“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

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The graphic above has the distinction not only of attributing to the Buddha something he never said, but also of having a picture of someone who is not the Buddha.

First, the figure: He’s often known as the “Laughing Buddha,” but he’s not the Buddha — i.e. the historical Buddha, Gautama. He’s Budai (Chinese) or Hotei (Japanese), and is a “Chinese folkloric deity,” as Wikipedia puts it. He may be based on a historical character who lived 1100 years ago in China. Budai often carries a sack and dispenses gifts to children. So although he’s a Buddhist figure, he’s rather like Santa Claus: a fairy-tale figure who is based on a historical figure (as Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas) and who is adored by kids.

Imagine someone in Asia posting “Jesus quotes” (which are actually AA slogans) under a picture of Santa Claus, and you’ll get a feel for what’s going on here. No wonder Budai is laughing.

Then there’s the quote itself. Its origins are obscure, but it seems to come from the 12-step tradition, as does the wonderful Fake Buddha Quote, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

And since the keynote of the 12-step recovery program is anonymity (as in Alcoholics Anonymous) it’s unlikely we’ll ever know who coined it.

The earliest attribution I’ve seen, from 1983 (“The Promise of a New Day: A Book of Daily Meditations,” by Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg), is to M. Kathleen Casey. I haven’t been able to find out anything about her. Possibly she was related to Karen Casey (her mother, perhaps?)

The phrase “suffering is optional” was used as the title of a 1976 book by Morris L. Haimowitz and ‎Natalie R. Haimowitz, suggesting that the quote goes back a long way. Early formulations also include the variant “misery is optional.”

The message itself is very congruent with the Buddha’s teachings. There is a wonderful sutta called the Sallatha Sutta, which points to the distinction between “feelings of pain” and the secondary suffering that arises from our response to that initial pain. Here’s the relevant part of the sutta:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

Although the sutta talks about the first kind of pain as being physical, the same principle applies to emotional pain, although the distinction between physical and emotional pain is questionable anyway. Emotional pain is felt in the body, to the extent that painkillers have been shown to reduce the pain of social isolation, for example. So this principle is applied to things like having our feelings hurt. When our feelings are hurt, this is “pain.” We often respond to hurt feelings by blaming the other person, or ourselves, and this results in more pain (“suffering.”)

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” is a very valid teaching, and consonant with the Buddha’s teaching. But it’s not something that was said by the Buddha, or Hotei, or Jesus, or Santa Claus.

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16 thoughts on ““Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.””

    1. Murakami may have quoted these words, but are you sure he’s their originator? Do you have a reference for his having used this quote prior to 1983 (which is the earliest use of this phrase that I’ve found in a book)?

  1. “Oliver Queen” is just trolling – Ra’s Al Ghul is a comic book villian. Oliver Queen is “The Arrow” and Malcom Merlin is his nemisis.

    Come to think of it, he may have used this quote somewhere, though. Seems in character.

  2. I’ve seen it attributed to M. Kathleen Casey, a Canadian politician. The saying is pithy and valuable, does it really matter where it originated? Would that knowledge make it any truer or wiser?

    1. There are two things going on when a quote is attributed to someone. There’s the quote itself, which has a meaning that’s independent of the attribution (although it’ll be taken more seriously if it’s attributed to a great thinker). And then there’s the attribution itself, which is a statement saying “Person X said this.” If the attribution is wrong, then misinformation is being disseminated. Isn’t it better to have accurate information in circulation than inaccurate information? Isn’t truth better than bullshit? Or as Einstein said (and he really did), “Whoever is careless with truth in small matter cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

  3. The “Buddha” is a person on the path of enlightenment. This quote is one which had been made by an someone who is enlightened. So, I guess that pretty much destroys the relevency of this website as a whole, huh?

    1. That’s about as meaningful as saying, with respect to a quote falsely attributed to George Washington, “George Washington is a human being. This quote was made by a human being. Therefore this quote was made by George Washington.”

      When we talk about a quote being from “the Buddha,” we mean it’s from the historical individual called Gotama, whose teachings are purported to be recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, just as a Shakespeare quote is from the historical playwright. So unless a quote is in the scriptures, it can’t validly be ascribed to the Buddha.

      It does puzzle me how many people there are who seem threatened by the concept of accurate citations.

  4. Thank you for your research aND insight. I get disheartened when I see social media memes by well intentioned people spreading untruths. I received a “warning” last week for women to look out for crying children bc it’s a trap for gang members to lure you into a dangerous situation. I commented that it was untrue. She snapped back with its better to be safe than sorry! To wichelp I replied No, you are breeding fear and could cause someone to ignore a weeping child who really needs help. She didn’t like it and that’s okay, but I try to play a small part in demystifying untruths if I can. Namaste.

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