“A Tale of Two Bodhis”: Real Buddha Quotes in a novel

I seem to have made an entry into the world of fiction. A book I read recently — “Dark Path,” by Melissa F. Miller — happens to have a Buddhist protagonist called “Bodhi.”

I, of course, am a Buddhist called Bodhi.

This fictional Bodhi is Dr. Bodhi King, who is a forensic examiner. He’s a lanky, long-haired fellow who meditates and occasionally dispenses advice about mindfulness. The physical description is reminiscent of me twenty years ago.

Please note, in the photograph below, the shoulder-length hair I sported back in 1999. And although there’s no way to assess my height from the photograph, I am six feet tall and was, at that time, skinny enough to be termed “lanky.”

Your humble author, 1999, still lanky and rocking the long curly hair.

I’ve never been a forensic examiner, although I do have a degree in medicine (veterinary, though, not human).

No, I don’t think that Melissa F. Miller based her character on me. But I’m 100% confident that she took some of the Buddha quotes in the novel from two of my websites, including this one.

But first, I was delighted that there weren’t any Fake Buddha Quotes in the book! Many fiction authors, I’ve found, aren’t particularly good researchers. If they want to make a character appear wise, they simply grab something from a quote site and off they go. If they’re inclined to do a little “fact-checking” they’ll confirm that the quote in question can also be found on another quote site, and maybe a Facebook page or two. Of course is it’s on Facebook it must be true.

Miller, to her great credit, doesn’t put any Fake Buddha Quotes in her hero’s mouth.

Even more to her credit, she uses genuine quotations the headings for some chapters of the book. She even provides scriptural citations for those quotes. While most writers are happy to dangle the word “Buddha” at the end of their quotes, Miller gives the names of suttas. For example, here’s one quote she uses, accompanied by its attribution:

Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.
The Buddha, Bhaddekaratta  Sutta

It can’t be a coincidence that every single quote she uses is found either on this site or on RealBuddhaQuotes.com (the sibling site to this one), that the wording in every one of the quotes is identical to what’s found on those sites, and that, similarly, the attributions are identically worded as well.

So I congratulate Ms. Miller on her diligent research. The only thing she didn’t do was give my Real Buddha Quotes or Fake Buddha Quotes sites any acknowledgement, but I can forgive that.

One slightly jarring note in the novel was a description of Bodhi King meditating:

Her eyes drifted up to the rearview mirror and she checked on Bodhi. He appeared to be meditating. His head was unbent and his eyes were closed. His hands rested on his thighs and his forefingers and thumbs met in two ovals. His lips were not moving, but she could have sworn she heard a vibrating sound coming from his throat.

The whole “meditating with the forefingers and thumbs making circles on the knees” thing is such a stereotype — and an inaccurate one at that. Any time I look for stock photos of people meditating, there it is. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever once, in almost 40 years of meditating, seen a Buddhist adopt that hand gesture.

You’re more likely to find me meditating in a turnip field wearing a sports bra than you are to see me doing that thing with my hands.

The most common position for the hands in Buddhism is  “dhyana mudra” (literally “meditation hand-position”) with the hands resting in the lap, the fingers of the right hand on top of the fingers of the left, with the tips of the thumbs touching.

There are four other books in the Bodhi King series, and I’m curious to know if Miller uses any more quotes from my website in them. I’m unlikely to read them to find out, though. Miller is a pretty good writer, but her style isn’t my cup of tea. If you happen to have copies, please let me know!

Here’s a complete list of the quotes that Miller borrows, with links to the Fake and Real Buddha Quotes sites:

PS: If you’re curious about “Dark Path” it might still be free on Apple Books and the Amazon Kindle store.

PPS: My name does actually appear in a novel written by a former meditation student of mine, Penelope J. Holt, who borrowed it for the name of a character who was a Buddhist monk. The book is called “The Painter’s Gift.” Penelope was kind enough to send me a copy when the book was published.

“Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

A friend recently asked me about this quote — “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme” — because she’s scrupulous about sourcing her attributions. I saw nothing suspicious about the quote at all but I like to help out a Dharma sister and so I went hunting.

The quote is very much in keeping with the style and content of the early scriptures, but I couldn’t find anything corresponding to this in either Access to Insight or, more tellingly, in Sutta Central. So it didn’t seem to come from the Pali sources.

Of course the Pali texts aren’t the only early Buddhist scriptures. There are many early texts that were translated into Chinese or Tibetan that aren’t found in the Pali Tipitaka, and there are early texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages as well, although those tend to be fragmentary. And it’s possible that this quote might be found in one of those collections. (Despite some claims to the contrary, those texts are just as ancient as the Pali texts, and have an equal claim to represent what the Buddha taught.)

I did find the origins of the quote, however. It comes from the Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana Sutra (“the teaching on the great decease of the Buddha”). Now, you might assume that this is a Sanskrit version of the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which describes the Buddha’s last days and his death, but actually it’s a much later teaching, probably composed around the second century of the Common Era. It’s a Mahayana sutra, the Mahayana being a collection of schools that emphasized different things in order to reform Buddhism away from a narrow, monastic, scholarly interpretation of practice. Some emphasized a more devotional approach to practice, or emphasized compassion, or placed more emphasis on meditation, or explored (or perhaps even preserved) the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness.

In Mark L. Blum’s translation of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the same passage is translated as: “World-Honored One, just as among the footprints of all living beings there is nothing that surpasses the footprint of an elephant, so too is the concept of impermanence paramount among all concepts.”

In Kosho Yamamoto’s translation, it’s “Just as all beings leave behind footprints and the best of all footprints are those of the elephant, so with this thought of the non-Eternal: it heads all thoughts.”

So far I haven’t found which translation the version “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme” comes from.

Now, the reason I’m saying this is likely to be a Fake Buddha Quote is not because it comes from a Mahayana Sutra — I’ve pointed out before that my criteria for accepting a quote as valid is that it’s from a canonical scriptural source. And this one is from a canonical scriptural source, so what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that the quote, in the context of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, isn’t spoken by the Buddha, but is said to him by some unnamed monks. Since it’s not presented in the Sutra as something the Buddha said, it can’t be a Buddha quote.

This is something that a number of people, seeing that the quote comes from a Sutra, have missed. For example in one Lion’s Roar article, we read “The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. ‘Of all the footprints,’ he said, ‘that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” Similarly, in Tricycle magazine an author says: “‘Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme,’ declared the Buddha in the Great Nirvana Sutra. ‘And of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” And the same error has been made in a number of books.

Glenn H. Mullin takes a more careful approach in his book, “Living in the Face of Death”:

It is said in The Sutra of Buddha’s Entering into Parinirvana: “Of all footprints, That of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, Of all mindfulness meditations, That on death is supreme.”

I can well imagine the Buddha saying something like this quote. Perhaps he did! But unless it shows up in some scripture, attributed to him, then we shouldn’t describe is as something the Buddha said.

“Nothing remains without change.”

This one just came to my attention today. I spotted it in the feed of a Twitter user who is one of the worst offenders I know of where it comes to passing on Fake Buddha Quotes.  As far as I’m aware it doesn’t resemble anything the Buddha is reported to have said in any scripture from any era — and it’s definitely not from the early scriptures, which are our best bet for an accurate representation of what the Buddha literally said.

It’s yet another quote taken from the Japanese book, “The Teaching of Buddha,” which is a Gideon Bible–like publication found in hotel bedrooms throughout Japan and published by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai. There have been many, many editions of the book.

A fuller version of the quote reads:

It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world that everything is created by a series of causes and conditions and everything disappears by the same rule; everything changes, nothing remains without change.

It would be impossible to summarize here the Buddha’s teachings on change, impermanence, or inconstancy (anicca). But his approach was ruthlessly practical, and focused on how our inability to deal with the fact of change causes us suffering, and how we can find eace by learning to accept change.

Thanissaro has a good article on anicca, which he renders, rightly, I think, as inconstancy. I’d recommend reading it.

“If we are like rock and something cuts into us, it will leave its mark”

This is actually an extensive quote:

If we are like rock and something cuts into us, it will leave its mark, perhaps for generations to come.

If we become like sand and something cuts into us, it will leave its mark, but soon that mark will be gone.

And, if we become like water and something cuts into us, as soon as the mark appears, it will disappear, forever.

So far I’ve only seen it on a website connected with the Alexander Technique (which I understand is a kind of posture alignment therapy). The site says that this is a quote from the “Sukha Sutta.”

I recognize the canonical basis of the quote, but the original is rather different. I’m going to quote the entire sutta here:

Mendicants, these three people are found in the world. What three? A person like a line drawn in stone, a person like a line drawn in sand, and a person like a line drawn in water. And who is the person like a line drawn in stone? It’s a person who is often angry, and their anger lingers for a long time. It’s like a line drawn in stone, which isn’t quickly worn away by wind and water, but lasts for a long time. In the same way, this person is often angry, and their anger lingers for a long time. This is called a person like a line drawn in stone.

And who is the person like a line drawn in sand? It’s a person who is often angry, but their anger doesn’t linger long. It’s like a line drawn in sand, which is quickly worn away by wind and water, and doesn’t last long. In the same way, this person is often angry, but their anger doesn’t linger long. This is called a person like a line drawn in sand.

And who is the person like a line drawn in water? It’s a person who, though spoken to by someone in a rough, harsh, and disagreeable manner, still stays in touch, interacts with, and greets them. It’s like a line drawn in water, which vanishes right away, and doesn’t last long. In the same way, this person, though spoken to by someone in a rough, harsh, and disagreeable manner, still stays in touch, interacts with, and greets them. This is called a person like a line drawn in water. These are the three people found in the world.

So this quote is quite specifically about anger, and how we can relate to it in different ways. It doesn’t have anything to do with posture. It’s not from the Sukha Sutta, but the Lekha Sutta, the word “lekha” here meaning “inscription.” Perhaps someone misread lekha for sukha.

I don’t know where this adapted quote originated. Perhaps it’s in some publication that hasn’t yet been scanned by Google Books or Archive.org. It doesn’t appear to exist elsewhere on the web. It’s possible that the website owner adapted it himself.

“One moment can change a day, one day can change a life, and one life can change the world.”

A website that linked to me took one of the genuine scriptural quotations on this site and presented it in a misleading way. It then went on to say:

Another quote from the Buddha, that I don’t believe is in dispute, is, “One moment can change a day, one day can change a life, and one life can change the world.”

Of course there is no dispute about whether this is from the Buddha, because it definitely isn’t! This isn’t the kind of thing that you’ll find in the early scriptures.

I’m not entirely sure of its origins. The first mention of it I’ve found is from 2010, where it’s paired with an image of the Buddha, but isn’t presented as being something he said. The context is an ad for the PBS special on the Buddha, which gave us the Fake Buddha Quote “In order to gain anything you must lose everything.

I don’t know whether the PBS advertising team thought that this was a quote from the Buddha—perhaps taken from the internet—or whether they just created the saying as a tag line.

The ad was in “This Old House Magazine” for April 2010. Interestingly, the Buddha did say something in the Dhammapada that was on the theme of old houses:

153. Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking the builder of this house. Repeated birth is indeed suffering!

154. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.

“Faith and prayer both are invisible, but they make impossible things possible”

This one was just brought to my attention. It’s listed on the badly misnamed “Quotes Master” site as being by the Buddha. It’s not. Neither are many of the quotes you’ll find there.

Let’s talk about prayer. No, let’s have the Buddha talk about prayer. Here’s one good image of the fruitlessness of merely wishing for something:

Suppose a man in need of butter, looking for butter, wandering in search of butter, would sprinkle water on water in a crock and twirl it with a churn-stick. If he were to sprinkle water on water in a crock and twirl it with a churn-stick even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.

Here’s another:

Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?

In the same way, any brahmans or contemplatives endowed with wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, & wrong concentration: If they follow the holy life even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.

To the Buddha, it was what we do that’s important. If you do the right things, you’ll get results.

I don’t know how this quote came to be. Possibly it was assembled from fragments, which would explain its lack of parallelism: there’s no real connection between invisibility/visibility and possibility/impossibility. “Faith and prayer are invisible” is found in an 1884 book by the Rev. Francis John Scott, called “The Light of Life.” “Prayer will make impossible things possible” is found in James Endell Tyler’s “Meditations From the Fathers of the First Five Centuries,” which was published in 1849. But the complete quote seems fairly new; one of the earliest dated examples I’ve found on the web is from 2012.

Osho said “believing can make impossible things possible” (The Wisdom of the Sands, Vol. 2) but I haven’t found anything in his writings that corresponds to the first part of the quote.

“It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.”

A reader called Sean sent this one to me yesterday.

It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.

He’d seen Jack Konfield attributing it to the Buddha, and wondered if it was Jack’s own paraphrasing of some statement on the three lakkhanas (Pali) or lakshanas (Sanskrit). These are statements that say that anything that’s fabricated is impermanent and unable to give lasting peace and happiness, and that all things whatsoever are not oneself.

As it happens however, this is canonical. It’s found in the Anguttara Nikaya, which is the Numerical Sayings of the Buddha. It’s from the Sīha Sutta (Discourse on the Lion).

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation this same passage is:

It seems that we are actually impermanent, though we thought ourselves permanent; it seems that we are actually transient, though we thought ourselves everlasting; it seems that we are actually non-eternal, though we thought ourselves eternal.

The people saying these words are gods, who in Buddhism are not immortal, not creators, and not objects of worship, but simply long-lived and joyful beings who live in a kind of parallel dimension. Being long-lived and blessed with happiness, the gods tend to forget about death. As a result, they don’t think much about living life wisely and meaningfully. Here’s a longer quote from the sutta to put the gods’ words in perspective:

When a Realized One arises in the world—perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed—he teaches the Dhamma: ‘Such is identity, such is the origin of identity, such is the cessation of identity, such is the practice that leads to the cessation of identity.’

Now, there are gods who are long-lived, beautiful, and very happy, lasting long in their divine palaces. When they hear this teaching by the Realized One, they’re typically filled with fear, awe, and terror. ‘Oh no! It turns out we’re impermanent, though we thought we were permanent! It turns out we don’t last, though we thought we were everlasting! It turns out we’re transient, though we thought we were eternal! It turns out that we’re impermanent, not lasting, transient, and included within identity.’

That’s how powerful is the Realized One in the world with its gods, how illustrious and mighty.

So this one is verified as been scriptural. I like this sutta because it applies the formula most often associated with the four noble truths to the question of identity-view — the concept that we have some kind of metaphysical self. There is a delusion of self, there are causes for that, there is a cessation of that delusion, and there’s a path leading to that cessation.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche on verifying teachings

A few minutes ago I stumbled across the following words from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

I think that people in the West don’t ask questions about whether or not a teaching was taught by the Buddha or has references in the teachings of the ancient valid pandits and yogis. For them it doesn’t seem important to check the references. When Western people listen to Dharma, they’re happy if it’s something that is immediately beneficial to their life, to their mind, especially if it’s related to their problems. It doesn’t matter whether it is something that Buddha taught or a demon taught. They don’t question or check. For them it is about getting some immediate benefit to their mind when they listen; they will then stay. Otherwise, after a few minutes they leave, especially during my talks. But generally speaking, in the East, people are more careful to examine whether something was taught by Buddha. They check the references so that they can see whether or not they can trust the practice, whether or not they can dedicate their life to this. They think about the long run, which is very important. In the West, the main concern is to immediately, right now, taste something sweet.

A Teaching on Vajrayogini

I’m not sure whether people in Asia are actually better at verifying sources, but I appreciated his perspective on seeking immediate gratification from teachings. One of the things that the Buddha (apparently) taught was that we should seek to verify quotes in the scriptures before taking them on board:

Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.

Maha-Parinibbana Sutta

“There are those who discover they can leave behind confused reactions…”


“There are those who discover
they can leave behind confused reactions
and become patient as the earth;
unmoved by anger,
unshaken as a pillar,
unperturbed as a clear and quiet pool.”

I was asked about this one earlier today, after a reader spotted it on the Facebook feed of Spirit Rock retreat center, who seem to have created a graphic of it (which has since been deleted, although I managed to retrieve it from my browser cache) attributing the quote to the Buddha, and giving Dhammapada verse 49 as the source.

Obviously the person who asked me about it was suspicious. I was too, at least about parts of it.

First, though, the attribution given is clearly wrong. Dhammapada verse 49 is about monks going from village to village as bees go from flower to flower.

“Confused reactions” is also not exactly the kind of expression you get in the early Buddhist scriptures. It’s a term from modern psychology. The similes, though, are very traditional. For example verses 81 and 82 of the Dhammapada contain similar imagery in the same order:

Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.

On hearing the Teachings, the wise become perfectly purified, like a lake deep, clear and still.

My guess was that the quote in question was more likely to be a paraphrase or adaptation of these, or some other verse or verses, from the Dhammapada.

Dhammapada verse 95 was the obvious candidate:

There is no more worldly existence for the wise one who, like the earth, resents nothing, who is firm as a high pillar and as pure as a deep pool free from mud. (Buddharakkhita’s translation)

And this turned out in fact to be the case. This is taken from Ajahn Munindo’s “A Dhammapada for Contemplation.”

The title suggests that Munindo was aiming to produce an adaptation rather than a translation: a text that is more relatable than the more literal versions.

In this verse, for example, Munindo does an interesting treatment of the original term “samsara,” which literally means “faring on,” and which refers traditionally to the endless rounds of rebirth.  Buddharakkhita rendered to this as “worldly existence.” Thanissaro renders samsara as “traveling on,” which is literal but not very helpful to the reader not familiar with Buddhism.  Samsara is from a verb meaning “to go, flow, run, move along,” and a prefix, sam-, which means together. It has the meaning of “to go on endlessly,” or “to come again and again.”

Munido renders this as “confused reactions,” which are of course to be abandoned.  This a good way to shift our attention to the present-moment experience of the mind , and from the concept of rebirth (which is not here and not now). It’s worth pointing out that samsara is right here and right now, and that on a psychological scale it does involve the process of confused grasping and aversion, or “reacting,” in modern parlance.

In terms of practice and reflection Munido’s framing of samsara is useful. It’s more an interpretation than a translation, though. Of course all translation involves interpretation to a degree, especially when it comes to terms like samsara, which are not part of the reader’s cultural frame of reference.

Since this quote also takes great liberties with the overall structure and style of the Dhammapada verse, I have to say it doesn’t do a good job as a literal translation, although of course that a literal translation wasn’t Munindo’s intent. So I’m categorizing this as “fakish” rather than fake or genuine.  This version of Dhammapada verse 95 is so different from the original that I really think it should be credited to Ajahn Munindo and not the Buddha.