The Buddha said “All worldlings are mad.” Except he didn’t. This quote is found in a number of publications, including an essay in “Collected Wheel Publications Volume XXVIII,” and in Sangharakshita’s “A Stream of Stars.” I’ve even quoted it myself. Mea culpa!
Sometimes this is expanded to “Human stupidity is boundless. All worldlings are mad,” which strikes me as harsh, even for one of the Buddha’s bad days. (And I do think he had bad days.)
Yet this expression isn’t found in the Pali canon. Another “Wheel Publication (Number 45/46) has a helpful explanatory note, correcting this misattribution as if had appeared in one of their essays, and pointing out that Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga says “The worldling is like a madman” (ummattako viya hi puthujjano). This expression is found in a number of other commentarial works as well.
A comment comment on Shravasti Dhammika’s site claims that the “All worldlings are mad” quote comes from the letters of the English monk Ñāṇavīra Thera, who was quoting from memory the words of Buddhaghosa. The commenter offers a link to a now defunct Buddhist forum where, apparently, there was an in-depth overview of the quote. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access this discussion on archive.org, which is a wonderful resource for retrieving information from deceased websites. (It was in fact from there that I was able to find the material to reconstruct this site after it was destroyed by hackers a few weeks ago.) It seems that archive.org is undergoing maintenance at the moment, so I’ll revisit that source again.
The term “worldling” is a translation of “puthujjana,” which simply refers to anyone who isn’t awakened. It’s literally the “many (puthu) folk (jana).” The manyfolk are under the sway of various mental derangements, or as we would say these days, “cognitive distortions.” These are called the four “vipallasas” (or viparyasas in Sanskrit).
The four vipallasas (classically found here) are thinking that impermanent things are permanent, that sources of suffering are sources of pleasure, that things that lack selfhood have selfhood, and that things that are beautiful or wholesome are in fact ugly or unwholesome. In a sense, the manyfolk are indeed under the grip of powerful cognitive distortions amounting to a kind of insanity, but the Buddha certainly doesn’t seem to have said that we are mad.
Even Buddhaghosa doesn’t quite say that worldlings are mad, just that the worldling is like a madman. A simile is a far cry from a statement of fact.