“Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts. You are what observes, not what you observe.”

This is a Fake Buddha Quote.

It seems to have a hybrid origin. The first part — “Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts.” — comes from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada. I put the word translation in quotes because Byrom’s rendering is less translation and more “look at the Pali original and make up something poetic vaguely based on what you see there,” as you’ll see below.

In this case the original Pali (Dhammapada verse 237) is:

Appamadarata hotha sacittam anurakkhatha.

A literal translation would be:

Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.

There’s no “awake.” There’s no “witness.” The root of the verb translated as “witness” is rakkh-, which means “to protect.”

The second part — “You are what observes, not what you observe” — seems to come from Robert Earl Burton’s Self-Remembering (1995), p. 23.

Byrom appears to have been a Hindu, and this may have affected his choice of words, which is rather non-Buddhist. In the Hindu tradition they talk about “witnessing consciousness.” You are not your thoughts, emotions, or other experiences. You are instead that which is aware of those experiences. That is your true Self, your atman. The Buddha’s approach was of course one of anatman, or not-self. One recognizes that neither our experiences nor what experiences (which is really just our experience of experiencing) is the self. Over and over in the Pali texts we’re told to note that “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self.” We are never told to identify anything as being the self. To the Buddha, any view of the self — even the view that there is no self — was a form of clinging that would lead to suffering. The ideal is to live free from any views on the self whatsoever.

Here’s a quote from the Sabbasava Sutta of the Middle Length Discourses. I’ve added emphases to highlight the important differences between our Fake Buddha Quote and the Buddha’s teaching:

In a person who thus considers improperly there arises one of the six [wrong] views. The view ‘I have self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I have no self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive non-self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through non-self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, he has the view thus: ‘That self of mine speaks, knows and experiences the results of wholesome and unwholesome actions. That self of mine is permanent, stable, durable, incorruptible and will be eternal like all things permanent.’

Bhikkhus! This wrong view is called a false belief, a jungle of false beliefs, a desert of false beliefs, a thorny spike of false beliefs, an agitation of false beliefs and a fetter of false beliefs. Bhikkhus! The ignorant worldling who is bound up with the fetter of false beliefs cannot escape rebirth, ageing, death, grief, lamentation, pain, distress and despair. I declare that he cannot escape dukkha.

Burton, incidentally, was neither a Buddhist nor a Hindu but a teacher of the “Fourth Way” in the tradition of Gurjieff and Ouspensky.

I don’t know where, when, or how these two separate quotes became cobbled together, or how they became ascribed to the Buddha. But by 2008 the two are found combined in a book, Awake Joy: The Essence of Enlightenment, by Katie Davis, and presented as a Buddha quote. It’s likely that the amalgamation of the two quotes took place on the web, although we may never know.

This adoption of the “witness” as the self seems to be seen sometimes in certain Buddhist schools, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, despite its being profoundly un-Buddhist. It’s also a feature of the teaching of the popular spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle.

5 thoughts on ““Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts. You are what observes, not what you observe.””

  1. Hmmm … there seems to be some misunderstanding. The ‘adoption’ of the ‘witness’ is really just a stage towards the realization of the non-existence of the self, in my understanding of Hinduism, which ultimately is non-dualistic.
    It seems a shame to me that we do not strive to discover unity in truth instead of sharpening differences – when surely both Buddha and all the great enlightened ‘beings’ knew/know the same truth?

    1. As I mentioned in a reply to one of your other comments, I’ve never studied Hinduism and so I may be prone to misunderstanding it. I don’t see any reason to assume that everyone who says that they’re enlightened is describing the same experience, though.

      1. I was a little taken aback by the comparison between Hinduism and Buddhism. It seems as if you were referring to Advaita Vedanta which was heavily influenced by Buddhism. It also encourages “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self.” The concept of Atman in Advaita Vedanta is often misunderstood by Buddhists. Both actually have very similar concepts but different verbiage to express them. You stated you have not studied Hinduism. I encourage you to do so and you will see how much they both have in common.

  2. I do not know if it is because english is not my mother language but I find that calling “fake Buddha quotes” to quotes that were translated by well intentioned people but that they might not be 100% accurate, is kind of rough, don’t you think. Whom ever has done any kind of translation knows that it is hard to chose between translating literally, interpretative or a middle ground translation.

    Thank you for trying to bring more accuracy to Buddha’s quotes.


    1. Are you suggesting I rename the blog “Not 100% Accurate Buddha Quotes”? ?

      As far as I can recall, the only translators whose mistranslations are featured here are dead, so I don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings

      Anyway, I’m glad that you appreciate the overall aim of what I’m doing here. Thank you.

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