“Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”

Scott Baseler wrote with a query about a suspect quote:

I have seen a quote attributed to the Buddha that seems like a misquote from the bible. “Work on your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” I know the first sentence is one word different from Philippians 2:12. Is there any quote from the Buddha simular to this?

In the King James Version, Philippians 2:12 is:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

And actually the most common form of the suspect quote that Scott sent me is also “work out your own salvation.”

The Buddha’s last words were appamadena sampadetha, which is literally “strive diligently,” but which an early translator, Paul Carus, rendered rather liberally in his Gospel of Buddha as “work out your salvation with diligence.” I know from dipping into his translation (and it’s even obvious from the book’s title) that Carus was concerned to make Buddhism resemble Christianity, so it was interesting to learn that he was echoing a Christian verse. Scott’s find sounded like a loose rendering of Carus’ loose rendering, so I suspected that Carus was involved in this somewhere.

“Do not depend on others” also had echoes in Carus. The Buddha said, also at the end of his life (in a standard translation):

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

Carus “translated” this as:

“Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and so not relay on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not for assistance to any one besides yourselves.”

The lamp versus island thing may seem odd, but dīpa, in Pali, means both, although it’s generally accepted that in this context the Buddha meant dīpa to mean “island,” fitting in with a common metaphor he used of life being like a flood or a dangerous river to be crossed in order to reach “the farther shore.”

So this second sentence again sounded like a modification of Carus. Carus’ translation is really highly distorted. The Buddha certainly never encouraged his followers not to look to each other for assistance. In fact they were directly encouraged to do so, and the Sangha, or spiritual community, is the third of the Refuges that Buddhists are to rely on, the first two being the Buddha and Dharma, or teaching.

A little more digging around revealed that the precise form of the quote, “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” comes from a 1961 book, Wisdom For Our Time, by James Nelson, and are from an interview with the Japanese Buddhist scholar, Daisetz Suzuki. D. T. Suzuki was presumably paraphrasing from memory Carus’s rendering of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which is where the “last words” and the “be a light unto yourselves” quotes both come from.

So here we have an interesting chain of events. Carus, bless him, mangles the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in order to make the Buddha’s words resemble the New Testament, and then Suzuki, quoting from memory during an interview, slightly simplifies Carus’ rendering. And then Suzuki’s version is plucked out of the interview and becomes a genuine Fake Buddha Quote.

This quote, “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” is now found on many quotes sites, including Brainyquote, Thinkexist, etc. It’s also found in dozens of books.

12 thoughts on ““Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.””

  1. Carus assembled Rhys-Davids’s translations to make the Gospel of Buddha, so it’s R-D who is ultimately to blame for “work out” and “lamp”. You can confirm this by looking up the original PTS R-D translation of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

  2. It’s always a bit risky to say with absolute certainty what was meant by an expression in an extinct language but I’ve often wondered if the use of ‘dipa’ in the sutta might have been a play on a word with two accepted meanings and therefore intended as a helpful pun.

    1. True. In fact it says in the article:

      The lamp versus island thing may seem odd, but dīpa, in Pali, means both, although it’s generally accepted that in this context the Buddha meant dīpa to mean “island,” fitting in with a common metaphor he used of life being like a flood or a dangerous river to be crossed in order to reach “the farther shore.”

  3. It is important I think to keep an open mind on questions of this kind. Elsewhere in the Canon we read that the Kalamas were undecided about what they should believe in teachings they had received from various sources. In this context the Buddha is reported to have advised, among other things, that the Kalamas should not depend on what is commonly accepted.

    1. I’m not sure exactly which question you have in mind, Malcolm, since there are a number of things that have been discussed above. It’s certainly good to keep an open mind, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for ignoring evidence. An open mind is one open to new evidence, not one that refuses to commit because it wants to keep its options open. For example if a purported Buddha quote doesn’t match with anything found in the scriptures then there’s no basis for accepting it as valid.

      If the Kalama Sutta is about anything, it’s about treating evidence seriously. The Kalama Sutta, as well as suggesting that we not blindly accept authority, also suggests that we base our decisions on the testimony of the wise. So the Buddha wasn’t saying to reject all authority. He was saying that authority alone cannot be used as a basis for knowing what is right. We need to assess the words of the wise in the light of the evidence we obtain from experience. How else can we even know who the wise are, unless we’ve compared their views, predictions, etc., with what actually happens (i.e. with evidence)?

  4. Apologies for not being more detailed in my remarks. I was referring to your statement ‘it’s generally accepted that in this context the Buddha meant dīpa to mean “island,” I just wanted to point out that in terms of the teaching to the Kalamas ‘what is generally accepted’ is not a reliable criterion for assessing what can be taken as truth. I imagine that you will correct me by saying that your statement implied ‘generally accepted by the wise’ but this would be a diversion from the direction taken in the Buddha’s conversation with the Kalama people

    1. Oh, I agree we should absolutely keep an open mind about what the Buddha meant by “dīpa” in this context. He probably meant “island,” but we’ve simply no way or knowing for sure, and clinging to one viewpoint or another is a waste of mental energy.

  5. Malcolm: I once spoke to Bhikkhu Bodhi and asked him about this very point, lamp or island. He said there is no doubt whatsoever that island is the meaning – no modern Pali scholar argues for lamp.

    Please note that strictly speaking “dīpa” in Pali is not one word with two different meanings; it is two different words that happen to look and sound the same – a pair of homophones. In English “bear” and “bear” look and sound the same, but have different meanings and very different origins. In Sanskrit this is clear: “dipa” is light, but island is “dvipa” – they are two etymologically distinct words.

    Bear with me. Context tells us which homophone is meant. If you look at the original lines, the Buddha is paralleling dīpa with refuge as something you should go to to keep safe. You don’t go to lamps to keep safe. The image, as often in the suttas, is escaping from a stream or tumult.

    There is no point “keeping an open mind” about what is a completely settled issue of scholarship.

    Finally, and with all due respect to our host, I would point out that the Kalama Sutta is not applicable here. The villagers are not concerned to establish this or that point of philology or scientific fact. They are asking for help determining the truth of doctrines taught by wandering sages – religious or philosophical doctrines. The end of the sutta makes this obvious, as the Buddha leads them to see that avoiding evil states and cultivating good ones are the way to go and provide solace with respect to what may happen after death.

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