“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.”

“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.”

When Michael O’Connor wrote asking about this one I was stunned to find that I hadn’t already written it up. Perhaps I did: a few years ago the site was badly hacked and I lost a few articles.

Anyway, I’ve seen “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence” numerous times over the years. The second part, “Strive on with diligence” is pretty much OK (I realized that I also have to write up the mis-translation “With mindfulness, strive on”). The wording of the first part is very odd.

This quote is supposed to be the final words of the Buddha before he died, or had his “parinirvana,” as it’s often called (although, rather ridiculously, it’s often said that he “went to parinirvana,” as if it’s a place you can go to). It purports to come from the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, “parinibbana” being the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit parinirvana.

In Pali the Buddha’s final words were: “Vayadhammā saṅkhārā. Appamādena sampādetha.”

This can, like anything in a foreign language, be translated in various ways:

  • Sujato: “Conditions fall apart. Persist with diligence.”
  • Anandajoti: “[All] conditioned things are subject to decay, strive on with heedfulness!”
  • Thanissaro: “All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.”
  • Sister Vajira & Francis Story: “All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
  • Maurice Walshe: “All conditioned things are of a nature to decay—strive on untiringly.”
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi: “Formations are bound to vanish. Strive to attain the goal by diligence.” (From a parallel passage in the Samyutta Nikaya.)

As you can see, there’s a lot of variation.

The First Sentence: Vayadhammā saṅkhārā

Each of the two sentences in Pali has two words. The first sentence is Vayadhammā saṅkhārā


Vayadhammā is a compound of vaya and dhammā.

Vaya means:

1. loss, want, expense
2. decay

Dhamma is an astonishingly broad term, although its many meanings relate to the Sanskrit root dhṛ, which means to support. In this particular context it means something like “nature,” not in the sense of wildlife, but in the sense of having a particular character.

So vayadhammā is “having the nature to decay.”


The second word in the sentence is saṅkhārā. It too has two parts: saṅ- is a prefix that, like the Latin com- means “together.” The khārā part is related to the verb karoti, which is to make, do, form, or build.

So saṅkhārā means “put together” — hence the various translations of “conditioned things,” “compounded things,” “fabrications,” and so on.

So the first sentence has the sense, “Things that are put together fall apart.”

Saṅkhārā can also refer to mental states that we conjure up (or fabricate) in the mind, and which cause us suffering. So this sentence could also be: “All fabricated mental states [that cause suffering] pass away.” This is encouraging because it’s showing us that the mind is capable of being purified so that we can attain peace. This is probably not what the Buddha meant, but his words could, I think, be interpreted in that way.

The translation “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things” is a bit odd—specifically that word “chaos,” which means “disorder and confusion.”  Let’s come back to the quote at the end.

The Second Sentence: Appamādena sampādetha

Again we have a simple two-word sentence.


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.” Walsh’s translation “untiringly” is a very poor effort.

There is no one word that can adequately translate appamādena.


Sampādetha means:

1. to procure, obtain
2. to strive, to try to accomplish one’s aim

It’s the secondary meaning that’s important here. All of the translations above use “strive,” except for Thanissaro’s. He has “bring about completion,” which focuses more on the “accomplish one’s aim” part of the definition, but also ties in the primary sense of sampādetha, which is procuring or obtaining.

Translating sampādetha as “strive” isn’t wrong, but it misses the element of the striving being directed toward a goal, which in the context of the Buddha’s final words is the goal of spiritual awakening.

So the second sentence means something like “With diligent self-control, strive for the goal.” Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Strive to attain the goal” captures this perfectly.

Anyway, “chaos” just feels wrong. The Buddha said that things fall apart, not that they are chaotic. The “chaos” quote is the result of someone (almost certainly in the early 21st century) messing around with a more legitimate version.

The earliest version I’ve found, which I think is the original,  dates all the way back to 1881! It’s in Volume XI of the series “Sacred Books of the East,” (page 114) edited by F. Max Müller. The translation is by Thomas William Rhys Davids, founder of the Pali Text Society.

Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!

Note thatRhys Davids used “component things” rather than “compounded things.”

AsRhys Davids’ translation has been passed on, it’s evolved. Sometimes it’s found as

Decay is inherent in all compounded things; strive on with vigilance.

And also as:

Decay is inherent in all compounded things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.

Notice here how “your” has become “your own.”

The final mutation, by some as-yet unknown person, was to change “decay” to “chaos,” which is inaccurate enough that I feel OK about categorizing this one as fake.

Volume XI of the series “Sacred Books of the East,” (page 114), edited by F. Max Müller.


“He who practises my teaching best, reveres me most.”

I’m pretty sure this one is a paraphrase of a passage in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, which is an account of the Buddha’s last days. The problem with the paraphrase is that it appears to be setting up a kind of “competitive practice” scenario, which sounds rather odd to my ear.

The original passage mentions various miracles that take place, showing the gods revering the dying Buddha:

Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, & sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky…

The gods aren’t mentioned here, but I assume that divine worship is being implied.

And it’s this that’s then compared with practicing the Dharma:

Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage.

So the Buddha is saying, in effect, “Look, the gods are performing all these miracles in veneration of me, but if you really want to show me respect then practice my teachings.

The original doesn’t equate practicing better with showing greater reverence, but contrasts worship with practice, implying that practice is true worship.

This quote seems to have arisen through a “slip of the eye,” where the Venerable Narada Thera, in his book, The Buddha and His Teachings,” paraphrased what the Buddha’s attitude was toward worship and practice:

What the Buddha expects from His adherents are not these forms of obeisance but the actual observance of His Teachings. “He who practises my teaching best, reveres me most”, is the advice of the Buddha. [Page xii Pariyatti’s 3rd Edition]

Unfortunately someone has taken this paraphrase to be a direct quote from the Buddha. And although I’m generally a fan of Narada’s writings and translations, I have to say that I don’t think this was a very good paraphrase to start with. Although I’ve seen it on a few articles online and in several books, it hasn’t reached the quote sites yet, and isn’t at the fridge magnet level of popularity. Give it time…

“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”

I was introduced to this particular Fake Buddha Quote by someone who wanted to show me their Buddha quote website. As is often the case, most of his quotes were fake.

This one comes from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.” Shantideva was an 8th century Indian teacher who was a monk at Nalanda University. This work outlines a Mahayana concept of a compassionate path to awakening—one where your motivation for spiritual growth is not to benefit just yourself but all beings.

There’s a lot of great stuff in the “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” including some very practical reflections for developing patience.

This particular quote is verse 10 from from Chapter 6.

གལ་ཏེ་བཅོས་སུ་ཡོད་ན་ནི། །
དེ་ལ་མི་དགར་ཅི་ཞིག་ཡོད། །
གལ་ཏེ་བཅོས་སུ་མེད་ན་ནི། །
དེ་ལ་མི་དགའ་བྱས་ཅི་ཕན། །

If a problem can be solved,
What reason is there to be upset?
If there is no possible solution,
What use is there in being sad?

[Source: Rigpawiki]

The Dalai Lama is a big fan of Shantideva, and a lot of his teaching is a restatement of things from the Bodhicaryavatara. So his version of the quote above, found in “Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness” (page 99) is:

If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.

“If you find truth in any religion or philosophy, then accept that truth without prejudice.”

This one is from a longer quote purporting to be from the Digha Nikaya, which is a legitimate collection of Buddhist scriptures:

Sakka asked the Buddha: “Do different religious teachers head for the same goal or practice the same disciplines or aspire to the same thing?” “No, Sakka, they do not. And why? This world is made up of myriad different states of being, and people adhere to one or another of these states and become tenaciously possessive of them, saying, ‘This alone is true, everything else is false.’ It is like a territory that they believe is theirs. So all religious teachers do not teach the same goal or the same discipline, nor do they aspire to the same thing. But if you find truth in any religion or philosophy, then accept that truth without prejudice.

Sakka is a god, and the Buddha is often portrayed as having conversations with deities in which he gives them spiritual instruction or sometimes (notably in the case of Brahma) shows them up as being pompous blowhards.

“Digha Nikaya” means “Long collection” and it contains 34 suttas (discourses), arranged in three chapters. This particular sutta is the Sakkapañha Sutta, or “Discourse on Sakka’s questions.”

And this particular English rendition is from Anne Bancroft’s “The Buddha Speaks.” This is not the American actress, but an English Buddhist who was, many years ago, part of the same order I was ordained into in 1993. She’s now very elderly, but the last I heard of her she was still going strong. She didn’t ever study Pali to the best of my knowledge, and produced a version of the Dhammapada that is really very inaccurate, and that created at least one Fake Buddha Quote. The whole phenomenon of getting people who don’t know a language to do “translations” is very odd.

It’s the sentence at the end of the long quote above that’s the problem. It’s just not in the sutta! I assume that Bancroft added it herself, although it’s conceivable someone else did and she merely copied it.

Version by Sujato

Here’s Bhikkhu Sujato’s version. I’ve gone on a bit beyond the end of the passage above, so that you can see that there’s nothing corresponding to the sentence in question:

And then Sakka asked another question:

“Dear sir, do all ascetics and brahmins have the same doctrine, ethics, desires, and attachments?” “No, lord of gods, they do not.”

“Why not?” “The world has many and diverse elements. Whatever element sentient beings insist on in this world of many and diverse elements, they obstinately stick to it, insisting that: ‘This is the only truth, other ideas are stupid.’ That’s why not all ascetics and brahmins have the same doctrine, ethics, desires, and attachments.”

“Dear sir, have all ascetics and brahmins reached the ultimate end, the ultimate sanctuary, the ultimate spiritual life, the ultimate goal?” “No, lord of gods, they have not.”

Version by Thanissaro

And here’s Thanissaro’s version, which again I’ve run on to the start of the next section:

Then Sakka, having delighted in & expressed his approval of the Blessed One’s words, asked him a further question: “Dear sir, do all brahmans & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?”

“No, deva-king, not all brahmans & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal.”

“Why, dear sir, don’t all brahmans & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?”

“The world is made up of many properties, various properties. Because of the many & various properties in the world, then whichever property living beings get fixated on, they become entrenched & latch onto it, saying, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ This is why not all brahmans & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal.”

“But, dear sir, are all brahmans & contemplatives utterly complete, utterly free from bonds, followers of the utterly holy life, utterly consummate?”

As far as I’m aware there’s nothing corresponding to “But if you find truth in any religion or philosophy, then accept that truth without prejudice” in the scriptures. If you’ve seen it, please let me know.

Other Corresponding Teachings

I don’t think that the Buddha would have disagreed with the statement, though, based on other things that he said. To the Kalamas, who were confused by the many contradictory teachings they heard, he taught, “When you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

And this next one isn’t the Buddha, but Ananda, one of his chief disciples answering a question put to him by the Buddha about whether all paths of practice are valid. But the Buddha, having heard Ananda’s response, approves:

“When — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one’s unskillful mental qualities decline while one’s skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.”

And at another time Ananda says something along the same lines:

Those who teach a Dhamma [teaching] for the abandoning of passion, for the abandoning of aversion, for the abandoning of delusion — their Dhamma is well-taught. Those who have practiced for the abandoning of passion, for the abandoning of aversion, for the abandoning of delusion — they have practiced well in this world.

So the quote in question is aligned with the Buddha’s teaching but since it doesn’t appear to be something he’s recorded as having said, it would be best not to refer to it as being one of his sayings.

Incidentally, you might have noticed, as you compared the three versions of the Sakkapañha Sutta above, that there’s nothing in Sujato or Thanissaro’s versions that corresponds to “It is like a territory that they believe is theirs.” That seems to be another interpolation.

“Practice the dhamma to perfection. Do not practice it in a faulty manner.”

I was asked about this one today:

Practice the dhamma to perfection. Do not practice it in a faulty manner. He who follows the teaching in the proper manner will live in peace and comfort both in this world and in the next.

My correspondent was suspicious of the “next life” reference, but that’s actually fine. In fact there wasn’t anything that flagged this one up as being “off” for me. I can well imagine the Buddha of the Pali scriptures using these words.

It turns out, though, that these are not quite the Buddha’s words. I feel like I’m being a pedantic killjoy in pointing this out, but this quote is actually from a modern paraphrase of a scriptural verse, and isn’t itself canonical.

It’s from “Treasury Of Truth: Illustrated Dhammapada” by Weragoda Sārada Mahā Thēro, page 717.

This is Sārada’s commentary on verse 169. In Thanissaro’s translation this is:

Live the Dhamma well.
Don’t live it badly.
One who lives the Dhamma
sleeps with ease
in this world & the next.

Sārada’s translation is similar:

Fare in Dhamma coursing well,
In evil courses do not fare
Who dwells in Dhamma’s happy
In this birth and the next.

The paraphrase is fine. No harm done. But it’s not entirely genuine either. I’m just keeping the record straight for anyone who’s interested in being strictly accurate. Weragoda Sārada Mahā Thēro deserves the credit for this quote rather than the Buddha.

“She who knows life flows, feels no wear or tear, needs no mending or repair.”

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.

“You must love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and fully being what you are, your simple presence can make others happy.”

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.

“Life is suffering.”

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…