Six weeks ago, Andy Rickford wrote to me, saying: “Finding it hard to imagine the Buddha of the Pali canon saying this: “Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.” Can you shed any light, Bodhipaksa?”
At that time Google Books, my main source for researching suspect quotes, was broken. Google Books indicated that the quote was to be found in the 1987 Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, but when I searched inside the book the quote wouldn’t display. I had similar problems with other books, so I set that little research project to one side.
Then just today, Shira Coffee, who I follow on Google Plus, asked about the same quote, and I got back on the case. This time I was able to persuade Google Books to show me a reasonable amount of the context surrounding the quote. Despite the fact that they’re only supposed to show a snippet view, I coaxed the following out of the search results.
Some of them [from the context, “them” refers to sayings by Ramakrishna] had been rewritten by Tolstoy and marked with the words ‘ After Ramakrishna ‘. Thus the entry for 2 January reads like this : ‘ As a candle cannot burn without fire, so man cannot live without spiritual force. [Note the altered wording.] Spirit lives in all people but not all people know it. Joyful is the life of a person who knows it, and unhappy is the life of a person who does not know it.’ ( CW, Vol. 43, p. 5. ). As we see, the word ‘God’ has been replaced here by the word ‘ spirit‘. Probably, this replacement reflects the evolution of Tolstoy’s religious thinking in his last years. He must have found the word ‘ God ‘ not universal enough to be accepted as a designation of a supreme value by all cultural traditions of mankind.
So this would seem to be Ramakrishna, as rewritten by Tolstoy. “CW” would be the “Complete Works,” of which there are 90 volumes. Unfortunately Volume 43 doesn’t yet seem to have been scanned by Google.
Ramakrishna should presumably therefore be acknowledged as the author of “As a candle cannot burn without fire, so man cannot live without spiritual force,” with “As a candle cannot burn without fire, so men cannot live without a spiritual life” being acknowledged as a misquotation.
Is the actual quotation un-Buddhist? It certainly doesn’t remind me of anything that the Buddha said. Leaving aside the metaphor, I don’t recall him saying anything about “man” not being able to live without a spiritual life. By contrast, he seems to have seen the spiritual life as a rarity. Perhaps Ramakrishna was employing hyperbole and meant that “man cannot fully live without a spiritual life,” and that’s something I’m sure the Buddha would indeed agree with. He said things like:
Any sensual bliss in the world,
any heavenly bliss,
isn’t worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of the ending of craving.
And he even suggested that those who lack appamāda (heedfulness) are like the living dead:
Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful die not. The heedless are as if dead already.
So this isn’t a quote from the Buddha, but it doesn’t strike me as being un-Buddhist in spirit.