“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.

“When someone goes wrong, it is right for his real friends to move him, even by force, to do the right thing.”

Name: Michael Stacey

Email: y………@me.com

Subject: Fake Buddha quote?

Message: This was tweeted by @QuietMindSystem “When someone goes wrong, it is right for his real friends to move him, even by force, to do the right thing.” Buddha. The force word sort of makes it suspect, or am I mistaken? I would appreciate your feedback

*****

My reply:

You’re right to be suspicious.

As it happens I was just looking into that one the other day. It’s a particularly interesting example because it brings into question exactly what makes a Buddha quote fake. It’s a paraphrase, or alternative translation of a passage from the Jatakamala, or birth-stories of the Buddha. Here’s another version: “If a person acts inconsiderately, it is the duty of those who claim to be his friends to care for the good of their friend, be it even in a rough manner.” This is from Fausböll’s translation. I haven’t consulted the original Sanskrit to see exactly what it says.

If you’re not familiar with the Jatakas, they’re supposedly stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, illustrating his virtues as a bodhisatta. Many of these birth stories are regarded as being part of the Theravadin canon, and therefore a “genuine” part of the Buddha’s teaching. At the same time these were almost certainly pre-Buddhistic folk tales that became attached to the Buddhist tradition. So in a sense these are the Original Fake Buddha Quotes, which have been around so long that they are an accepted part of the Buddhist canon.

The Jatakamala is not a canonical work. It was composed in Sanskrit, probably around the first century several centuries after the Buddha) by Aryaśura. It seems that “new” Jataka stories continued to appear up until the 19th century, but the canon having been closed these aren’t accepted as official Buddhist teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven is closer than the brow above the eye but mankind does not see it.”

Another ripe, juicy Fake Buddha Quote spotted on Twitter:

The language is purely Christian, and “Kingdom of heaven” is in no way a Buddhist concept. Fortunately this particular quote seems very rare, and Google shows only a handful of results for it, some of which are variants (e.g. “above your eye”).

“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.”

This one is a mutation of “No matter how difficult the past, you can always begin again today,” which is actually by Jack Kornfield. Jack’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book is one of the major sources of Fake Buddha Quotes, presumably because people get confused by the title and think that it’s a book of actual quotations from the Buddha.

In its “hard” version it’s in at least two books, which leads me to wonder how many publishers require their authors to provide reliable sources for quotations.

Just observe the quotes, and then let them go

We just received the following comment on Wildmind’s Facebook page, regarding Fake Buddha Quotes:

Does it really matter if they are real or fake. And honestly, who really knows ?????
Just observe the quotes. And then let them go. We don’t need to have a strong opinion one way or the other. The fact that others thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.

I’m interested in this idea that we should “just observe” quotes and then “let them go.” Although I note that this particular person was not able simply to observe a Facebook post and let it go ;). Sorry, that was snarky of me.

What was the Buddha’s attitude to being misquoted? He was spiritually advanced, so presumably he would just observe misquotations and then let go of them? Well, not really. This is from the Alagaddupama Sutta:

You, O foolish man, have misrepresented us by what you personally have wrongly grasped. You have undermined your own (future) and have created much demerit. This, foolish man, will bring you much harm and suffering for a long time.

Strong words!

Of course he may have been misquoted on this! We have no way of knowing for sure what the Buddha said, although we can (despite the commenter above’s protestations otherwise) often identify that a quote attributed to the Buddha has a more recent origin.

“Does it really matter if they are real or fake?” If factual accuracy doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter when people say a quote is the Buddha’s when actually it’s not. But I happen to think accuracy is important. I’m not aiming to get annoyed about the misquotations I find, but I am keen to set the record straight when I can.

“The fact that others [are] thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.” I think it’s great that people want to quote the Buddha. But are they thinking about the Buddha’s teaching if the quotes they are passing on aren’t even his? Well, in some cases they may be, but in many cases they aren’t. They’re thinking about some other person’s words and teaching. And I’d hope that people who are genuinely interested in thinking about the Buddha’s teaching would at least be interested in what that teaching is.

The Buddha’s disciples were as concerned as the Buddha himself when it came to misquoting him —at least when the quotations are inaccurate. The same sutta I quoted above have monks saying to someone who has misquoted the Buddha,

Do not say so … do not say so! Do not misrepresent the Blessed One! It is not right to misrepresent him. Never would the Blessed One speak like that.

There was a strong concern for accuracy at that time, perhaps because the teachings were passed on orally. In an oral tradition, once an inaccuracy has become widespread, there is no “original text” to go back and consult. Fortunately we have the scriptures (which, unless there’s good evidence to the contrary, we can regard as being what the Buddha taught) and so we can compare quotes with them in order to determine whether they’re genuine or spurious.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Spotted here:

This is another one from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (1994), which isn’t a collection of Buddha quotes, but is Jack’s rather lovely interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

According to the publisher:

Just as the serene beauty of the lotus blossom grows out of muddy water, Buddha’s simple instructions have helped people to find wholeness and peace amid life’s crisis and distractions for more than 2,500 years. For this small handbook, a well-known American Buddhist teacher and psychologist has distilled and adapted an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life. Its practical reminders and six meditations can infuse smallest everyday action with insight and joy.

It’s a charming book, although the title has led many people to think that its contents are quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. In some cases that appears to be so, but most of the aphorisms seem to be Jack’s own thoughts.

Thanks to an alert commenter (Paxski), I was able to track where Jack got this quote from. Paxski had heard Jack use this quotation in one of his talks on CD, where he attributed it to Don Juan. Paxski wasn’t sure which Don Juan this was, but a hunch told me that it was probably the (fictional?) Yaqui shaman from Carlos Castaneda’s books. And indeed, I found the following in Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda’s third book:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change? You don’t have time for this display, you fool. This, whatever you’re doing now, may be your last act on earth. It may very well be your last battle. There is no power which could guarantee that you are going to live one more minute.

So this another version of the “timeless” reminder that time is brief and that we should make good use of it.

Shorn of this context, though, as it is in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, I’ve often thought that this quote might be a little counter-productive. I know what the quote was intending to say, but what is it we don’t have time for? The quote doesn’t say. I certainly hope I have time to get enlightened. Of course I don’t know how much time is available to me, but if I’m being told that I don’t, in fact, have time, then what’s the point? The quote’s intention is to point out that we don’t have time to waste, but not having time to waste is not the same thing as not having time. We do have time, or at least we have some time, and the question is how we’re going to use it.

Shorn of its context, I think that this particular quote may be an example of what Daniel Dennett has called a “deepity.” Here’s an adaptation of Wikipedia’s account of that term:

Deepity is a term employed by Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists Institution conference, coined by the teenage daughter of one of his friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

It would be earth-shattering to say, truthfully, that we don’t have time. But it’s essentially false. Still, this is me over-thinking the quote. As I mentioned, I knew the first time I read it what it meant. It’s just a little ambiguous. And not something the Buddha said, although he said similar things:

  • “Unindicated and unknown is the length of life of those subject to death.” (Source)
  • “Those who have come to be, those who will be: All will go, leaving the body behind. The skillful person, realizing the loss of all, should live the holy life ardently.” (Source)
  • “I have reckoned the life of a person living for 100 years: I have reckoned the life span, reckoned the seasons, reckoned the years, reckoned the months, reckoned the fortnights, reckoned the nights, reckoned the days, reckoned the meals, reckoned the obstacles to eating. Whatever a teacher should do — seeking the welfare of his disciples, out of sympathy for them — that have I done for you. Over there are the roots of trees; over there, empty dwellings. Practice jhana, monks. Don’t be heedless. Don’t later fall into regret. This is our message to you all.” (Source)
  • Life is swept along, next-to-nothing its span. For one swept to old age no shelters exist. Perceiving this danger in death, one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace. (Source)

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”

I just spotted this one on Twitter:

The language is all wrong for the Buddha, and this sounds very 20th century, with a strong dose of self-help.

At first the earliest source I could find for this was from 1993, from a book by John Mason called You’re Born an Original, Don’t Die a Copy!, except there the final word is “perseverance” rather than the “persistence” of the quote on Twitter. There’s no attribution given there, and in a later book, Know Your Limits — Then Ignore Them he just refers to it as a “famous old saying.”

So we now have:

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”

I found that Readers Digest Quotable Quotes attributes this to H. Jackson Brown, again with “perseverance” rather than persistence.

This helped me find many other identical attributions, including one to Brown’s A Father’s Book of Wisdom. In that book, published 1988 by Rutledge Hill, he attributes the saying to “Dad.” So far I haven’t found any instances of the quote before 1988, so this may be our source.

It’s been attributed elsewhere to Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, but the origins are unclear at present.

It’s almost certainly too literary in style to be something from the Pali canon (although a translator can of course add some “polish.”

Most of the Buddha’s references to streams were to do with “crossing the stream” to the farther shore of Awakening, but here’s one quote where he quotes (seemingly with approval) another teacher’s simile, using the mountain stream to represent impermanence:

Just as a river flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, so that there is not a moment, an instant, a second where it stands still, but instead it goes & rushes & flows, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a river flowing down from the mountains — limited, trifling, of much stress & many despairs. One should touch this [truth] like a sage, do what is skillful, follow the holy life. For one who is born there is no freedom from death.

I’m not familiar with any verse from the Pali canon referring to waters wearing down rocks, but it’s a big canon, and I haven’t read it all…

“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.

“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”

Thanks to Viv for bringing this one to my attention in a comment on another Fake Buddha Quote.

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.

It’s from page 112 of Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” in which Jack “distilled and adapted an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life.” This is a common pattern: if a book is called “The Teaching of Buddha” or “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” then people jump to the conclusion that any quote from it is the teaching of the Buddha or one of the Buddha’s instructions. It’s not the fault of the author, of course…

As I said to Viv, how I can tell (usually) that a quote is a Fake Buddha Quote is that it may resonate with the teachings, but the language and idiom is all to heck.

The Buddha, to the best of my recollection, didn’t talk in terms of miracles in this metaphorical way (although he talked about literal miracles, such as psychic powers). And he was more inclined to talk about paying attention to the five clinging aggregates and recognizing that they were anatta — not your self — than paying attention to flowers.

He used flower metaphors, but I don’t think he ever suggested looking at flowers (or at least it’s not recorded that he did, which is all that’s important when you’re talking about quotes).

The language in this quote is more like something Thich Nhat Hanh would say. It’s nice, but it’s too sentimental for the Pali canon.

See also: “If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe.”

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

This is one I came across on Google+ last night, and it immediately struck me as suspect:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

You’ll find this on ThinkExist and a whole bunch of other quotes sites.

It’s another quote that’s been taken from a translation of a Japanese book called “The Teaching of Buddha,” by the Bukkyõ Dendõ Kyõkai organization. It’s a Buddhist version of the Gideon Bible, and is put in hotel rooms in order to spread the word. The quote is from a passage interpreting the Buddha’s teaching and not quoting him. What I’d imagine happens is that the quote gets posted with the attribution “The Teaching of Buddha” and then someone thinks the quote is, verbatim, the teaching of the Buddha. And then it’s attributed as being the word of the Buddha.

There are things that the Buddha said that are along these lines, about not clinging to the past, future, or present. And he did sometimes talk about health. But I’m pretty sure he never bundled all these elements together into one neat quote. The phrasing is just not right for this to be something from the Pali canon…