“He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.”

the-buddhaA reader, Andy, wrote to me about this one. The subject line of the email was “PLEASE tell me this one is bogus!” I knew I was in store for something interesting.

Andy continued: “I hope you can confirm my gut feeling that this is a fake Buddha quote: ‘He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.’ This seems a total distortion of the concept of non-attachment. And obviously completely at odds with loving kindness practice.” He pointed out that this quote is found on many sites.

Surprisingly, this one is a fairly accurate quote from the Pāli canon. I first came across it a few years ago in a Christian tract attacking Buddhism. Like Andy I was skeptical that this quote was accurate when I first came across it. The problem here is not that the quote is fake, but that it’s misleading unless understood in the context of other Buddhist teachings on love.

The original is found in the Visākhā Sutta of the Udāna, where the Buddha is depicted as talking to Visākhā, Migāra’s mother, who has just lost a grandson.

The Buddha teaches Visākha the connection between attachment and grief, and reminds her that every day people die.

“Visākhā, would you like to have as many children & grandchildren as there are people in Sāvatthī?”

“Yes, lord, I would like to have as many children & grandchildren as there are people in Sāvatthī.”

“But how many people in Sāvatthī die in the course of a day?”

“Sometimes ten people die in Sāvatthī in the course of a day, sometimes nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Sometimes one person dies in Sāvatthī in the course of a day. Sāvatthī is never free from people dying.”

In what seems like an odd attempt to console Visāka, the Buddha points out to her that the fewer people one loves, the less pain one experiences:

“Visākhā, those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred sufferings. Those who have ninety dear ones have ninety sufferings. Those who have eighty… seventy… sixty… fifty… forty… thirty… twenty… ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Those who have one dear one have one suffering. Those who have no dear ones have no sufferings. They are free from sorrow, free from stain, free from lamentation, I tell you.”

In Pāli, the two extracts of passage that comprise the quote are “Yesaṃ paññāsaṃ piyāni, paññāsaṃ tesaṃ dukkhāni” (those who have 50 dear ones — piyaṃ — have 50 sufferings) and “Yesaṃ natthi piyaṃ, natthi tesaṃ dukkhaṃ (those who have no dear ones have no suffering).

In the light of the Buddha’s other teachings on lovingkindness, we have to assume that he’s talking here about “dear ones” to whom one is attached, as opposed to having lovingkindness or compassion. In another situation, in the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha encouraged us to love all beings as if they were our own children:

Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.

What’s the difference between Visākha’s pain-inducing (grand)mother’s love and the mother’s love that Buddha encourages us to have to all beings?

In the latter case we’re cultivating mettā, or lovingkindness, which is a desire that beings be well and happy. We don’t have to know people to have mettā for them. We don’t even have to like them. In fact we can dislike them and still have mettā for them.

But in the former case, why does Visākha have love for her children and grandchildren? And what kind of love is that? For sure, she wants them to be well and happy, but does she feel the same way about all children, including children unrelated to her? We can assume that she doesn’t. She loves her children and grandchildren because they are her children and grandchildren. In other words there’s a form of possession and ownership that is characteristic of the love she feels. This sense of our children being part of ourselves is no doubt familiar to every parent.

The love Visākha feels is called pema, which is attached affection. The word pema comes from the same root as piyaṃ, or “one who is dear.” Pema is very different from mettā, where there is no such sense of possession. With mettā we want all children to be well and happy.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience pain when someone we have mettā for dies. I find it hard, in fact, to imagine the kind of “love” that would be so detached that it would not lead to suffering when the object of that love has died.

The well-known Sallatha Sutta suggests to me that the dukkha that we are spared by having “no dear ones” (i.e. no one to whom we are attached) is the added suffering that comes from being unable to bear the pain of loss:

In the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling.

The noble (i.e. enlightened) disciple still experiences painful feelings, and these would, I assume, include the feeling of loss. the fact that the passage I just quoted refers to a “bodily” rather than a mental feeling needn’t trouble us; the pain of loss is experienced at least partly as a physical pain, and it can even be alleviated with painkillers, according to neuroscientific research. At any rate the principle that non-reactivity prevents us becoming distraught over physical pain also prevents us from becoming distraught over mental pain. Whether you regard loss as physical or mental, the principle is the same.

The noble disciple does not “worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught.” There’s no resistance to the loss. It’s accepted.

It’s also a different kind of loss. Rather than the disappearance of something that is in some sense ours, we simply have the simply the disappearance of someone we’d wished well. In both cases there’s a sense of being deprived of a human presence which has been intertwined with our own, but in the case of attachment there’s the added sense of the loss being a personal affront.

The Buddha’s advice to Visākha tries to place her loss in the context of the universality of death. People die every day. The more we remember this, the less distraught we will be when someone close to us dies. We’ll still feel the pain, but we’ll be better placed to bear it with mindfulness and self-possession, since we won’t think, as people tend to, that we’ve been uniquely singled out for the experience of bereavement.

“If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”

I was asked today what I made of this quote:

“If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”

My correspondent said, “I like it very much, but it sounds very much like a later translation/adaptation of something the Buddha might have said, but less soundbite-y and eloquent.”

The exact wording in that quotation is from Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein’s 1987 book, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, but it’s a reasonably good paraphrase of a passage from the Itivuttika.

Access to Insight has:

“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given…”

So this one, happily, is not fake. Or, if we’re prepared to accept that what is canonical is, without good evidence to the contrary, the word of the Buddha, then it’s genuine. It’s at least a genuine canonical quote, even if we are to doubt that the Buddha said anything in the Pali canon.

“We will develop love, we will practice it, we will make it both a way and a basis…”

develop-loveA reader called Geoffrey sent this one to me, saying:

My meditation teacher used this quote but she didn’t know the source of it. It’s really quite beautiful, but I am pretty suspicious it doesn’t come from the mouth of the Buddha.

“It is in this way that we must train ourselves: By liberation of the self through love, We will develop love, We will practice it, We will make it both a way and a basis, Take a stand upon it, store it up, and thoroughly set it going.” – the Buddha

I was suspicious too, but this is actually a canonical quote, and as you Geoffrey says, it’s rather lovely. It’s from the Samyutta Nikaya, and in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation you’ll find it on page 708:

“Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’ Thus should you train yourselves.”

So this is basically an accurate quote. I don’t know where Geoffrey’s teacher’s version of the quote comes from. The only Samyutta Nikaya I have is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s.

I think what the Buddha was doing here was encouraging the monks to set their intentions. Those intentions outline a progressive sequence leading roughly from bringing lovingkindness into being, making it increasingly a part of our lives, and finally perfecting it so that there are no thoughts, words, or actions that are not imbued with lovingkindness.

The word translated in the two versions as either “love” or “lovingkindness” is metta. These days my own preferred translation of this term is “kindness.” Metta is the desire that beings be happy and free from suffering, not because we necessarily, know them, like them, are related to them, or in any way connected with them, but simply because we know it’s the nature of beings to wish these things.

“People with opinions just go around bothering each other.”

offending-people1-570x689

“People with opinions just go around bothering each other.”

When I first saw this quote I thought I was certain that it was fake. After a bit of investigation I came to be conclusion that it’s a paraphrase, but close enough to the original to be considered a genuine quote.

The original of this striking verse is found in the Magandiya Suta in the Sutta Nipata, which is generally held to be one of the oldest collection of texts in the Pali canon.

Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates this verse as:

“Those who grasp at perceptions and views
go about butting their heads in the world.”

Fausböll, a 19th century pioneer translator, has:

“But those who grasped after marks and philosophical views, they wander about in the world annoying people.”

Suttas.net has:

“Those attached to the notion ‘I am’ and to views
Roam the world offending people.”*

The original Pali is:

Saññaca diṭṭhiñca ye aggahesuṃ
Te ghaṭṭayantā vicaranti loketi.

My rendition would be:

Those who cling to perceptions (saññā) and views (diṭṭhi)
Wander (vicarati) the world offending (ghaṭṭeti) people.

[Added later: Bhikkhu Varado’s translation, which I just discovered, is almost identical to mine: “Those attached to perception and views / roam the world offending people.”]

So this colorful little gem has strong canonical roots. The form of this quote, “People with opinions just go around bothering each other,” seems to be a minor variant of something from A Path With Heart, a 1993 book by Jack Kornfield: “People with opinions just go around bothering one another” (page 50). What’s missing here compared to the Pali is that in the original it’s “clinging” to views and perceptions that’s the cause of conflict, while Jack merely has “opinions.” But opinions aren’t, in popular parlance, opinions unless they’re views that are clung to, so the difference seems minimal. Still, in the graphic above I’ve included the “clinging.”

The Buddha in fact regarded himself as being free of opinions, and saw opinions as bonds and shackles:

“And how is there the bond of opinions? Here, monks, someone does not understand as it really is the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of opinions. For one not understanding as it really is the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of modes of opinion; who, with respect to opinion, is obsessed with passion for opinion, delight in opinion, affection for opinion, intoxication with opinion, thirst for opinion, fever for opinion, attachment to opinion, craving for opinion: this, monks, is called ‘the bond of opinion’. Thus the bond of sensual pleasure, the bond of being, and the bond of opinion.”


* The translator notes that “I am” is not in the quotation, but that its inclusion is warranted by material nearby. That’s just how Pali rolls, bitches.

“If anything is worth doing, do it with all your heart.”

When I first saw this quote on Twitter, my suspicious were aroused. It just seemed too neat and “literary” to be a genuine Buddha quote. But having researched it I’ve concluded that it’s a translation that’s just close enough to the original to be considered genuine.

“If anything is worth doing, do it with all your heart.”

It’s from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada, which is generally held in high regard, although I confess I haven’t read it. This particular quote is part of verse 313, from the chapter on “Hell.”

Here are some variant translations:

  • If anything is to be done, let one do it with sustained vigor. (Buddharakkhita)
  • If something’s to be done, then work at it firmly. (Thanissaro)
  • If aught should be done, let one do it. Let one promote it steadily.(Narada Thera)
  • If you have something to do, attack it vigorously. (Sangharakshita)

The Pāli is Kayirā ce kayirāthenaṃ daḷhamenaṃ parakkame, which is very literally “If something is to be done, one should do it; one should undertake it firmly.”

Eknath’s “with all your heart” is to my mind a bit of a stretch, but it does idiomatically cover the same territory as “do it firmly.” So this is one of these times when my instincts were slightly off.