“He is able who thinks he is able.”

Seeing a Fake Buddha Quote on Twitter is pretty much a daily occurrence, but this one retweeted by a Buddhist particularly struck me this morning:

He is able who thinks he is able. #Buddha

What interests me about this one is that it’s being passed on by people who have “Buddha” or “Buddhist” as part of their Twitter usernames, and yet it strikes me as being profoundly unBuddhist. I’m always open to correction, but the Buddha didn’t strike me as being an advocate of “positive thinking.” The Buddha’s actual position seemed to be more, it doesn’t matter what you think you are, what is important is what you do.

The Buddha of course encouraged the development of ethically positive thinking, which is thinking free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and imbued with wisdom and compassion. But the idea that you can do something just because you think you can is one he’d have seen as being itself delusional.

In fact when we look around at the world it seems self-evident that it’s full of people who over-estimate their abilities. And this has been well-studied by psychologists. Here’s an article on why we overestimate our competence, for example.

It’s curious that so many Buddhists promote views as being the words of the Buddha when actually they’re in an idiom that’s completely foreign to actual Buddhist teachings, and when the content is also alien to Buddhist thought and practice. I suspect a lot of Buddhists aren’t very familiar with actual scriptures, and rely on books about Buddhism. This would explain why so many non-Buddhist sayings are passed off as being the word of the Buddha.

Where does that quote–“He is able who thinks he is able”–actually come from? It’s not actually New Age at all. Originally, the earliest uses I was able to find were in books published in 1965 and 1972, where it’s described as “an ancient Roman saying.” It does have that muscular ring of empire about it! It’s also in a book from 1937 as well, “Guiding Your Life with Psychology as a Key,” by Josephine Agnes Jackson but no citation is given.

The Latin phrase being translated here is “Potest qui vult,” which is he who wills, is able. That is of course entirely different from “He is able who thinks he is able,” so the saying being ascribed to the Buddha is also being mistranslated from the Latin.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

Spotted on Twitter:

The quote in question comes from “he Teaching of Buddha: The Buddhist bible : A Compendium of Many Scriptures Translated from the Japanese, published in 1934 by The Federation of All Young Buddhist Associations of Japan.

It’s in a section titled “Sacred Aphorisms,” many of which are recognizable as quotes from the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada quotes are unnumbered, which makes them tricky to identify at times, but this seems to be a rendition of verse 348:

Munca pure munca pacchato
majjhe munca bhavassa paragu
sabbattha vimuttamanaso
na punam jatijaram upehisi.

My literal translation of this would be:

Let go of the past, let go of the future.
Let go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
with mind completely freed,
you will never again come to birth and aging.

Buddharakkhita’s translation is:

Let go of the past, let go of the future,
let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.

This is very different from “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The first two clauses (“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future”) , although poetic, are accurate, but the third (“concentrate the mind on the present moment”) is a significant distortion of what the Dhammapada literally says. I’m not arguing there’s anything wrong with concentrating the mind on the present moment — far from it. But the essential message, that none of our experience is to be clung to, gets lost.

It’s no doubt surprising to many people, since the terminology is a standard part of modern discussion about Buddhism, but the Buddha didn’t often talk in terms of “the present moment” or “concentrating on the present moment.” The closest I know to the quote above (although see my “Postscript” below) is a single reference in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, which says:

“You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there.”

There is also however a passage where a disciple of the Buddha, Samiddhi, says the following:

“I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment.”

Or in Thanissaro’s translation, this same saying is:

“My friend, I’m not dropping what’s visible here-and-now in pursuit of what’s subject to time. I’m dropping what’s subject to time in pursuit of what’s visible here-and-now.”

Thus, the message of the suspect quote is not something to quibble with. It’s always a judgment call when it comes to translations that take liberties with the text. Sometimes I’m happy to go with a translator’s creative take on the original. But in this case I regard this quote as different enough from the original that it’s effectively a Fake Buddha Quote.


However! Niklas (see comment below) pointed me to the Arañña Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, which includes the following verse:

They do not mourn for the past,
They do not yearn for the future,
They live on the present;
Therefore they are of good complexion.
(My translation)

The Pali is:

Atītaṃ nānusocanti nappajappanti’nāgataṃ,
Paccuppannena yāpenti tena vaṇṇo pasīdati.

This is a reply to a question put by a deva to the Buddha, in which he is asked why the forest dwellers, living on one meal a day, have such good complexions.

The reply is something of a pun, since “yāpeti” means “to go” or “to dwell” (a synonym of viharati) but it can also mean to “live on” food. So the deva who asks the question talks about the monks eating one meal a day, and the Buddha responds by talking about how the monks “live on” the present moment. As far as I’m aware this isn’t a common usage, and the pun doesn’t really work well in English.

The suspect quote in question (“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”), while close in meaning to the Arañña Sutta, isn’t a translation of it. But this is an interesting moment in the excavation of Fake Buddha Quotes — where we find a quote from one sutta that is not faithful to the original but which accidentally ends up being close to another sutta.

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

Just spotted in the wild:

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself”

This seems to be from Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s “Voice of the Silence,” which has,

Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself.

Blavatsky was a founder of Theosophy and in 1880 became one of the first westerners to convert to Buddhism. She was strongly interested in spiritualism, and accusations of fraud followed her her entire life. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was a talented charlatan, although she may have been a well-meaning one in that she hoped to turn people’s attention toward spirituality.

One of the means for achieving this was to write books that purported to be translations from mystical Eastern works. The Voice of the Silence, And Other Chosen Fragments from the “Book of the Golden Precepts”, published in 1889, was one such work.

Blavatsky wrote in a faux-antique style, full of “thees” and “thous,” and her writings bear very little resemblance to Buddhist teachings. For example, the lines immediately preceding our Fake Buddha Quote are:

Ere thy Soul’s mind can understand, the bud of personality must be crushed out; the worm of sense destroyed past resurrection.

And there are things like this:

Saith the Great Law: “In order to become the KNOWER of ALL SELF, thou has first of SELF to be the knower.” To reach the knowledge of that SELF, thou hast to give up Self to Non-Self, Being to Non-Being. (Hysterical ALL CAPS in original.)

Despite Blavatsky having used a smattering of Buddhist termininology, her model for spirituality seems to have been primarily Hindu, given her belief in a universal self (sorry, SELF) to which we must surrender our “selves.”

There’s also some straightforward teaching, such as “Shun praise, O Devotee. Praise leads to self-delusion.” I suspect most of this practical advice was made up rather than copied from any actual spiritual text.

This quote is rather similar to “There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.

“When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”

“When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”

I came across this on Twitter today, tweeted by Buddha_Bones:

“RT @Sharon_Phoenix “When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” ~Buddha”

This can be found in various books attributed to Jack Kornfield, the Buddha, and Shunryu Suzuki. As far as I can tell, those words first crop up in Saddhatissa’s “Before He Was Buddha: The Life of Siddhartha” (page 92). The quote appears, in quotation marks, in a sidebar accompanying a story about death and impermanence. The words aren’t directly attributed to the Buddha, but the reader is led to the assumption that they’re a direct quote. As far as I can see, despite the appearance of the sidebar being a “pull quote,” the quote doesn’t appear elsewhere in the book. The same quote appears, in an extended form, in Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, page 5. I rather suspect he’s the originator of this quote.

Like many Fake Buddha Quotes, this one has a nice sentiment. The Buddha often talked about the virtue of words being true and kind, but the language of “changing the world” is not something the Buddha is recorded as using.

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”

A Fake Buddha Quote courtesy of Jnanagarbha, who received it in his twitter feed:

"An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea. Buddha."

It’s actually fairly Buddhist in spirit, but in tone it’s very unlike any Buddhist scripture I’ve ever come across. Sure enough, it’s found attributed to the Buddha in any number of quotes sites, and it’s likewise listed in a number of books in Amazon. A little investigation, however, showed this to be a quote from page 47 of Edward de Bono’s book, "Serious Creativity: Using The Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas."

“Never allow yourself to envy others. For you will lose sight of the truth that way.”

Soren Gordhamer has a nice little article in The Huffington Post called "If the Buddha Used Twitter." It’s based around five quotations that he uses as guidelines for how to how the Twitter service:

  1. Never allow yourself to envy others. For you will lose sight of the truth that way.
  2. Better than a thousand senseless verses is one that brings the hearer peace.
  3. The one who talks of the path but never walks it is like a cowman counting cattle of others but who has none of his own.
  4. The conquest of oneself is better than the conquest of all others.
  5. Your work is to find out what your work should be. Clearly discover your work and attend to it with all your heart.

His interpretations of these are generally very creative and sensible — — you can read the article and discover that for yourself. The only thing that bothers me is that some of these don’t sound at all like quotes from the Buddha — at least not anything I’ve read. The tone, the language — all wrong.

The first — “Never allow yourself to envy others. For you will lose sight of the truth that way” — doesn’t sound right. I did a little digging around and found that it is actually from a translation of the Dhammapada — but it doesn’t appear to be a very good translation. Google Book search shows it to be Anne Bancroft’s rendering of verse 365, which actually reads more like:

One should not neglect one’s own spiritual gain. One should not envy others. The monk who envies others will not attain concentration.

Bancroft takes samadhi to mean "truth" when actually it means meditative concentration. In later Buddhism it can mean "wisdom" but this is the Dhamapada and not later Buddhism.

The second, third, and fourth verses are good renderings of what the Buddha is supposed to have said, but that last one is just plain weird: "Your work is to find out what your work should be. Clearly discover your work and attend to it with all your heart." It sounds more like Khalil Gibran than the Buddha. It’s just not the Big B.’s style. I did a bit more digging around and found it on a Beliefnet discussion forum, complete with a reference to the Dhammapada:

Your work is to find out what your work should be and not to neglect it for another’s. Clearly discover your work and attend to it with all your heart. (Dhammapada, v. 166)

This also comes from Anne Bancroft’s Dhammapada, which now looks to be less a translation and more of an improvisation loosely based on a theme by the Buddha.

I’ve written up that one here.

The endless round of fake Buddha quotes

Fairly often I see quotes attributed to the Buddha that bear no little or no resemblance to anything that’s found in Buddhist scriptures. One example is from a Christian minister who holds meetings in prison at the same time I’m there leading my Buddhist study group. He informed me that the Buddha had said that a greater teacher than him would arise in 500 years, and that we should follow that guy instead. Guess who that would be? The pastor and I had an interesting conversation about the ethics of making up quotes to denigrate other religions and promote your own (not that I was accusing him of having invented the quote — but someone had).

A less egregious, but as far as I’m aware equally inaccurate one appeared on Twitter yesterday, posted by @tricyclemag. They didn’t invent the quote — I’ve seen it circulating endlessly, and it will no doubt appear on more and more blogs (and books — it’s in dozens), and thus be accepted by more and more people as the actual word of the Buddha. Here’s the quote:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” -Buddha

Unless I’m mistaken, this seems to be a poor paraphrase of part of the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalamas, which runs like this:

…don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

Now a caveat: the Buddhist scriptures are vast and I can’t claim to have read all of them. To some extent I’m relying on the tone and language of the alleged Buddha quote, plus its obvious similarity to the Kalama sutta, to state that I think it’s a false quote. I may be wrong.

But assuming I’m correct, the Tricycle quote says you should trust your reason and common sense, while the Buddha says you shouldn’t trust “logical conjecture … inference … agreement through pondering views … [and] probability.” Collectively the Buddha’s list of things you shouldn’t rely on would seem to overlap totally with those Tricycle magazine thinks we should rely upon.

The Buddha of course isn’t saying we should jettison reason and common sense. What he’s implying is that both those things can be misleading and what’s ultimately the arbiter of what’s true is experience. It’s when you “know for yourselves” that something is true through experience that you know it’s true. (Also, we can rely on the opinion of “the wise.” This doesn’t mean accepting other people’s opinions blindly. It means that in your experience you can come to know that certain people tend to have a clear perception of what’s true and helpful in terms of spiritual practice, and so you don’t have to go around making every mistake under the sun in order to establish that they are in fact mistakes.)

The Tricycle quote displaces the role of experience in spiritual practice in favor of reason and common sense, which I think is very questionable. It suggests learning is something that happens in the head, rather than something that is gained through living, and it allows us to dismiss anything that contradicts our prejudices (common sense is often nothing other than clinging to established views.

More than that, though, I think it’s ethically problematical to pass on the message “the Buddha said such-and-such” without checking out that he actually did say that. Otherwise it’s not dissimilar to gossip, although presumably better-intentioned.

Because I write a monthly column based on quotations, I like to make sure that the statement I’m quoting is accurate and was actually made by the person in question. (Confession: I didn’t used to be so careful). There are many quotation sites that do no fact-checking at all and that are full of inaccurate, false, and misattributed quotes. Because these sites endlessly plagiarize each other, these false quotes end up all over the internet. It’s a shame that Buddhists join in with this trend, especially when it distorts the Buddha’s teaching, as I believe this “quote” does.