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Buddha was asked: “What have you gained from meditation?” The Buddha replied, “Nothing at all.”

what-have-you-gained-199x300A reader called Gerald wrote to me recently and asked me about a “fishy” quote:

Hello! I have come across this quote and would like to know your input. (smells fishy). Thank you! Buddha was asked: “What have you gained from Meditation?” He replied: “Nothing.” “However”, Buddha said, “let me tell you what I lost : Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Insecurity, Fear of Old, Age and Death.”

That one’s as fishy as a barrel of mackerel in a heatwave.

This particular quote is found in many variants. The locus classicus for this particular version would seem to be Eknath Easwaran’s introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada, which itself is the source of a number of Fake Buddha Quotes. Here’s the relevant portion of the introduction:

Someone once asked the Buddha skeptically, “What have you gained through meditation.”

The Buddha replied, “Nothing at all.”

“Then, Blessed One, what good is it.”

“Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to nirvana.”

That was first published in 1985.

That in turn may be based on something published in 1972 by Douglas M. Burns. In the appendix to an essay called “Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology,” published in “Collected Wheel Publications Vol VI,” Burns wrote:

It may be stating the case too strongly to say that in meditation one seeks to gain nothing. For there is an increase in happiness and peace of mind. But when asked, “What have you gained from meditation?”, the answer would be: “It is not what I have gained that is important but rather what I have diminished, namely, greed, hatred, and delusion.”

This is clearly not the Buddha who is supposed to be speaking, but simply a hypothetical meditator, or perhaps Burns himself. Burns formulation of what is lost (greed, hatred, and delusion) is very traditional. Eknath’s list is not.

But Eknath may have borrowed this trope from Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), rather than from Burns. Osho was the leader of a prominent cult that drew in many thousands of western followers. He tended to take liberties with many things, including the Buddha.

He wrote:

When Buddha attained Enlightenment, somebody asked him, “What have you gained?”

He laughed. He said, “I have not gained. I have lost much. I am far poorer than I used to be. I have lost all ignorance, all illusions, all dreams. Now I am just my originality.”

This is from a book called “Zen: The Art Of Enlightenment,” which was previously published as part of “Take It Easy, Vol 1,” which in turn was based on talks given in April, 1978. There is an emphasis in Zen on non-attainment, because Zen tends to be non-dualist. I may be wrong (I’m not a Zen scholar) but I think the Zen approach is to emphasize that both loss and gain are illusionary, and so it’s unlikely that they’d emphasize that there is anything to be lost.

Osho may have been paraphrasing something Huang Po said, as translated by John Blofeld in “The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind.” There he twice has Huang Po saying, “I truly attained nothing from complete unexcelled Enlightenment.”  (There are other paraphrases of the same message.)

In the same text, Huang Po also says, “Nothing is born, nothing is destroyed. Away with your dualism, your likes and dislikes.” [Emphasis added]

36 thoughts on “Buddha was asked: “What have you gained from meditation?” The Buddha replied, “Nothing at all.””

  1. Can you explain what you mean by saying on you website the following? “…especially given that the Buddha was hardly immune to sickness, and in fact died of food poisoning.”
    Food poisoning is NOT sickness.
    Sickness, or perhaps illness, is something that happens due to various imbalances in mind, body and spirit. Food poisoning is not a sickness like malaria, T.B., or pneumonia.
    Can you explain why you have made this incorrect assertion?

    1. Hi, Paul.

      Food poisoning is the result of ingesting harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, so it’s an infectious disease in the same way as tuberculosis or pneumonia, which are also caused by bacteria. (Malaria, which you also mention, is a parasitic infection, but it’s still an infection.)

      The scriptures describe Buddha getting ill on several occasions. At one time his personal physician diagnosed that his “humors” were out of balance, and prescribed various purgatives. Another time the Buddha was “gravely ill” and had a disciple recite the Dhamma as his treatment.

      Are you trying to assert that the Buddha did not in fact get ill? If so, your view of the Buddha is quite different from what we can gather from the Buddhist scriptures.

  2. Regarding the Lord Buddha died from food poisoning,

    Below is one of the question from King Milinda (2nd Century BCE) and the answer from Enlightened Nagasena Thero. There is a series of questions from King Milinda and answers from Enlightened Nagasena Thero.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milinda_Panha

    King Milinda; Dear thero, Lord Buddha preached that the alms given just before the attaining Buddha hood and alms given before he faces the Nibbana, give most fruitful results to the giver than other givings. But monk Sangeethikaraka, has said that after having the last alms giving by Chunda Karmaraputhra, L.Buddha got sick severely. So thero, how can Chunda Karmaraputhra collects more fruitful results after making the L.Buddha sick…?

    Enlightened Nagasena thero; Dear king, both sayings are correct but you have wrong understanding. L.Buddha’s last meal was not prepared only by C.Karmaraputhra, but also ‘Devas’ from more luxurious worlds also added their alms it knowing the fruitful result of it. L.Buddha never got sick because of his last meal, but at the last moment he bears his body, it got more weaken as a result of L.Buddha’s decision to face the Nibbana.

      1. Fake quote? Right quote? Correct quote? No quote? quote on quote?
        It really doesn’t matter…….
        What matters is that we learn and try to be a better person. Don’t look for the source of the message, it doesn’t matter where it came from or who wrote or said it. If it makes sense and if it encourages you to be a better person that’s all it matters. It is good to be curious but sometimes You gotta Let go- relax- and you might just HOLD- what might make you secure and stable.🙏🤙 EVERYONE feels certain amount of regret or guilty when they do wrong and EVERYONE feels certain amount of satisfaction or feel accomplished when they do something good(regardless-of their background or religion). Before everything we are just HUMANS. Stay quite and you might hear the answer.

        1. It’s possible to try to be a better person and communicate truthfully, Pema. In fact one is part of the other. And so I prefer to follow the practice of ensuring that my communication is truthful, so that if I say something is from the Buddhist scriptures, then it actually is. As a wise person once said, “truth is better than bullshit.”

          I also like to follow the Buddha’s advice that when you hear that a quote is attributed to him you should check out its authenticity. He thought it was important that he was quoted accurately. Of course we’re all free to disagree with him. I mean, what did he know? 😉

        2. Pema, I guess you’re right in that it probably doesn’t matter where good advice comes from, if we apply it to our lives and find that it brings benefit.

          On the other hand, if the question is “did Mr X says this particular thing?” and the answer is “no” there’s no harm in sharing that either.

          All good. 🙂

        3. The “matter” of it is that the Buddha was such an exceptional source of wisdom that it is worthwhile to try to keep his teachings as unadulterated by misquotation and false attribution as possible. Preserving the dharma as the Buddha gave it is a labor of love and devotion. No one forces us to help in this work, but we should be grateful that it is being done.

          1. I agree with your thoughts, George. To preserve and be clear about what Buddha’s exact words, suggested direction was/is. You responded very nicely, kindly and diplomatically to Pema. I myself prefer to have as exact information from L. Buddha as possible.
            My very best regards,
            Elizabeth

  3. Dear Admin,

    Lord Buddha has been the only religious preacher how had the moral to say,
    “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them”.

    I copied it form your own website. The Buddha Dharma (Teaching) has the characteristic of ‘Sandittika’ means come see and investigate it yourselves. Don’t believe just as Buddha has preached.

    Buddhism is preached by a MAN who was born in this earth. not from a god or son of god what so ever. Furthermore Lord Buddha states that any religion which teaches the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble 8 fold paths, is a right religion to follow.

    Buddhism teach something which is achievable in this very life by us. The levels of concentration of mind (Dyaana) is achievable in this very life through Buddhist Meditation. A person how has ended Craving, Hate and Ignorance and achieved Dyaana such as Sotapanna, Sakurdagami, Anagami, Arhat and the Buddhahood wouldn’t go around and showoff that they have achieved Dyaana. It can only be found out by a person who has achieved the same or above level.

    Enlightened Nagasena Thero was a Buddhist Monk who had become Arhat. a certain person has a high power of mind and also ‘Irdi’ (supernatural) powers. Me and you both are lay people. But those levels of concentration of mind and Irdi powers can be achievable by both of us in this very life if we follow the right path. There for condemning a statement of someone who had higher levels of concentration of mind by a lay person can not be acceptable. I would only have accepted your statement condemning the Enlightened (Arhat) Nagasena Theros statement only if you were an Arhat Buddhist Monk or a Buddha.

    1. I would slightly disagree. Enlightenment is gained by the eradication of negative karma. There are three forms: Thought, word, and deed. If one has a tremendous store of bad karma it would take a tremendous amount of suffering in these three aspects. Thought, word, and deed. Even though the Buddha attained enlightenment he still had some suffering to go through with his physical body to negate that karma.

      Remember he almost didn’t teach, but remembered his vow and did see there were some in the world with little dust on their eyes.

  4. The quote I’ve heard more often goes: “Buddha sai, ‘Truly, I have attained nothing from this complete, unexcelled enlightenment.'”

    Do you know where that one comes from? Quick research seems to suggest Huang-Po.

      1. So that’s as follows:

        Subhuti again asked, “Blessed lord, when you attained complete Enlightenment, did you feel in your mind that nothing had been acquired?”

        The Buddha replied:

        “That is it exactly, Subhuti. When I attained total Enlightenment, I did not feel, as the mind feels, any arbitrary conception of spiritual truth, not even the slightest. Even the words ‘total Enlightenment’ are merely words, they are used merely as a figure of speech.”

        It’s certainly similar, although the topic is Enlightenment rather than meditation.

    1. That’s from the Diamond Sutra, or at least from a very old translation of that text. More modern translations express that verse rather differently, which may mean that they’re better translations or that there are variants. I’m afraid I’m not qualified to know!

  5. Your website is fake, either u may be christian, muslim or hindu?
    So u are presenting hateful writings.

    1. I’m confused. Why do you think that my letting people know about misattributed quotes is hateful?

  6. Book: “zen teachings of haung po” by John blofeld states on page 38:
    “Therefore the Buddha said: ‘I truly attained nothing from complete I excelled Enlightenment’ it was for fear that people would not believe this that he drew upon what is seen with the five sorts of vision and spoken with the five kinds of speech. So this quotation is by no means empty talk but expresses the highest truth”

    Huang Po reiterates this quote from the Buddha a few times in the book.

    1. Thanks for that. The Heart Sutra too makes the point that there is no attainment.

      However, given the very different content of the rest of the two suspect quote, I suspect that the resemblance to the Prajnaparamita literature is coincidental.

  7. how dare you man To against buddhism.how do you know this is fake and who are you to say thats fake quotes. lord Buddha is a greatest teacher in the world beyond earth. After your death you defenitly suffer in the hell. 10000% sure about that. Even gods not against our lord buddha. So you like a dust comPare with our lord buddha.

    1. Cherith, I think you might have misread the page: this is clearly in support of Buddhism, not against it.

  8. Doesn’t seem fake. Just misquoted and often biased by whomever heard and interpreted it by their own perceptions. Just like this blog. No harm done. It’s the story of the blind holy men describing the elephant all over again. Ha ha. Namaste to you.

  9. Thank you for all the sleuthing that you have done and continue to do, and pointing out what is correct and what is not. It was very helpful to me.

  10. No place for anger and non-buddhistic harmful, blind adherences, fact checking is of utmost importance in buddhist philosophy! Namo Buddhaya.

    1. What a relief it is to read your comment, Sreeman. It seems that a lot of people get very upset when the attributions of quotes they like are fact-checked. My “fan mail” page is full of interesting comments!

  11. There is this from Huang Po’s On The Transmission of Mind, translated by John Blofeld:

    Therefore the Buddha said: ‘I truly obtained nothing from Enlightenment.’

  12. well i am confused of the food poisoning part my reverend sir i follow theravada buddhism which is the purest of the buddhism preserved in the world right now and it said that Lord Buddha knew when he was about to die (he could have lived longer but he thought that people wouldnt realize the impermenence of life if i tend to live even longer ) and in kusinara he attained parinibbana and automatically got burned then and there and PERISHED OUT OF SANSARIC EXISTENCE……dear sir could you explain what the food poisoning part…im sorry if i have written anything that offended you in any way….Namo Buddhaya 🙂

    1. Hi there. I’m sure you already know the story of the Buddha’s death from food poisoning, but maybe others don’t. According to the suttas, the householder Cunda (the son of a smith) invited the Buddha and some monks for a meal. After eating some pork that had been offered, the Buddha asked Cunda not to give it to anyone else, and later the Buddha developed bloody dysentery that led to his death.

      The early texts (not just those of the Pāli Tipiṭaka, but other contemporaneous texts as well) are our closest connection to the historical Buddha, but even they went through a process of evolution in the centuries before they were written down (and afterward, as well). I don’t for a moment take it as literally true that the Buddha could have extended his life indefinitely. If he could have done that, then presumably he could have kept his body young as well, but by the time he was old his body was worn out. He was an extraordinary person whose mind had transcended greed, hatred, and delusion, but his body was made of the same fragile material that all bodies are made out of. It aged, as bodies do. It ceased being able to support life, as happens with all human bodies.

      Anyway, maybe you’re asking why I mentioned the food-poisoning. It was simply because the fake quote in question has the Buddha stating that he’s “lost (i.e. transcended) illness,” but that clearly wasn’t the case.

      I hope you don’t take my historical views as offensive. This is just how I see things.

  13. The quote is very a sloppy rendition of a legitimate teaching. The first part of it isn’t all that bad, because it echoes a similar interchange in the Kakudha Sutta in the Devasamyutta. The second part about ‘anger, anxiety, depression, etc’ is, as I see it, implied in the sutta. Even so, it’s not an accurate treatment, at all; and, in something as important as ‘clinging-free deliverance’ of the heart-mind, I think we should make our best shot at fidelity of translation and clear attribution.
    (Just a tip for those readers not familiar with the Early Buddhist texts: Many texts bare witness to the fact that the reference to ‘brahman’ at the end is to an ethical and awakened person, not to the ‘caste’ of such a person.)

    Here’s Bodhi’s translation of the whole Kakudha:

    Kakudha
    Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāketa in the Añjana Grove, the Deer Park. Then, when the night had advanced, the young deva Kakudha, of stunning beauty, illuminating the entire Añjana Grove, approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, stood to one side, and said to him:
    “Do you delight, ascetic?”
    “Having gained what, friend?”
    “Then, ascetic, do you sorrow?”
    “What has been lost, friend?”
    “Then, ascetic, do you neither delight nor sorrow?”
    “Yes, friend.”

    “I hope that you’re untroubled, bhikkhu.
    I hope no delight is found in you.
    I hope that when you sit all alone
    Discontent doesn’t spread over you.”

    “Truly, I’m untroubled, spirit,
    Yet no delight is found in me.
    And when I’m sitting all alone
    Discontent doesn’t spread over me.”  

    “How are you untroubled, bhikkhu?
    How is no delight found in you?
    How come, when you sit all alone,
    Discontent doesn’t spread over you?”  

    “Delight comes to one who is miserable,
    Misery to one filled with delight.
    As a bhikkhu undelighted, untroubled:
    That’s how you should know me, friend.”  

    “After a long time at last I see
    A brahmin who is fully quenched,
    A bhikkhu undelighted, untroubled,
    Who has crossed over attachment to the world.”

    Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (The Teachings of the Buddha) (p. 150). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
    – Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (The Teachings of the Buddha) (pp. 149-150). Wisdom Publications.

    1. Hi, Christopher. I think the quote is far more likely to be a distortion of Huang Po. That information was in the comments but I’d neglected to add it to the article until now, so thank you for prompting me to do that. The missing link seems to be a talk Osho gave in 1978. Thanks for the quote from the Samyutta Nikaya: it’s an interesting one.

  14. Though positive actions make the darkness more malleable, the impact of negative karma is much more severe.

    By reaping the fruit of negative karma and extinguishing it, we step upon the fastest path to making the hearts darkness malleable.

    One needs to abstain from wrong conduct, and perform good deeds while waiting for negative karma to come to fruition.

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