life looks meaningless because I am searching for meaning … If I don’t long for meaning, then what is meaningless?”

This rather long quote was passed on to me by Christopher Leibow (Myoshin) of the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship:

Life looks meaningless because I am searching for meaning. Life is not meaningless; it becomes meaningless, it looks meaningless, because of my longing for meaning. The problem is my longing for meaning, not the meaninglessness of life. If I don’t long for meaning, then what is meaningless? Then great joy is released.

Sometimes the words “All is as it is” are added to the end.

Myoshin kindly pointed out that this (including the extra “All is as it is”) comes from a talk by Osho, who put these words in the Buddha’s mouth as having been said by him at the dawning of his Awakening. These words are presented as a direct quotation rather than as a paraphrase. There’s a reference to “the last star disappearing into the [morning] sky,” which suggests that Osho had in mind the Zen account of the Buddha’s awakening, which is of course much later than the Pali account. The latter runs like this, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta:

“Still in search, bhikkhus, of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I wandered by stages through the Magadhan country until eventually I arrived at Senānigama near Uruvelā. There I saw an agreeable piece of ground, a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort. I considered: ‘This is an agreeable piece of ground, this is a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort. This will serve for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.’ And I sat down there thinking: ‘This will serve for striving.’

“Then, bhikkhus, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeking the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, seeking the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, seeking the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, seeking the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, seeking the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, seeking the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.’

According to the commentary on the Dhammapada, the following verse represents his first words upon awakening:

O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.

The later Chan/Zen tradition seems to have added the morning star reference, and says that his first words were:

When the morning star appeared, I and the sentient beings of earth simultaneously attained enlightenment.

Osho’s version doesn’t match any Buddhist rendition that I’ve come across. Osho, incidentally, was something of a scoundrel, to put it mildly. His community is renowned for having launched the first biological warfare attack on US soil (apart from those “smallpox on the blankets” allegations regarding the US Army and Native Americans). This was part of a plan to cripple a town on the eve of an election, since Osho’s community was in violation of planning laws.

Not long after, Osho was deported from the US. He then changed his name, which had formerly been Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. You can imagine why.

Osho’s Fake Buddha quote isn’t very widespread. So far I’ve found it in a few articles but not on social media.

“Ennui has made more gamblers than avarice, more drunkards than thirst, and perhaps as many suicides as despair”

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Only someone completely unaware of the the tone and content of the Buddha’s teachings could think that these were his words:

Ennui has made more gamblers than avarice, more drunkards than thirst, and perhaps as many suicides as despair.

And yet I’ve seen it all over the place. (And thank you, Aditya Prasad, for reminding me that I hadn’t yet tackled it).

This is actually a quote from the Rev. Caleb Charles Colton, found in his book, “Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words: Addressed to Those Who Think” (1820).

According to Wikipedia, “Colton (1780–1832) was an English cleric, writer and collector, well known for his eccentricities.”

He’s best know for coining the phrase, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

I’ve never seen the word “ennui” used in any translation of a Buddhist text. Thanissaro translates “arati” as “boredom” in one place, which is certainly one of its meanings. But the main thing that gives this quote away is its polished, literary quality. The Buddhist scriptures come from an oral rather than a written tradition, and tend to be stylistically rather basic, often being highly repetitive and employing lists of synonyms or near-synonyms.

As an example, here’s an extract from the sutta (discourse) in which Thanissaro uses the word “boredom”:

And what is the food for the arising of unarisen sloth and drowsiness, or for the growth and increase of sloth and drowsiness once it has arisen? There are boredom, weariness, yawning, drowsiness after a meal, and sluggishness of awareness. To foster inappropriate attention to them: This is the food for the arising of unarisen sloth and drowsiness, or for the growth and increase of sloth and drowsiness once it has arisen.

Here you can see the characteristic repetition: “And what is the food for the arising of … This is the food for the arising of…”

You can also see the use of near-synonyms (“boredom, weariness, yawning, drowsiness after a meal, and sluggishness of awareness”), which helps with memorization but does tend to give rise, in the modern reader, to the very phenomena being discussed.

Unfortunately this quote is found in a number of books, which I’m sure means that the end times are near!

“If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.”

If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe

No, this is not the Buddha:

If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.

I have absolutely no idea where this one originates from. It seems to be quite recent, and hasn’t made its way into any books that are indexed by Google Books (one of my main research tools).

It’s on a number of websites, and graphics containing this quote are common on Pinterest. So far the oldest instance of it I’ve seen is from May 5, 2012, in a Facebook post. It was undoubtedly around before then, though.

The Buddha did not use metaphors like “the flow of the universe.” He didn’t tell us to go with the flow. He did however talk about streams and rivers in a metaphorical way. Here’s a lovely example:

Know from the rivers
in clefts and in crevices:
those in small channels flow noisily,
the great flow silent.
Whatever’s not full makes noise.
Whatever is full is quiet.

This next one is less appealing to our modern sensibilities:

Whatever streams are in the world, it is mindfulness that obstructs them and restricts them, and by wisdom they are cut off.

The “streams” here are the currents of craving that flow in the mind. It’s as if we’re swept along by these streams:

The misguided man in whom the thirty-six currents of craving strongly rush toward pleasurable objects, is swept away by the flood of his passionate thoughts.

That one’s from the Dhammapada, verse 339.

The 36 streams are three types of craving (for experiences to happen, to continue, and to end) combined with the six sense-channels through which the cravings flow (mind being the sixth sense).

Accordingly, the first level of realization is the “stream-winner” (sota-panna), who has broken through the fetters of 1) belief in a separate and permanent self, 2) of doubt in the attainment of awakening, and 3) of using spiritual practices as a way to avoid realization.

“Happiness or sorrow — whatever befalls you, walk on, untouched, unattached.”

whatever befalls you, walk on, untouched

This is from Byrom’s translation of the Dhammapada. But since Byrom’s words bear little or no relation to the original I have no hesitation in regarding it as a Fake Buddha Quote.

The verse in question is verse 83 of the Dhammapada. In full, Byrom’s attempt at this verse is:

Want nothing.
Where there is desire,
Say nothing.
Happiness or sorrow —
Whatever befalls you,
Walk on, untouched, unattached.

In Buddharakkhita’s translation this is,

The good renounce (attachment for) everything. The virtuous do not prattle with a yearning for pleasures. The wise show no elation or depression when touched by happiness or sorrow.

Thanissaro’s version is:

Everywhere, truly,
those of integrity
stand apart.
They, the good,
don’t chatter in hopes
of favor or gains.
When touched
now by pleasure,
now pain,
the wise give no sign
of high
or low.

You can see that those two alternative translations are very similar in meaning (with the exception of “stand apart” and “renounce everything,” where some interpretation of the original is taking place.

The original Pali is:

Sabbattha ve sappurisā cajanti na kāmakāmā lapayanti santo
Sukhena phuṭṭhā atha vā dukhena noccāvacaṃ paṇḍitā dassayanti.

This could be translated very literally as:

Excellent people abandon everything/everywhere (Sabbattha ve sappurisā cajanti).
Good people do not chatter, desiring pleasure (na kāmakāmā lapayanti santo).
Wise people do not show elation or depression when touched by happiness or suffering (Sukhena phuṭṭhā atha vā dukhena noccāvacaṃ paṇḍitā dassayanti)

You can see that Byrom’s rendering, although lovely as poetry, is only slightly related to these three more literal versions.

Byrom basically just made up poetic phrases as he went along. He’s particularly fond of taking a descriptive phrase (“excellent people abandon everything”) and turning it into an exhortation (“want nothing”). This completely changes the character of the text.

It’s like taking a quote such as this, from Hamlet.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

presenting it as:

Speak truth to yourself.
Walk in lightness and in dark.
When all men are false, depart!
Blessings grow from within.

and saying it’s a quote from Shakespeare.

Translating poetically is fine, but any translation should reflect the meaning of the original.

Unfortunately Byrom’s version of the Dhammapada is very popular. Personally, I’d like to see it go out of print and stay that way, since it’s so poorly executed and misleading.

I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!

The Fake Buddha Quotes blog got a mention on BoingBoing a few days ago, which brought in an extra 11,000 or so visitors in one day (normally we have 2,000 visitors a day). With some hesitation I dipped into the comments on the article, and I was glad I did, so that I could appreciate some of the witty banter.

One of the gems was this image, which I loved 🙂

i can't believe it's not buddha

There was also this one, which unfortunately I couldn’t find in a larger size:

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And that led me to a Google image search, where I found this:

Cant_believe_its_not_Buddha

I love them!

“The moment we are enlightened within, we go beyond the voidness of a world confronting us.”

Zentrepreneurism By Allan Holender

This one was brought to my attention back in January of this year, but unfortunately I was busy with other things and didn’t take the time to write it up. However, having dealt yesterday with a quote that purported to be from the Buddha but was actually from a work attributed to Seng-Ts’an (Jianzhi Sengcan), I was prompted to look again — for Seng-Ts’an has returned!

John Foley, who originally passed this one on to me, commented that he wasn’t even sure if it made sense:

The moment we are enlightened within, we go beyond the voidness of a world confronting us.

This isn’t of course the Buddha, although you’ll find it cited as such, for example on Beliefnet, or in the horribly titled “Zentrepreneurism” by Allan Holender (2006). (In passing, may I propose the term “crapmanteau word” for portmanteau words that are torturously hideous?)

This quote is actually from the 20th well-known century Japanese scholar DT Suzuki’s translation of Seng-Ts’an’s “On Believing in Mind” (Hsin-Hsin Ming). You’ll find it in his 1935 “Manual of Zen Buddhism,” page 78.

Suzuki’s translation is rather quirky. It’s easily misunderstood as being about, say, the shallowness of contemporary life. Here’s an alternative, from Richard B. Clarke’s 1973 translation, found in his “Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind”:

To awaken even for a moment
is to go beyond appearance and emptiness.

This terminology is much more traditionally Buddhist—or at least Mahayana Buddhist.

“Appearance” is how things appear to the unawakened mind: separate, apparently real, and having some kind of essence. “Emptiness” is shunyata,” which here means “lacking in self-nature.” In other words, although we may think of objects (ourselves included) as really existing, separate from the world surrounding them, and as having some kind of essence that is their real nature, they’re not like that at all. All things are dependently arisen on the basis of other things. Nothing is separate. At least that’s the Mahayana take.

In the Pali scriptures (one of the sets of writings closest in time and form to the Buddha’s original oral teachings), the Buddha talks about emptiness as well. Here’s one lovely little sutta, the Suñña (“Empty”) Sutta, which — if you cut out the repetition and condense it a little, sounds not unlike the Heart Sutra:

Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”

“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms… Eye-consciousness… Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

“The ear is empty…

“The nose is empty…

“The tongue is empty…

“The body is empty…

“The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas… Intellect-consciousness… Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty.”

Compared to Seng-Ts’an, the Buddha’s saying something a bit different and more specific here: that none of the six sense objects (mind objects such as thoughts and memories being the sixth), their respective organs (mind again being the sixth), and the aspects of consciousness that are aware of them, are oneself. The Buddha was encouraging us not to define ourselves in any way. You are not what you’re aware of. You’re not what’s being aware. You’re not even the process of awareness. Trying to pin down what you are only leads to “self view,” and the Buddha said he saw no self view that would not lead to suffering. So, the message is, stop trying to define yourself or to identify anything as being yourself, and thus let go of your most fundamental mode of clinging.

In the Phena (“Foam”) Sutta, the Buddha takes each of the five khandhas, or “accumulations” that constitute the mechanism of experience, and says that each is empty. Here’s what he said about the khandha of form (rupa).

Monks, suppose that a large glob of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a glob of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?

The other four khandhas — feelings, perceptions, volitional tendencies, and consciousness — are described using different images, but they’re treated identically.

This has a very similar feel to Seng-Ts’an’s statement (at least in the Clarke version), although Seng-Ts’an’s Mahayana perspective is that we need not just to see the emptiness that lies behind appearances, but to go beyond both appearance and emptiness. I don’t think this is something that the Buddha ever explicitly suggested, although perhaps it’s implied in his teaching.

Thanks again to John Foley for passing this one along.

“Don’t keep searching for the truth, just let go of your opinions”

quote-don-t-keep-searching-for-the-truth-just-let-go-of-your-opinions-gautama-buddha-66-78-70

This quote, “Don’t keep searching for the truth, just let go of your opinions,” is often attributed to the Buddha, sometimes to “unknown,” and occasionally (and perhaps more accurately) to Seng-Ts’an, aka Sengcan, who died in 606.

Or at least it’s in a work, Hsin-Hsin Ming, that’s attributed to him, although he may not have written it. The first lines of this work are very well known:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
Let go of longing and aversion, and it reveals itself.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.

The quote in question, or at least a variant of it, is found later on:

Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not hold to dualistic views, avoid such habits carefully.
If there is even a trace of right and wrong, the mind is lost in confusion.

The “Don’t keep searching for the truth, just let go of your opinions” version is found in Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book.” Presumably it’s his paraphrase of Seng-Ts’an.

The Buddha in fact had a lot to say about letting go of (or not clinging to) opinions, although the term he used was ditthi, or view. In the Cula-Sihanada Sutta (the Shorter Discourse on the Lion’s Roar) he says:

…with the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge he no longer clings to sensual pleasures, no longer clings to views, no longer clings to rules and observances, no longer clings to a doctrine of self

In the Sallekha Sutta, he says:

Others will misapprehend according to their individual views, hold on to them tenaciously and not easily discard them; we shall not misapprehend according to individual views nor hold on to them tenaciously, but shall discard them with ease — thus effacement can be done.

Abandoning attachment to views is not something that’s done easily, or all at once. The Buddha repeatedly pointed out the need to renounce wrong (spiritually limiting) views and to embrace right (spiritually liberating) views. Only in this way can we reach non-view. In fact, one of the most famous similes in the Buddhist scriptures, found in the Alagaddupama Sutta, describes right view as being like a raft that helps us cross a river to get to the further shore—awakening. The raft is abandoned once its job is done, but without the raft of right view we have no way of making progress.

Living without views does not mean that one doesn’t have or express statements of fact. It’s simply indicating that the realized being does not need to speculate or have opinions about reality. She or he sees reality, and her or his statements are merely a description of what has been seen, engineered to help others see the same thing.

Thanks to Rob Myers for passing this one on.

“If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe.”

This isn’t the Buddha, although many websites say it is. So far I haven’t found it in any books.

“If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe” is very similar to another Fake Buddha Quote that I’ve documented, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” That one’s from Jack Kornfield’s delightful “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” which is not a book of canonical quotes (as the name might suggest) but sayings that have been “distilled and adapted” for contemporary life.

Now that I’ve seen the two quotes side by side, I wonder if Jack distilled and adapted the “if we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe” quote.

Anyway, the quote I’m discussing here may well be an adaptation of something Borges wrote: “Tennyson said that if we could understand a single flower we would know who we are and what the world is” (“Jorge Luis Borges: A Personal Anthology,” page 136). This is so close to our suspect quote that I believe it is almost certainly the original template.

Borges’ reference is to Tennyson’s poem, “Flower in the Crannied Wall.”

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

The closest the Buddha said to this that I’m aware of is that the entire world can be understood within this fathom-long body. This is from the Rohitassa Sutta:

“I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the world where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and distress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, endowed with perception and cognition, that I declare that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the world.”

The word “world” here doesn’t refer to the world of atoms and subatomic particles and forces, and all it makes up. It refers to the world of our experience. (Jayarava has an article on this topic.) The Buddha referred to this “world of experience” as being “the all” (sabba) and said that there’s nothing we can know outside of that. He’s not saying that there’s no external reality, just that all we can ever know if our experience of whatever external reality there might be.

You could be forgiven for thinking that if the Buddha’s saying we can understand ourselves then we’d understand the whole world in the sense that we’d know in detail how a computer works (or how to cure cancer, or to travel faster than light). But that’s not what he’s saying. His point (as I understand it) is that in looking closely at our experience of the body and mind we’ll understand the arising and passing away of our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, and through doing that we can liberate ourselves from craving, aversion, and delusion, as well as the suffering they bring.

The association of both these quotes with the Buddha may arise from a story in the Zen tradition (not found in the earlier scriptures) where the Buddha is sitting silently with his monks (and presumably nuns, although inevitably they are ignored), and instead of delivering a discourse he holds up a single flower. One disciple, Mahakashyapa, smiled, showing that he had understood the Buddha’s teaching. This led to Mahakashyapa becoming the Buddha’s heir, and the first patriarch of the Chan (later Zen) lineage. This story is, of course, completely ahistorical. apart from anything else, the Buddha specifically chose not appoint any successor. But spiritual traditions, when their authority is called into question, like to create validating myths. And the story very elegantly makes the point that spiritual awakening is not a matter of understanding words, but of seeing/experiencing in a particular way.

(Thanks to Doni W. for bringing this quote to my attention.)