A reader, David Nash, wrote to me asking about the following quote, which he’d spotted on Twitter.
“Let yourself be open & life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes it undrinkable. In a lake almost unnoticed” ~Buddha
David was suspicious: “Something about this doesn’t seem right… is it legit or not?”
Apart from the use of the word “glass,” which is, as far as I’m aware, anachronistic, the phrase “let yourself be open” is a dead giveaway. It’s simply not the kind of thing that the Buddha would have said, and it has a very late-20th century ring to it. A search of Google books shows only one result for “let yourself be open” in the first half of the 20th century, but several for the last year of that century. (And it seems to have become even more common since then.)
The analogy itself is fine, and in fact it’s taken from the Buddha’s teachings. In discussing how the same “trifling” unskillful action, performed by two different people, can have two radically different karmic effects, the following dialog is recorded:
“Suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into a small amount of water in a cup. What do you think? Would the water in the cup become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink?”
“Yes, lord. Why is that? There being only a small amount of water in the cup, it would become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink.”
“Now suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into the River Ganges. What do you think? Would the water in the River Ganges become salty because of the salt crystal, and unfit to drink?”
“No, lord. Why is that? There being a great mass of water in the River Ganges, it would not become salty because of the salt crystal or unfit to drink.”
“In the same way, there is the case where a trifling evil deed done by one individual takes him to hell; and there is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by the other individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.”
The Buddha here is talking about a kind of “karmic butterfly effect.” In one who hasn’t developed mindfulness, the habit of acting ethically, mental clarity, discernment, and love, a trifling unskillful thought, word, or action can be the catalyst for further, and more extreme unskillful actions. For one who has developed these faculties, the trifling unskilful action is stopped in its tracks. The trifling unskillful act done by this sort of individual “is experienced in the here and now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.”
To give an example, one person may tell a small lie, and then to cover that up they create more and more lies, along with patterns of defensive anger, etc. A whole life of deceit may be built up. Another may tell a small lie, but then immediately regrets it and corrects their account of events. The current of deceit is born and dies in an instant.
The Fake Quote above comes from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, where it’s found (on page 21) in the following form:
Let yourself be open and life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed.
Buddha’s Little Instruction Book is a lovely book, and I’d recommend it. Jack certainly had no intention to mislead or to create a fake quote; the problem is simply that many readers seem to have missed the description on the back cover that says that jack has “distilled and adapted an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life.” It’s fine to distill and adapt the Buddha’s teaching, of course. But unfortunately many people have taken the book as a book of Buddha quotes.