“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.)

“The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.”

I’m quite sure this quote, which was sent to me the other day, is fake: “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.”

The Buddha talked a little about the past, present, and future, although not as much as you might assume, based on contemporary teachers’ emphasis on that theme. However he didn’t talk in this way: “There’s only one moment for you to live.” That’s far too metaphorical and poetic for the language of the Pali canon.

The scriptural model for the quote is likely the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, where the Buddha, in Thanissaro’s translation, says,

What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.

As you can see, the first two stanzas are in essence identical to our suspect quote, but while the last sentence emphasizes seeing what is arising in the present, it’s not saying that there’s only one moment for us to live. Yes, one could draw that conclusion from what is said, but that’s an interpretation, not a quotation.

I think the fake quote arises from a paraphrase by Thich Nhat Hanh. In talks he’s said things like “The Buddha said that the past is already gone, the future is not yet here; there is only one moment for you to live: that is the present moment” (1998).

This is clearly not a quote. Yet in later books, like 2008’s “Breathe, You Are Alive,” the quote starts “The Buddha said…” and is put in quotation marks.

The fault here may well be with Thich Nhat Hanh’s editors. When assistants take his talks, transcribe them, and edit them into books published under his own name, the difference between “the Buddha said that…” and “the Buddha said…” can get lost. This turns a paraphrase into a quote, or at least a “quote.” It’s an easy error to make.

“The secret of happiness lies in the mind’s release from worldly ties.”

12733579_969056473186994_4410220237074096210_nAn alert reader spotted this quote in the form of an illustration by Molly Hahn’s “Buddha Doodles”: “The secret of happiness lies in the mind’s release from worldly ties.” It struck him as being fake, and he was right.

The Buddha did of course talk about happiness, but not of a “secret of happiness.”

This quote seems to originate in an article in the British Buddhist Society’s journal, “The Middle Way,” from February 1974. Here’s the passage in question:

In the Anguttara Nikaya we learn that while staying in Alavi the Buddha was asked by Hatthaka the following very direct questions : ‘Is the Blessed One joyful and contented with his lot ? Does he live happily ?’ Not surprisingly the Buddha replied, ‘Yes dear friend I live happily. My life is filled with happiness’. ‘But how can this be sir’, Hatthaka persisted, ‘for your thin robes and this inadequate carpet of dry leaves cannot possibly protect you against the bitter cold of the long night and the inhospitality of the rough ground ? How can you really be happy?

‘I am nevertheless’, replied Gotama, ‘Do you imagine that happiness is only possible in a palace ?

Is a man certain of happiness if he lives in luxury with his devoted family in a fine house with honest and efficient servants ?’ ‘Yes sir, he is’.

‘Perhaps he may be … in the beginning. But is he not also liable to be uneasy about his possessions ?

Is not such a person subject to fear, envy, gossip and jealousy and can his happiness long endure in the face of all the conflicts that arise from his being forced to keep continual watch on his wealth ?’

‘That is certainly true sir. Such a man must indeed be subject to all kinds of anguish due to his riches. In spite of appearances I suppose he could not really be called a happy man’.

‘Friend’, concluded the Buddha, ‘though it may not appear so, judged by my material circumstances, I am free from sorrow and all the troubles of worldly life. I am not continually harassed with the tiresome details of social life. I have cut off at at the root the whole tree of sorrow and misery, and have eradicated all need for greed, malice and delusion and also those sins inseparable from selfishness. Therefore I am truly happy.

Remember my friend :

The secret of happiness lies
In mind’s release from worldly ties.

You’ll notice that the quote here is in the form of a rhyming couplet, and it’s “mind’s release” and not “the mind’s release.”

The original sutta is easily identifiable as the Hatthaka Sutta (AN 3.34).

In Thanissaro’s version, linked to above, the closing verse is:

Always, always,
he sleeps in ease:
the brahman totally unbound,
who doesn’t adhere
to sensual pleasures,
who’s without acquisitions
& cooled.
Having cut all ties
& subdued fear in the heart,
he sleeps in ease,
having reached peace
of awareness.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s version is:

He always sleeps well,
the Brahman who has attained nibbana,
cooled off, without acquisitions,
not tainted by sensual pleasures.

Having cut off all attachments,
having removed anguish in the heart,
the peaceful one sleeps well,
having attained peace of mind.

So it appears that the author of the article (who’s name I can’t see, since I’m struggling with Google Books’ snippet view) was paraphrasing heavily. Perhaps he got the quote from somewhere, or perhaps he made it up in order to summarize the Buddha’s verse as a couplet. I’m certain it’s not genuine, though.

PS. Buddha Doodles has a book that just came out. Judging by their website I strongly suspect there are other Fake Buddha Quotes in the book. The illustrations are charming, however!

“On the long journey of human life, faith is the best of companions; it is the best refreshment on the journey; and it is the greatest property.”

This was passed on to me today by Bhikkhu Nyanatusita: “On the long journey of human life, faith is the best of companions; it is the best refreshment on the journey; and it is the greatest property.”

It is not a canonical quote. It’s from a Japanese publication called “The Teaching of Buddha” (also sometimes called “The Buddhist Bible”). It’s published by a charitable organization that leaves the books in hotel rooms to inspire travelers. I’ve heard that every hotel room in Japan has a copy.

It’s been in publication since at least the 1930s. My own copy is from 1985, and it’s the 115th edition! There are some scriptural passages in there, but mostly it’s a collection of non-scriptural writings explaining a Pure Land approach to the Dharma.

Many Fake Buddha Quotes have come from this book, no doubt because people assume that a book called “The Teaching of Buddha” is a compendium of the Buddha’s words. Or perhaps they see a quote with the attribution “The Teaching of Buddha” and assume it’s Buddhavacana.

I can’t imagine the Buddha referring to an individual human lifetime as a “long journey.” He seemed to emphasize the brevity of human life, not its length, except when talking about the round of samsara. I found a passage on Access to Insight that reads: “But it is impossible to find a realm in the round that I have not already passed through in this long journey (dīghena addhunā).”

In referring to an individual lifetime, the Buddha was more apt to say things like “Life is difficult and brief and bound up with suffering” (The Salla Sutta) or “faster than the speed of the devas who rush ahead of the sun and moon, the force of one’s life span comes to an end” (Dhanuggaha Sutta). Life is short! Practice!

“Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn perfect patience, perfect wisdom, perfect compassion.”

I’ve found this misattributed to the Buddha in a number of books:

Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn perfect patience, perfect wisdom, perfect compassion.

This bears no resemblance to anything in the Buddhist scriptures. It turns out that it’s from page 83 of Jack Kornfield’s lovely “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” which is not (as the title might erroneously suggest) a collection of quotes from the Buddha but is instead a collection of contemporary sayings on practice, some of which are loosely based on scriptural sources, but which are mostly (as far as I can make out) of Jack’s own devising.

Geri Larkin, in her book “Stumbling Toward Enlightenment,” has an unacknowledged borrowing of the first part of the quote, and has paraphrased the rest:

Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. Everyone is your teacher and they are doing just the right things to motivate you to learn whatever it is you need to know.

This quote can be found, presented as a Buddha quote, in books such as Larry Chang’s “Wisdom for the Soul,” Sylvia Lafair’s “Don’t Bring It to Work,” Angela Paul’s “It’s Hard Being Human,” and, most ironically, in Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat’s “Spiritual Literacy.”

It’s also frequently attributed to the Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, Anthony de Mello, although so far I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that attribution is correct.

“As rain falls equally on the just and unjust, do not burden your heart with judgments but rain your kindness equally upon all.”


This is widely quoted as being from the Buddha. It seems to be an amalgamation of a quote from the New Testament and a loose paraphrase of the Lotus Sutra, which is a Mahayana scripture.

The first part is Matthew 5:44-45.

“But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

The rest sounds like a paraphrase from the “Lotus Sutra”:

“Know, Kashyapa! It is like unto a great cloud Rising above the world, Covering all things everywhere, A gracious cloud full of moisture; Lightning-flames flash and dazzle, Voice of thunder vibrates afar, Bringing joy and ease to all. The sun’s rays are veiled, And the earth is cooled; The cloud lowers and spreads As if it might be caught and gathered; Its rain everywhere equally Descends on all sides, Streaming and pouring unstinted, Permeating the land. On mountains, by rivers, in valleys, In hidden recesses, there grow The plants, trees, and herbs; Trees, both great and small, The shoots of the ripening grain, Grape vine and sugar cane. Fertilized are these by the rain And abundantly enriched; The dry ground is soaked, Herbs and trees flourish together. From the one water which Issued from that cloud, Plants, trees, thickets, forests, According to their need receive moisture. All the various trees, Lofty, medium, low, Each according to its size, Grows and develops Roots, stalks, branches, leaves, Blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colors; Wherever the one rain reaches, All become fresh and glossy. According as their bodies, forms And natures are great or small, So the enriching rain, Though it is one and the same, Yet makes each of them flourish.

In like manner also the Buddha Appears here in the world, Like unto a great cloud Universally covering all things; And having appeared in the world, He, for the sake of the living, Discriminates and proclaims The truth in regard to all laws. The Great Holy World-honored One, Among the gods and men And among the other beings, Proclaims abroad this word: “I am the Tathagata, The Most Honored among men; I appear in the world Like unto this great cloud, To pour enrichment on all Parched living beings, To free them from their misery To attain the joy of peace, Joy of the present world, And joy of Nirvana….

Upon all I ever look Everywhere impartially, Without distinction of persons, Or mind of love or hate. I have no predilections Nor any limitations; Ever to all beings I preach the Law equally; As I preach to one person, So I preach to all. Ever I proclaim the Law, Engaged in naught else; Going, coming, sitting, standing, Never am I weary of Pouring it copious on the world, Like the all-enriching rain. On honored and humble, high and low, Law-keepers and law-breakers, Those of perfect character, And those of imperfect, Orthodox and heterodox, Quick-witted and dull-witted, Equally I rain the Law-rain Unwearyingly.”

The idea of the Buddha of the Pali canon talking in terms of non-judgement is rather ludicrous. His emphasis was on terms of judging wisely rather than on not judging at all. For example here are Dhammapada verses 256-257:

To pass judgment hurriedly
doesn’t mean you’re a judge.
The wise one, weighing both
the right judgment & wrong,
judges others impartially —
unhurriedly, in line with the Dhamma,
guarding the Dhamma,
guarded by Dhamma,
he’s called a judge.

“True love is born from understanding.”

I don’t know where “True love is born from understanding” is from, but it’s not from the Buddha, despite many attributions that say it is.

It sounds very like Thich Nhat Hanh, but so far I haven’t found this exact saying in any of his books. There is something similar in one of his books, “Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child,” with reference to the emotional release of crying:

With the energy discharged, we will be able to look deeply AND TO UNDERSTAND, AND THAT IS WHERE TRUE LOVE IS BORN.

These aren’t the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, however, but of a disciple, Thay Phap An.

In the book, “True Love,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes “Understanding is the essence of love. If you cannot understand, you cannot love.” He also writes, “Without understanding, love is an impossible thing,” and “Love is a true thing if it is made up of a substance called understanding.”

All these quotes are in the ball park, but none is a palpable hit.

“My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

tnh quote

“My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” which is often attributed to the Buddha, is actually by Thich Nhat Hann. It’s from his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” page 124.

It’s his paraphrase of the Buddha’s “five reminders.”

In their original form they’re as follows:

“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …

“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …

“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …

“‘I am the owner of my actions,[karma] heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.'”

“It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

Although it’s often said to be from the Buddha, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have,” is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. The first part in particular — “It is possible to live happily in the present moment” — is often found in his books.

The Buddha actually had very little to say — as far as we can tell from what’s been recorded in the scriptures — about the present moment. I don’t think he said anything about the present moment being all we have, although he might well have agreed with the statement.

In “No Death, No Fear” Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The Buddha said, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

In another book he equates “It is possible to live happily in the present moment” with the Pali expression, Diṭṭha-dhamma-sukha-vihārā. Thanissaro translates this as “abiding in ease, here and now” and Bhikkhu Bodhi similarly renders it as “a pleasant abiding here and now.”

Diṭṭhadhamma means “this world” (literally “visible things”) and sukhavihārati is “dwelling happily (or at ease).” There is a convention that diṭṭhadhamma refers to time as well as place, hence “here and now” rather than just “here.” I don’t know why this is, but if both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro include “now” as well as “here” then I presume they have good reasons for doing so.

However you translate diṭṭha-dhamma-sukha-vihārā, you’re never going to get close to “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.” I suspect that what’s happened is that one of Thay’s talks was transcribed, and the editor, seeing “The Buddha said” inserted quotes around what he or she erroneously took to be direct speech.

As far as I’m aware, it’s a long time since Thich Hanh Hanh has written his own books, and the works published under his name are actually ghostwritten by disciples, based on material from his talks.

My guess is that Thich Nhat Hanh’s original intention would have been to say something like this:

The Buddha said it is possible to “live happily in the present moment.” It is the only moment we have. [Everything outside the quotes being Thay’s own words, of course, and the part within quotes being a direct quotation from the scriptures—a rendering of diṭṭha-dhamma-sukha-vihārā.]

If that’s the case, then this is the second instance I’ve found of a Fake Buddha Quote being created by Thich Nhat Hanh’s editors or ghostwriters, the other being “The moment you know how your suffering came to be, you are already on the path of release from it.”