“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”

I’ve seen this one a lot, and here’s an example from Twitter.

As far as I’m aware, this isn’t an actual quote from the Buddha, but a paraphrase of something said by Buddhaghosa, the 5th century commentator, in his great work, the Visuddhimagga. It’s perfectly in keeping with Buddhist teachings, but not canonical (again, as far as I know), and if Buddhaghosa had been quoting the Pāli canon I think he would have given a scriptural reference.

Buddhaghosa, in discussing anger said,

“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.”
Visuddhimagga IX, 23.

As far as I can tell, the source of our FBQ was the 1987 book, “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind,” by Joan Borysenko. There the simile is put into the mouth of the Buddha, and the words become very close to our FBQ:

“The Buddha compared holding onto anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.”

It’s a short hop from that to:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.”

which by 1995 is found in at least two books.

A friend on Google+ thought it was a shame that the poop part of Buddhaghosa’s analogy hadn’t caught on rather than the hot coal part. Part of me agrees.

There is a similar simile (I like saying “similar simile”) in the Pali canon (both in the Majjhima and Digha Nikayas), although the intent is rather different:

Householder, suppose a man took a blazing grass torch and went against the wind. What do you think, householder? If that man does not quickly let go of that blazing grass torch, wouldn’t that blazing grass torch burn his hand or his arm or some other part of his body, so that he might incur death or deadly suffering because of that?

You might think that that was talking about anger, but actually it’s an image meant to convey the dangers of sensuality.

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