“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.

“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.

“The way to happiness is: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, give much. Fill your life with love. Do as you would be done by.”

Stephen Feldman, one of my connections on Google Plus (the world’s best social media site, which Google is unfortunately pulling the plug on) brought this one to my attention. It’s one I’d never seen before.

It often surprises me the things that people take to be quotes from the Buddha. Then I remember that if you’ve no experience of the Buddhist scriptures then you’ve no idea of the patterns and language that the Buddha’s recorded as having used. Of course those records may be wrong. They probably are. But they’re all we have to go on. And if you’ve never read them you’ve no way of telling whether something is likely to be fake or not.

Not all of “Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, give much. Fill your life with love. Do as you would be done by” is entirely different from the kind of thing you find in the early scriptures, but much of it is. I could imagine a short pithy statement like “Keep your heart free from hate” in a text like the Dhammapada. But “Fill your life with love” is far too contemporary and “Do as you would be done by” resembles the Christian scriptures much more than it does the Buddhist ones.

The internet (or Google’s search results) are pretty much agreed that this quote is by Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” so of course the quote isn’t by Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

It’s instead from a 1904 book, “The Culture of Simplicity,” by Malcolm James McLeod, who was a Canadian presbyterian minister, educated at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and Princeton University in New Jersey. He appears to have been a damned handsome fellow, no doubt a result of his Scottish ancestry.

Someone else has prefaced the words “The way to happiness is…”

McLeod was inspired to write his book as a result of reading “The Simple Life” by the Rev. Charles Wagner of Paris. “Simplicity is spirituality; simplicity is power,” he says in the introduction.

Here are some snippets from the Buddhist scriptures that cover some of the same territory as McLeod’s quote:

  • On keeping the heart free from hate: “He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of his heart. [He thinks,] ‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!'” (AN 10.176)
  • On keeping the mind free from worry: “Not being full of desire and attachment, he is not worried.” (SN 22.7)
  • On living simple: “A monk, reflecting appropriately, uses the robe simply to counteract cold, to counteract heat, to counteract the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; simply for the purpose of covering the parts of the body that cause shame.” (MN 2)
  • On giving: “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds.” (Iti. 1.26)
  • On filling your life with love: “Thus you should train yourselves: ‘Our awareness-release through good-will will be cultivated, developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken. That’s how you should train yourselves.” (SN 20.5)
  • On doing as you would be done by: “All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” (Dhp 130)

You’ll notice that the style of these quotes is much more verbose. Also there are very few imperative statements in the early scriptures (“Do this, do that, do the other”), a few subjunctive statements (“He would/should do this, do that, do the other”) and lots of indicative statements (“He does this, does that, does the other.”)

McLeod’s quote is full of imperatives, and that’s one reason it would stands out as probably not being from the Buddhist scriptures.

The closest I’ve seen to the McLeod original (plus its added prefix) is the following quote, which is from the Itivuttika. You’ll notice that it’s partly been translated into the imperative (“Train in…”) although in the original Pali it’s in the subjunctive (sikkheyya, “One should train…”) , is framed in terms of what brings happiness, and covers themes of giving and love:

Train in acts of merit that bring long-lasting bliss — develop giving, a life in tune, a mind of good-will. Developing these three things that bring about bliss, the wise reappear in a world of bliss unalloyed.

There’s an alternative translation here.

“There is no God. Don’t waste your time or money for him. Only this world is true. And it is the only truth.”

André Olivier found this one as an image in an online comment and sent it to me, saying, “It seems like the strangest example of a fake Buddha quote … It just seems wrong in every way.” He has a good instinct.

This is not the kind of thing the Buddha said. He didn’t say there was no god. In the scriptures he’s depicted as talking with gods, although those passages may be intended to be taken humorously.

There’s one rather hilarious (by 2,500-year-old standards) passage where a monk is depicted as having worked his way up through all the lesser gods to the Great Brahma himself, asking where the four elements come to an end. Brahma blusters, declaring over and over how he is all-knowing. The monk calls him on his BS, and eventually Brahma takes him to one side, confesses that he doesn’t want the other gods to know that there are things he doesn’t know, and tells the monk to go see the Buddha, who is the only one who can answer his question.

He did ridicule the idea of a creator god, depicting Brahma as having deluded himself into thinking he had created the universe and the other gods. I tend to take that as an allegorization of  mamankara, or “mine-making” which is the way that part of us deludedly thinks that it owns and is responsible for other parts of us, including our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

He criticized the idea that our suffering is due to the actions of gods and said that if this were the case, then god must be evil.

He certainly wouldn’t have said that “only this world is true.” He’s depicted as talking about rebirth in other realms, including hells and heavens.

The URL in the image doesn’t lead to an existing Facebook page. Possibly at some point the Bharatiya Yukthivadi Sangham organization had one, and it was removed. The Yukthivadi Sangham is a rationalist and humanist organization in India. Bharatiya means “Indian” so I assume that this is a national organization. I’m surprised they don’t have a Facebook page. Or maybe I just failed to find it.

It’s interesting that a rationalist organization is using the Buddha (in the form of a fake quote) to argue against theism. Despite this, I wish them well as they work to combat the influence of religion on Indian politics and society.

“With mindfulness, strive on.”

This one is exceedingly popular in the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which I’m a part. Sometimes it’s found as “With mindfulness, strive on” and sometimes simply as “With mindfulness, strive.”

Sangharakshita, the late founder of the Triratna community and the Triratna Buddhist Order (he passed away just over two weeks ago), says in his book “Living With Awareness,” “The Buddha’s last words, we are told, were appamādena sampādetha – with mindfulness, strive.”

Triratna Order member Maitreyabandhu, in his “The Journey and the Guide,” wrote, “And [the Buddha’s] last words were ‘All conditioned things are impermanent. With mindfulness strive on.’ ”

Another Order member, Vajragupta, in his book, “Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life” has “In the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s life, we see him time and again teaching his followers how to develop mindfulness and exhorting them to maintain it at all times. His very last words were, ‘With mindfulness, strive on.’ ”

Believe me, there is no shortage of examples. It’s a bit embarrassing that my own lot are so wedded to this mistranslation.

It isn’t entirely unique to Triratna. Lawrence Khantipalo Mills, in his 1983 book, “Pointing to Dhamma,” says, “Having comforted them Lord Buddha uttered his last words, an exhortation to persevere: ‘Listen well, O bhikkhus, I exhort you; Subject to decay are all compounded things: With mindfulness strive on.’ ” But Khantipalo, perhaps uncoincidentally, studied and practiced with Sangharakshita in Kalimpong, India. They may both have picked up this mistranslation from the same source, or Khantipalo may have picked it up from Sangharakshita.

The latter appears to have used “With mindfulness, strive on” as early as 1961, in an essay in Volume 69 of the Maha Bodhi Journal. At least I assume he wrote the article: although I can’t see the whole thing on Google Books, the wording in the essay is identical to that found in a passage in Sangharakshita’s “The Three Jewels,” first published in 1967.

The problem with translating appamādena sampādetha as “With mindfulness, strive on” is that appamāda is not mindfulness. As I wrote in another article:

Appamāda is the opposite of pamāda, which means heedlessness, carelessness, negligence, or even literal drunkenness. As well as being translated as heedfulness it’s also rendered as diligence, earnestness, and so on. There’s an entire chapter of the Dhammapada on the topic of appamāda, which gives you a sense of the flavor of the term. It’s very much to do with moral restraint and self-control in the face of temptation.

The -ena ending indicates the instrumental case — “by means of” — so that the word appamādena means “by means of diligence” or “diligently.” It could also be translated as “with self-control.” There is no one word in English that can adequately translate appamādena.

Obviously self-control and mindfulness are related to each other, but they are distinct terms. Mindfulness in Pali is sati, which has the primary meaning of “memory” or “recollection.” The English word “recollected” has both the sense of “remembered” (“I recollected meeting him”) and of mindful presence (“He recollected himself.”)  Appamāda is a more dynamic and energetic quality than mindfulness. Mindfulness notices; appamāda (I’m going to call it “self-control”) protects.

In the article I just quoted from above, which explores another mistranslation of the Buddha’s last words, I noted that various translators had variously rendered appamādena sampadetha as “Persist with diligence,” “Strive on with heedfulness,” “Bring about completion by being heedful,” “Strive with earnestness,” “Strive on untiringly,” and “Strive to attain the goal by diligence.”

No serious translator renders appamāda as “mindfulness.”