“Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.”

neither-fire-nor-wind

This is one I see on Twitter all the time. It’s a pretty much a genuine Buddha quote. It’s not quite fake, and not 100% accurate. I’m classing this as “fakeish.”

This is yet another quote from Jack Kornfield’s lovely little volume, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (page 89). I like Jack’s little book, which is described as a “distillation” and “adaptation” of Buddhist teachings. Many of the sayings in the book seem to be of Jack’s own coinage, but this particular one can be traced back to a canonical source, albeit a Mahayana one.

With a bit of detective work I managed to work out the “chain of custody” behind the words.

So “Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds” is from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book.

This is turn is based on “Neither fire, nor moisture, nor wind can destroy the blessing of a good deed, and blessings benefit the whole world,” which is from the same author’s Teachings of the Buddha (1996), or at least both of these quotes are variants of each other.

These in turn are based on the following quote from Gospel of the Buddha (1894), by Paul Carus: “Neither fire, nor moisture, nor wind can destroy the blessing of a good deed, and it will reform the whole world.”

And that is from a Chinese Sutra called The Sutra of the Questions of the Deva (By Imperial Command Translated From Sanskrit Into Chinese By The Great Tripitakacarya Hsuan-Tsang Of The Tang Dynasty), where we can read (in a modern translation by Bhikkhu Saddhaloka), “”Merit is not burnt by fire, by wind too it cannot be broken asunder, and not by water be rotted, and it is able to sustain the world.”

And this comes from some Sanskrit original, but sadly I don’t know what that is.

The form of the dialog that takes place in the sutra, between a deva (deity) and the Buddha, is very similar to suttas in the Pali Samyutta Nikaya, where there’s one entire section of conversations with Devas, and another with “young devas.” But this exchange doesn’t seem to be present in the Samyutta. It may be present elsewhere in the Tipikata.

Here’s a fuller picture of the Q&A session, again from Saddhaloka’s version:

The deva asked again saying:

“What is the thing that is not burnt by fire, which the wind too cannot break asunder, and not by water can be rotted, and is able to sustain the world? Who can bravely withstand both the king and the thief, and cannot be seized by humans and non-humans?”

The World Honoured One told him saying:

“Merit is not burnt by fire, by wind too it cannot be broken asunder, and not by water be rotten, and it is able to sustain the world. Merit can bravely withstand both the king and the thief, and cannot be taken away by humans and non-humans.”

The reference to fire, water, and wind is a nod to Buddhist cosmology and eschatology, where it’s said that the universe is ended by the actions of those three elements. Although the physical universe can be destroyed, the Buddha appears to be saying, the benefits of our actions will continue. If that sounds puzzling, it’s probably because the end of the universe, in the Buddha’s understanding, is not final. Just as human beings are said to die and be reborn, so too the universe goes through periods of evolution (creation) and involution (destruction). When the universe begins a new process of evolution, beings from the previous version of the universe are reborn there. This is discussed in the Pali Agañña Sutta. Although this sutta is generally held to be satirical, it probably does include something of the Buddha’s understanding of cosmology.

What’s being discussed in this quote is the Buddhist teaching of karma (or kamma, in Pali). Karma simply means “action,” but it’s ethical or unethical action that we’re concerned about. What determines whether our actions are ethical or unethical is the intention (cetana) behind them. When the intention is unskillful (i.e. based on greed, hatred, and delusion) the action that arises is unskillful and leads to pain for ourselves and others). When our intention is skillful, the resulting action is skillful, and the results are a reduction in pain for ourselves and others.

He said, “These are the rewards one can expect when doing what should be done: One doesn’t fault oneself; observant people, on close examination, praise one; one’s good reputation gets spread about; one dies unconfused; and — on the break-up of the body, after death — one reappears in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.”

The Buddha argued against the idea that externalities (purification rituals, prayer, etc.) could affect the course of this dynamic. He said that praying for the good rebirth of someone who has acted unskillfully was as useless as praying that a rock would fall upward.

Sacrifice and ritual actions he saw as being spiritually useless in themselves:

Not by water is one [ritually] clean,
though many people are bathing here.
Whoever has truth
& rectitude:
He’s a clean one;
he, a brahman.

The Buddha’s use of the word “brahman” here refers to his dismissal of another externality — that of birth. The brahmins (or brahmans) regarded themselves as being spiritually superior to the other classes in Indian society. Not so, said the Buddha. People are spiritually superior or inferior due to their acts, not their birth:

“Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes a brahman.

So the quote, although a little opaque, does embody a genuine Buddhist teaching, and it also comes from the (Mahayana) scriptures. The wording is a little condensed and compressed, and the mention of “birth and death” isn’t in the Chinese version, so I’m classifying this as “fakeish” rather than fake or genuine.

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“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

This one struck me as suspicious, mainly because of the “no one can and no one may,” which doesn’t strike me as the kind of language the Buddha used. Actually, this turns out to be an example of a translation that is so liberal that the resemblance to the original becomes tenuous.

It’s part of a slightly longer verse passage recorded in an 1894 book, Karma: A Story of Buddhist Ethics, by Paul Carus. In full the quotation is recognizable as having been derived from the Dhammapada:

By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.

No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way.

Here’s a more literal translation, from Access to Insight:

165. By oneself is evil done;
by oneself is one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone;
by oneself is one made pure.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
no one can purify another.

You can see a basic similarity, but “no one can and no one may” has been added to flesh out the poetry. Mostly this quote is fine. Yes, we’re responsible for our own actions. The Buddha can’t save us. We have to save ourselves. But “no one may”? That suggests that some external agency forbids others from saving us, which is not a Buddhist notion. “No one can” would have worked well as a translation on its own, but wouldn’t of course fit the rhyming scheme.

“Buddhas only show the way” seems to have been borrowed from another Dhammapada verse (276): “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.”

The late 19th century attempt to render the Buddha’s teaching in verse was a noble but of course an unsustainable one. In this case we’ve ended up with a note being injected (“no one may”) which simply doesn’t ring true.

PS. I’m aware that Pure Land Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is only possible through the grace of Amida Buddha, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that this approach contradicts what the Buddha seems to have taught — which is that the Buddhas only point the way, and that we must save ourselves.

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“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

photo-570x924

Someone on Facebook asked me about this one today:

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

At first I thought this was a spurious quote, but it does in fact have a canonical origin, although it’s heavily modified. In a Chinese text known as the Sutra of 42 Sections, there’s the following passage:

10. The Buddha said, “Those who rejoice in seeing others observe the Way will obtain great blessing.” A Sramana asked the Buddha, “Would this blessing be destroyed?” The Buddha replied, “It is like a lighted torch whose flame can be distributed to ever so many other torches which people may bring along; and therewith they will cook food and dispel darkness, while the original torch itself remains burning ever the same. It is even so with the bliss of the Way.”

The exact wording, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened, comes from a Japanese book on Buddhism called “The Teaching of Buddha.” This book does contain translations of Buddhist sutras, but it also includes a lot of explanatory commentary, of which this is a part.

A fuller version reads:

“An act to make another happy, inspires the other to make still another happy, and so happiness is aroused and abounds. Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. Those who seek Enlightenment must be careful of each of their steps. No matter how high one’s aspiration may be, it must be attained step by step. The steps of the path to Enlightenment must be taken in our everyday life.”

This seems to be, in part, a paraphrase of Section 10 of the Sutra. It’s not an exact translation, but it’s pretty close. It certainly seems to preserve the meaning and the image, even if the exact wording has been tweaked.

The quote “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared,” isn’t, I believe, quite close enough to the Sutra of 42 Sections to be considered genuine, so I’ve classed it as “fakeish.”

Several well-known Fake Buddha Quotes originate in this book. The problem may be that quotes appear with the attribution “The Teaching of Buddha,” and people then misinterpret this to mean that they are the “word of the Buddha.”

The Sutra of 42 Sections is said to be a compilation from Indian sources. According to legend, the Emperor Ming sent a delegation west looking for the Buddha’s teachings. The delegation encountered Kasyapa-Matanga and Dharmaraksha in India, and they were brought back to China along with many sutras. The Sutra of 42 Sections was one of the works they translated.

I’m not aware of any text in Pali (or Sanskrit) that corresponds to Section 10. That doesn’t mean that an original doesn’t exist, of course, just that more research is needed.

The Buddha did talk about lamps (I don’t know about candles) and said things like:

“Just as an oil lamp burns in dependence on oil & wick; and from the termination of the oil & wick — and from not being provided any other sustenance — it goes out unnourished; in the same way, when sensing a feeling limited to the body, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to the body.’ When sensing a feeling limited to life, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to life.’ He discerns that ‘With the break-up of the body, after the termination of life, all that is sensed, not being relished, will grow cold right here.’”

As you can see, this isn’t very pithy or quotable!

A bit more quotable is:

As a flame overthrown by the force of the wind goes to an end that cannot be classified, so the sage free from naming activity goes to an end that cannot be classified.

But then this is rather hard to comprehend.

A later teaching — the Questions of King Milinda, has a similar analogy in reference not to happiness but to the teaching of rebirth:

The king asked: “Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and [yet] one is reborn?”

“Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”

“How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy.”

“Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”

This isn’t the Buddha speaking, but it’s the closest I’ve found to “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

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