“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

Today a non-Buddhist friend, trembling no doubt at the thought of incurring my wrath and scorn by posting a quotation erroneously attributed to the Buddha, asked me on Twitter whether “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” was a genuine Buddha quote.

This is an interesting one. I’ve seen it around a lot on quotes sites and in books, mostly attributed to the Buddha (but once to Confucius and another time to Colin Powell) and it’s never rung any alarm bells. My instant gut response was it sounded like something the Buddha might have said.

In the exact form given above, the quote first appears in Google Books in a 2003 work, A Way Forward: Spiritual Guidance for Our Troubled Times, by Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury. The recent provenance made me wonder if this was still a genuine quote (it did more or less ring true), but with altered wording.

I did a bit of digging around and found the canonical original sitting on my bookshelf, in the Pali Text Society’s Gradual Sayings, Volume I. It’s in “The Book of the Threes,” and in full it runs like this:

Monks, there are these three things which are practiced in secret, not openly. What are they?

The ways of womenfolk are secret, not open. Brahmins practice their chants in secret, not openly. Those of perverse views [that’s philosophically rather than sexually perverse views] hold their views secretly, not openly. These are the three things…

Monks, there are these three things which shine forth for all to see, which are not hidden. Which three?

The disc of the moon shines for all to see; it is not hidden. The disc of the sun does likewise. The Dhamma-Discipline [dhamma-vinaya] of a Tathagata [Buddha] shines for all to see; it is not hidden. These are the three things.

So “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” has its origins in a genuine Buddha quote, although its paraphrased and simplified. I’m pleased to have my instincts validated.

A contracted form of the canonical version dates at least to the early twentieth century. For example in The Essence of Buddhism by Pokala Lakshmi Narasu (1907) we see:

Three things shine before the world and cannot be hidden. They are the moon, the sun, and the truth proclaimed by the Tathagata

The resemblance is obvious, especially if we highlight the parts that the contemporary quote and the 1907 version have in common:

Three things shine before the world and cannot be hidden. They are the moon, the sun, and the truth proclaimed by the Tathagata

The word order has been rearranged (we nearly always say “sun and moon,” not “moon and sun”) and the word “long” has been inserted, but otherwise the two versions are identical.

However the version I was originally asked about, I can’t accept as a canonical quotation. It’s simply a rather poor paraphrase.

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11 thoughts on ““Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.””

  1. I really thought this was a real one is there any possibility that you are wrong I know the Buddha didn’t write anything down so can anything be 100% fact also I’m interested in reading some authentic literature any titles you recommend. Sorry for the poor gramer and punctuation
    Respectfully yours

    James K
    Jameskendrick609@yahoo.com

  2. I have searched the Book of the threes of Anguttara Nikaya, but have not been able to find this particular discourse. Could you kindly let me know where I can find it also please give me the PALI version and the translation if you can.

    1. Here’s the Pāli, Channa:

      Tīṇimāni bhikkhave paṭicchannāni vahanti no vivaṭāni.

      Katamāni tīṇi?

      Mātugāmo bhikkhave paṭicchanno vahati no vivaṭo. Brāhmaṇānaṃ bhikkhave mantā paṭicchannā vahanti no vivaṭā. Micchādiṭṭhi bhikkhave paṭicchannā vahati no vivaṭā.

      Imāni kho bhikkhave tīṇi paṭicchannāni vahanti no vivaṭāni.

      Tīṇimāni bhikkhave vivaṭāni virocanti. No paṭicchannāni.

      Katamāni tīṇi?

      Candamaṇḍalaṃ bhikkhave vivaṭaṃ virocati no paṭicchannaṃ. Suriyamaṇḍalaṃ bhikkhave vivaṭaṃ virocati no paṭicchannaṃ. Tathāgatappavedito dhammavinayo bhikkhave vivaṭo virocati no paṭicchanno.

      Imāni kho bhikkhave tīṇi vivaṭāni virocanti no paṭicchannānī’ti.

      The translation I used is on page 261 of the PTS volume I referenced above. It’s on page 361 of Bhikku Bodhi’s translation. His version, by the way, is quite different!

  3. As I am very interested in reading the complete version of the Anguttara Nikaya, with the discourses in Pali with the correct English translations, is there a book or volumes you can recommend which I easily purchase from a society or bookshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Tried contacting the Buddhist Publications Society in Kandy, but was not successful.

    1. The Anguttara Nikaya is already a very large volume, and a parallel text version would be very large indeed. I’m pretty sure nothing like that exists at the moment. Your best bet is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s English translation, published by Wisdom Publications, plus one of the Pali editions that you can find online.

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