“There has to be evil, so that good can prove its purity above it.”

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I hadn’t come across this quote until “Victor S” emailed it to me with the following comment:

Here’s the quote: “There has to be evil, so that good can prove its purity above it.” It does sound fake, very fake, but I can’t find its origin. The quote is under this photo of Tian Tan Buddha.

A couple of people commented under the photo that the quote was fake, and I agree with them, and with Victor S. It’s not at all the kind of language that the Buddha used. Arguments about the need for evil to exist so that good can be recognized seem to be a feature of Christianity rather than Buddhism. For example:

“To know something is morally good, there has to be evil. Likewise for pain and suffering. We couldn’t know pleasure and happiness unless there was pain and suffering. Thus, God would be justified in permitting evil, pain, and suffering because without it we wouldn’t know good.”
Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, second edition, edited by Kelly James Clark, p. 328

Nevertheless, this Fake Buddha Quote has found its way into more than a dozen books, none of them thankfully Buddhist books.

With a quote like this, I’d normally expect to find a non-Buddhist original that’s ended up being misattributed to the Buddha, but in this case I’ve drawn a blank. The first instance I’ve found of this quote in print is from 2007, in Open Mouth, Insert Foot: A Teen Devotional, by Stephen Winters and Joanna Davidson-Brunk. This is a surprisingly late arrival. Presumably the authors picked it up from another publication that hasn’t made it into Google Books as yet, or from some web site. And it’s on a lot of websites!

I’m always more confortable when I find an original source, but even without that I’m confident in this case that this is a Fake Buddha Quote.

In case you’re wondering what the Buddha did have to say about evil, there’s an entire chapter of the Dhammapada devoted to his aphorisms on the topic. Here’s Dhammarakkhita’s translation from Access to Insight. You may notice that the Buddha’s approach tends to be practical (here’s how evil can take root in the mind, here’s now it can be eradicated, here are the consequences) rather than theological (why does evil exist).

116. Hasten to do good; restrain your mind from evil. He who is slow in doing good, his mind delights in evil.

117. Should a person commit evil, let him not do it again and again. Let him not find pleasure therein, for painful is the accumulation of evil.

118. Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.

119. It may be well with the evil-doer as long as the evil ripens not. But when it does ripen, then the evil-doer sees (the painful results of) his evil deeds.

120. It may be ill with the doer of good as long as the good ripens not. But when it does ripen, then the doer of good sees (the pleasant results of) his good deeds.

121. Think not lightly of evil, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil.

122. Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.

123. Just as a trader with a small escort and great wealth would avoid a perilous route, or just as one desiring to live avoids poison, even so should one shun evil.

124. If on the hand there is no wound, one may carry even poison in it. Poison does not affect one who is free from wounds. For him who does no evil, there is no ill.

125. Like fine dust thrown against the wind, evil falls back upon that fool who offends an inoffensive, pure and guiltless man.

126. Some are born in the womb; the wicked are born in hell; the devout go to heaven; the stainless pass into Nibbana.

127. Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean, nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere in the world is there a place where one may escape from the results of evil deeds.

128. Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean, nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere in the world is there a place where one will not be overcome by death.

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