When I Googled this quote — “She who knows life flows, feels no wear or tear, needs no mending or repair” — the first ten results all said it was by the Buddha. Many people would take that as confirmation that it was a genuine Buddha quote, but that just goes to remind us that lots of people making a false claim doesn’t make it true. We can also remind ourselves how unwise it is to assume that something must be true because you read it on the internet.
Incidentally there’s a “He who knows life flows…” version as well, although it’s far less popular.
On the grounds of content and style it seemed very unlikely that this would be from the Buddhist scriptures. It turns out to be from the Tao Te Ching, although I doubt it’s a very good translation.
It can be found on page 44 of “The Way of Life According to Laotzu,” by Witter Bynner (1944). It’s part of his translation of chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching.
How can a man’s life keep its course
If he will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
The need no mending, no repair.
According to Wikipedia, “Harold Witter Bynner, also known by the pen name Emanuel Morgan, (August 10, 1881 – June 1, 1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar, known for his long residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and association with other literary figures there.”
Translations of this work vary enormously, and I’m in no position to make judgements about which translations are best, but Bynner’s version is very different from most others that I’ve seen. Other translators’ versions are much closer to each other. Here are just two alternate translations, taken from this very helpful comparison site:
Gia-Fu Feng’s translation (1972):
Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
J. H. MacDonald (1996):
Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
I’ve no idea how, or by whose hand, the quote changed form from “Those who flow as life flows…” to “She who knows life flows…” and how it came to be seen as a quote from the Buddha.
This particular part of the Tao Te Ching, in another translation, has also been mistakenly attributed to the Buddha.
When the Buddha talked about life flowing it often was in a negative sense—of us being swept along by our desires:
These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.
And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.
There was also however the concept of the “stream winner” or “stream entrant” who was someone to had attained entry to the stream that flows to awakening.
One of the few references I know of to life as being like a river is not about “flow” in a positive sense, but to emphasize how brief is our time on earth.
Just as a river flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, so that there is not a moment, an instant, a second where it stands still, but instead it goes & rushes & flows, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a river flowing down from the mountains — limited, trifling, of much stress & many despairs. One should touch this [truth] like a sage, do what is skillful, follow the holy life. For one who is born there is no freedom from death.
This one has been found attributed to the Buddha in a number of books, blogs, Facebook posts, quote sites, graphics, and so on. To anyone familiar with the Buddhist scriptures it’s quite clearly fake.
It’s often found combined with an entirely separate Fake Buddha Quote, the two together looking like this:
You must love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and fully being what you are, your simple presence can make others happy. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.
Thanks to a reader called Rory for bringing this one to my attention.
The second part is a Fake Buddha Quote from Sharon Salzberg, which I’ve dealt with elsewhere.
For the first part of the quote, I found a link to a New Age author called Jane Roberts, who claimed to be channeling some entity called “Seth.” No offense to any Seths out there is intended, but that strikes me as being a rather lame monicker for a spirit guide. It’s better than Nigel or Brian, though, I suppose. Incidentally this isn’t the only fake Buddha quote that was dictated by a spook. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” is another.
Anyway, Rory did a bit more legwork and found that this is from Roberts’ “The Nature of Personal Reality,” which was published in 1974. There it’s found in the form:
You must first love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and joyfully being what you are, you fulfill your own abilities, and your simple presence can make others happy.
On a website called Metabunk, which debunks fake quotes, Rory shared the origins of the two quotes and he also (bless him) showed that the two quotes were probably combined as a result of someone misreading a 2012 Psychology Today blog post on “The 50 Best Quotes on Self-Love.” The quotes are found listed together, with the first being unattributed and the second attributed to the Buddha. Presumably someone copied these and combined them, not noticing, or perhaps not caring, that they were originally separate.
You’ll notice that in the Psychology Today article the first quote lacks a period so that the two quotes are run together ungrammatically. The AZ Quotes (or Lazy Quotes) graphic above faithfully maintains this error.
It’s taken me a long time to get around to tackling this old chestnut.
What prompts to me write today is a discussion on Google+ where this supposed quote cropped up. In this discussion, someone of a Taoist persuasion referred to the Buddha having said that life is suffering. He referred to Benjamin Hoff’s “The Tao of Pooh,” in which there is a story about Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao Zi, tasting vinegar—which represents, we are told, “the essence of life.” Confucius has a sour look on his face because the heavens and earth are out of balance, the Buddha wears a bitter expression because “life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering,” but the Lao Zi is smiling because he accepts that sourness is a part of life.
The story doesn’t actually quote the Buddha as saying “Life is suffering,” although the person quoting it did. And so do plenty of other people, as you can see from the results of this Google search:
The most ironic one of these is the BuddhaNet article on “Common Buddhist Misunderstandings,” which tries to prevent people misinterpreting the Buddha’s supposed statement that “Life is suffering” by pointing out that it “should not be generalised to “all life is suffering.” But the true “common misunderstanding” is that “life is suffering” is not something that the Buddha ever said. And yet you’ll find this statement everywhere.
One of the people in the Google Plus conversation said:
I have been to many Buddha mediation/lecture sessions where it is readily stated that ‘life is suffering.’ Perhaps that because it’s a more dramatic thing to proclaim than simply life includes suffering, which could easily inspire the response, “What? Life includes suffering? That’s all? But I know that. Everyone knows that! I want my money back!!!!”
Indeed! The Buddha never said that “life is suffering,” just that there is suffering in life. His teaching is about accepting inevitable suffering (the vinegar) with grace and with a peaceful mind, while allowing joy to arise naturally when conditions allow.
“Life is suffering” is often quoted as being the Buddha’s first Noble Truth. And yet the scriptural version of this does not say that life is suffering:
Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.
So there are a lot of things here that are pointed to as being sources of suffering—in life. But life itself is not one of them, and it’s pointed to as necessarily involving suffering. And nowhere—not in that scripture or in any other—does the Buddha said that life is suffering or that everything is suffering.
The Buddha seems to have believed (although he didn’t say it directly) that some kind of pain was inevitable in life, and that the thing was to learn to accept it gracefully. The teaching of the Two Arrows is on that very theme. It illustrates the difference between how the “untaught worldling” and the “well-taught noble disciple” respond to pain. The first grieves and laments, or tries to escape suffering through the pursuit of happiness, and in doing so merely causes themselves more suffering. The latter accepts suffering without reacting: that is, without lamenting or trying to escape.
The Buddha not only didn’t see life as suffering, but he saw life, well-lived, as a source of great joy. Pleasure and happiness are important components of the path to awakening. They are part of the process of meditation, arising naturally as distractions fall away from the mind.
One problem is that usually by the time people start reading the Buddhist scriptures, they have read dozens of books on Buddhism. Those books say that the Buddha said “Life is suffering” (and a whole bunch more false ideas besides) and those ideas take root in the mind to such an extent that often by the time people encounter the scriptures their pre-existing ideas become a powerful filter through which they interpret everything they read. They can’t see what is actually there, and their preconceptions remain unchallenged.
And then when you tell them that the Buddha never said “Life is suffering” they argue with you or send you hate mail, illustrating the Buddha’s second Noble Truth, which is that suffering arises from clinging…
The book contains a glossary which in turn contains the following entry:
causality (also know as cause and effect). Everything that happens to us is the result of what we have thought, said, or done. What we undergo in this lifetime are the consequences of what we had done in our previous lifetimes, while what we do now will determine what we undergo in our future lifetimes.
I don’t know where the second sentence, “We alone are responsible for our lives,” comes from. It’s a common expression found in many places. I assume that someone cobbled together two separate quotes, or perhaps simply made up the last part, and it’s just coincidence that it was a preexisting saying. After all, you can find that expression here, here, here, and here. These each appear to be independent, and yet identical, statements.
Now it’s not uncommon to hear Buddhists to say that everything that happens to us is the result of our previous actions (karma). But that’s not what the early Buddhist scriptures teach. In fact that view is one that the Buddha argued against, for example by saying “it’s not proper for you to assert that, “Whatever a person experiences — pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain — all is caused by what was done in the past.”‘
Some Buddhists get very angry and call me names when I tell them that the Buddha, from what we can tell, argued against the idea that everything that happens to us is the result of karma. Presumably their own teachers say otherwise, or for some other reason they hold to that idea strongly. The other way to be unpopular with Buddhists is to say you’re agnostic about rebirth. It’s notable that the things Buddhists most readily get annoyed about are things they can’t verify in their own experience.
One problem with this notion of karma controlling everything is that it tends to lead to a blame the victim mentality. People I know who have been to see certain Tibetan teachers espousing this view have asked if, say, the Jews who were annihilated in the Holocaust supposedly deserved their fate, and the answer has been “Yes.” That horrifies me.
I wish I could find an original source for this quote, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to. I’m 100% sure that this does not come from any Buddhist scripture, but is of very recent vintage.
I’ve found it in a couple of books, but the oldest of these is a self-published work called “Inspiration to Mankind,” by Bendalam Krishna Rao . This book is a collection of quotes attributed to the Buddha — many of them fake. There is no publication date in the book itself, but based on information in Google Books and Archive.org I believe it was published in 2014.
It’s all over the web. The earliest instance I’ve found so far is from approximately 2009, on a Yahoo Questions page where it’s not attributed to the Buddha but is simply described as a “proverb.”
If you find any earlier references, please let me know.
So at the moment I’ve no idea where this quote is from, who wrote it, or how it became attributed to the Buddha. The only thing I’m confident of is that the Buddha never said it.
The Buddha was a fan of silence. He said to his monks that when they gathered they should either talk about Dhamma (the teachings) or remain silent.
A particularly nice quote from the Sutta Nipata discusses how it’s the wise that are silent, while the foolish talk much:
Know this from waters’ flow—
those by rocks and pools—
such rills and becks gush noisily,
great waterways flow quiet.
What is unfilled makes noise
but silent is what’s full,
the fool is like the pot half-filled,
the wise one’s like a lake that’s full.
There’s much mention of space in the scriptures, largely because there is a meditative attainment called “the sphere of infinite space.” That’s not described as being the home of the awakened, however. In fact the Buddha found it unsatisfactory.
This one was brought to my attention recently as a quote I haven’t written up. My correspondent was very suspicious of it, and in a way he was right: it’s not at all typical of how the early scriptures quote the Buddha.
It was however from a sutta (Buddhist scriptural discourse) that I know very well, although I’d characterize it as a good paraphrase rather than an actual quote.
It’s from the Karaniya Metta Sutta:
Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
You can find the entire sutta (which isn’t very long) on Access to Insight.
Lawrence Khantipalo Mills’ translation on Sutta Central is as follows:
Just as a mother at the risk of life
loves and protects her child, her only child,
so one should cultivate this boundless love
to all that live in the whole universe.
The original stresses the mother protecting rather than loving her child, so a better paraphrase would be “Love the whole world as a mother protects her only child.” Still, it’s not too far off as it stands. I can’t bring myself to call this “fake” but it’s also not an actual quote, so I’ve put it in my “fakeish” category. No disrespect is intended by this categorization.
On the grounds of style and content this is certainly not by the Buddha.
I don’t know the actual origins at the moment, but it looks like a variant on “What’s done to children, they will do to society,” which is usually attributed to Karl Menninger, an American psychiatrist who founded the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
Menninger is often cited as having said this, but so far I haven’t been able to confirm that he actually did. The earliest reference I’ve found is in a 1979 book by Barbara Rowe, called “The Book of Quotes.”
I can’t offhand think of anything the Buddha said that relates to the idea that the way we treat our children becomes the way they treat others. But so that you can get a sense of how the scriptures are phrased, here’s part of the Sigalovada Sutta, where the Buddha gives a series of teachings to a householder, Sigalaka, whose spiritual practice involved paying reverence to the six directions (the four cardinal points, plus above and below):
In five ways should a mother and father as the eastern direction be respected by a child: ‘I will support them who supported me; I will do my duty to them; I will maintain the family lineage and tradition; I will be worthy of my inheritance; and I will make donations on behalf of dead ancestors.’
And, the mother and father so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, training you in a profession, supporting the choice of a suitable spouse, and in due time, handing over the inheritance.
In this way, the eastern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
This one is also found as “The only way to bring peace to the earth is to learn to make your own life peaceful.”
This is one I hadn’t ever come across until it was sent to me, but it seems it’s fairly comment and is even found in a few books.
I’m not disputing the meaning of this quote at all, and neither would the Buddha. But it’s not the kind of thing that the Buddha said.
It’s yet another quote from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” (page 87).
Although many people have assumed from the title that the quotes in Jack’s books are from the Buddha, they are actually adaptations and distillations of wisdom from many sources.
I don’t know where Jack adapted this one from. Perhaps one of you guys knows?
In case you’re curious about why I say this isn’t the kind of thing that the Buddha said, it’s partly because of the language being too contemporary. The language of “the Earth” isn’t typical of language from that era, although it’s not unthinkable, since the word for the substance earth, which comes from a root meaning spreading out, also refers to the earth in the sense of the world. The Buddha would more commonly have talked of “the world,” although he tended to use that term in a fairly negative sense — as the experiential realm of pain and delusion
Also, “world peace” wasn’t one of the Buddha’s explicit aims, as far as I can see. His focus was mainly on encouraging individuals to escape suffering and find peace. He aimed to create a community that lived in peace:
Among hostile people,
free from hostility we dwell. (Dhammapada 197)
There is one long passage where the Buddha envisages a world that is peaceful and harmonious, and that is governed by a righteous monarch, so the Buddha talking in terms of world peace isn’t unthinkable — it’s just not likely and so acts as a bit of a red flag.
I found this one on the Facebook page of a South Jersey Buddhist group. Most of the Buddha quotes they have shared are fake. It seems that some people are preferentially drawn to the fake stuff, probably because it’s more literary and pithy than the actual Buddhist scriptures tend to be.
So this one’s not really the style the Buddha (or at least the early scriptures) used. And I can’t think of anything closely resembling this message, although I’ll continue thinking about that.
The earliest I’ve found this quote so far is from 1982, although there it’s “If you do not change direction, you are most likely to end up where you are going.” There (in “Science & Public Policy,” by the Science Policy Foundation) it’s said to be a Chinese proverb.
Later it was said to be by Lao Tsu. The writer Alan Cohen used that attribution in a number of his books and he may have invented it. Only later did it become ascribed to the Buddha.
The scriptures do have things like this:
It’s as if there were two men, one not skilled in the path, the other skilled in the path. In that case the man not skilled in the path would ask the man skilled in the path about the path. The second man would say, ‘Come, my good man, this is the path. Go along it a little further and you will see a fork in the road. Avoiding the left fork, take the right. Go along a little further and you will see an intense forest grove. Go along a little further and you will see a large marshy swamp. Go along a little further and you will see a deep drop-off. Go along a little further and you will see a delightful stretch of level ground.
As you can see, this is clunky and repetitive, which is what a lot of the scriptures are like. It’s not neat, polished, and ironic like our suspect quote. Having seen the contrast, you might have a better appreciation of why some people are drawn more to fake quotes than to real ones.
If I find anything similar to our suspect quote I’ll let you know, but I think we can safely assume that it’s fake.