“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

A reader called Elaine wrote with the following message:

A friend shared this on facebook.

If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” ~ Buddha

Googling brings up tons of hits but none with a pointer to the sutra being referenced. Love your site! Elaine

I appreciated Elaine’s kind comments. I’ve been touched by how many people have expressed appreciation for what I’m doing here.

So anyway, this one’s very “meta” because one wonders how many people ask themselves, before sharing it, whether it’s true or not. Ahem!

Actually, the quote, on the face of it, is entirely within the spirit and letter of the Buddha’s teachings, but I believed it was a paraphrase and not an actual quote from the scriptures. It’s a bit too neat, for one thing. And for another, it includes only three out of the standard four (or five) guidelines for speech, which are that speech should be true, kind, helpful, conducive to harmony, and (and this is sometimes omitted) spoken at the right time.

Here is a canonical quote on right speech:

“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

“A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people.”

Here’s another quotation from the suttas.

“Monks, speech endowed with four characteristics is well-spoken, not poorly spoken — faultless & not to be faulted by the wise. Which four? There is the case where a monk says only what it well-spoken, not what is poorly spoken; only what is just, not what is unjust; only what is endearing, not what is unendearing; only what is true, not what is false. Speech endowed with these four characteristics is well-spoken, not poorly spoken — faultless & not to be faulted by the wise.”

You’ll notice that the style is less streamlined and less polished than in our suspect quote, and there are four or five guidelines mentioned, never just three. But this still seemed like it might be a partial paraphrase of a genuine quote.

In fact here’s another canonical quote, which I thought for a while might be the verses that were paraphrased:

And what other five conditions must be established in himself [i.e. a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another]?

“Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?”

Again, there are the full five criteria…

I had begun to convinced myself that the quote was a slightly clumsy and incomplete paraphrase of that last quotation, but I dug a little deeper, and was glad I did, because I tracked the quote back to a book of Victorian poems! It’s from “Miscellaneous Poems,” by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London (at the “corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard”).

“Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind? is actually the title of one of her poems. Here it is:

“Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?

Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay,

Before a word you speak,

That can do harm in any way

To the poor, or to the weak;

And never say of any one

What you’d not have said of you,

Ere you ask yourself the question,

“Is the accusation true?”

And if ’tis true, for I suppose

You would not tell a lie;

Before the failings you expose

Of friend or enemy:

Yet even then be careful, very;

Pause and your words well weigh,

And ask it it be necessary,

What you’re about to say.

And should it necessary be,

At least you deem it so,

Yet speak not unadvisedly

Of friend or even foe,

Till in your secret soul you seek

For some excuse to find;

And ere the thoughtless word you speak,

Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”

When you have ask’d these questions three—


Ask’d them in all sincerity,

I think that you will find,

It is not hardship to obey

The command of our Blessed Lord,—

No ill of any man to say;

No, not a single word.

So the finding of this source moves the quote from being suspect to being definitely a Fake Buddha Quote.

Pietzker herself had borrowed this phrase from earlier writers. There are similar sayings as far back as this one from 1848, although it’s in turn quoting an even earlier source (Poynder’s Literary Extracts), and that quotation itself is referring to some even earlier source, which was a Reverend Mr. Stewart:

“Rev. Mr. Stewart advised three questions to be put to ourselves before speaking evil of any man: First, is it true? Second, is it kind? Third, is it necessary?”

Perhaps the Rev. Mr. Stewart was the originator of the formula used in this quote. Perhaps he’d encountered Buddhism, or perhaps (and I think this is more likely) it’s simply a coincidence that he arrived at a form of words similar to Buddhist teachings.

“The tongue like a sharp knife, kills without drawing blood.”

Southern Folklore Quarterly, Volume 13, 1949, page 127, gives as the source of quote a book called “Seven Hundred Chinese Proverbs, by Henry H. Hart (Stanford University Press, c. 1937), and indeed many books refer to it as a Chinese saying. The Buddha was not Chinese, so this is, to say the least, unlikely to be a canonical Buddha quote. It’s more likely that someone, as so often seems to happen, decided to add the Buddha’s name to this quote at some point.

It’s a common enough image, though, and it’s possible that the Buddha said something like this. In Portuguese they have the saying, “A lingua não é de aço, mas corta,” and in Spanish they say, “La lengua del mal amigo más corta que cuchillo.”

Interestingly, I haven’t come across the the word “tongue” in Pali being used to represent speech. “Jivhā” literally means tongue, and also “taste,” as in “Jivhā indriya” (sense of taste). But it isn’t used metonymically to stand for “speech.” Or if it is, I haven’t encountered it. It’s funny how languages have different associations with something as simple as the tongue.

“Since everything is a reflection of our minds, everything can be changed by our minds.”

This one was passed on to me by Shira, who is on Tumblr. Does that make her a “Tumblrer”?

She was rightly suspicious, and wrote:

The first half reminds me of the Dhammapada (“Mind precedes all things” … at least in some translations.) The second half is wackville though, and I’m pretty sure the Buddha didn’t say it.

“Wackville” just about summed this one up. I’ve also found it on Twitter, incidentally.

So far I haven’t traced a definitive source for this quote, although it may come from a Pure Land or Tibetan teacher. I’ll let you know if I find out.

“If you do not find the solution where you stand where else shall you find it?”

The Twitter user, @AnAmericanMonk, is rather prone to posting Fake Buddha Quotes, incidentally, and most of the quotes he publishes are misattributed. Which leads me to wonder whether some people have an affinity for Fake Buddha Quotes. I’ve noticed that many people who post Buddha quotes are like @AnAmericanMonk, with the majority of their quotes turning out to be fake. This could be partly because much of what the Buddha says isn’t in sound-bites, and it often isn’t in a literary style that we find polished. This may be due to the oral tradition rather than the Buddha’s own choice of words… Couple that with a lack of familiarity with the Buddhist scriptures, and I can see how when these polished nuggets come along with a #Buddha hashtag attached, they catch the eye.

The quote with “truth” in it now sounds much more genuine, although the “where you stand” didn’t ring true.

Google Books brought up a book containing a variant of that variant: “If you can’t find the truth right where you are, where else do you think you will find it?” This time it was attributed to Eihei Dogen, which sounded more plausible. The book in which this quote was offered was Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, edited by Larry Chang, and Chang kindly provided a citation: “The Practice of Meditation” in The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose, Stephen Mitchell, ed., 1991.

From here is was just another quick search on Google Books, and I had a source. The quote is right there on page 101.

I’m now confident that @AnAmericanMonk quote, “If you do not find the solution where you stand where else shall you find it?” is a mangling of Dogen (“truth” having been turned into “the solution”), misattributed to the Buddha. And so I’m therefore equally confident in saying that this is a Fake Buddha Quote.

“The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.”

I recently came across this one in Twitter. It’s not always attributed to the Buddha there, but it often is.

I also encountered it through following a link to an article by Deb and Ed Shapiro, entitled “What the Buddha Might Say to President Obama.”

Deb and Ed write articles on meditation for the Huffington Post. Deb, coincidentally, is the daughter of Anne Bancroft, who is not the actress, but who was a British Buddhist responsible for a translation of the Dhammapada that is, well, rather “creative” in its renderings. Bancroft is found elsewhere in this blog.

Anyway, on to the quote.

It doesn’t sound anything like the Buddha. It’s not the Buddha.

It seems to be by Frederic William Farrar, an Indian-born Dean of Canterbury who lived from 1831 to 1903, and who wrote several books. I think I’d have liked Frederic. He was a believer that everyone was headed to heaven eventually, and also argued against the notion that one of the great things about being in heaven is getting to watch the eternal torment of souls in hell.

Farrar’s quote was often used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with slight variations. I haven’t found an original, so I don’t know what the exact wording is.

In a 1909 book, “Character Lessons in American Biography for Public Schools and Home Instruction,” by James Terry White, it appears as “There is only one real failure possible; and that is, not to be true to the best one knows.”

This isn’t the only Fake Buddha Quote in Deb and Ed’s article. They also include that old chestnut, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”

You know, in all the years I’ve been reading the Buddha’s teachings, I’ve never once heard him talk in terms of the “secret of life” or the “secret of existence.”

This quote is actually from a talk given by Swami Vivekananda in the US in 1895, in which he is recorded as having said:

The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you. Depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you free.

The fact that the talk was delivered over a century ago made me wonder when people started talking about a “secret of existence.” It struck me as being rather a 19th century expression.

Google Books only gives one result from the 18th century for that phrase, one more (excluding duplicate results) from 1800 to 1820, and then dozens from 1820 to 1830. Even allowing for sample bias in Google’s database, it seems that the phrase only came into vogue in the early 1800s — earlier than I’d thought.

The phrase “the secret of life” seems to have become common much earlier, and is found in books throughout the 1700s.

Even earlier was the phrase “secret of Nature,” which I’ve seen in many books as far back as the 1500s.

When the Buddha talked about “secrets” or things being “secret” he seems to have done so in quite a literal way. He’d talk about people doing evil deeds in secret, and about friends keeping your secrets and sharing their own. But he doesn’t seem to have talked about a “secret of life” or a “secret of existence.”

Nowadays “secrets of life” abound. It seems that many people have discovered this secret and will sell you it in paperback, hardcover, or in ebook format.

Thanks for Bhikkhu Pandit for sending me this quote, which he found on Facebook.

This Fake Buddha Quote also crops up from time to time on Twitter:

“The heart is like a garden: it can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. What seeds will you plant there?”

A friend drew my attention to this on Facebook, and then two people emailed it to me on the same day. Ever had the feeling that life is telling you to write up a Fake Buddha Quote?

This of course is nothing like the language or imagery that the Buddha is recorded as having used in his teaching.

In fact it’s from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, page 11. BLIB is not a book of quotations from the Buddha, as the title seems to suggest to many. Instead, it’s Jack’s rather lovely renderings of the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching into a contemporary style.

The Buddha did use the imagery of seeds, at times. He said things like this:

Just as when seeds are not broken, not rotten, not damaged by wind & heat, capable of sprouting, well-buried, planted in well-prepared soil, and the rain-god would offer good streams of rain. Those seeds would thus come to growth, increase, & abundance. In the same way, any action performed with greed… performed with aversion… performed with delusion — born of delusion, caused by delusion, originating from delusion: wherever one’s selfhood turns up, there that action will ripen. Where that action ripens, there one will experience its fruit, either in this very life that has arisen or further along in the sequence.

As you’ll see, this is a similar message, but expressed very differently.

“To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.”

I’d seen this one a lot on Twitter, recently. It’s fake.

To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.

It’s not from the Buddha, but from a Japanese book called The Teaching of Buddha. Titles such as this do tend to lead to confusion.

The Teaching of Buddha is the Japanese Buddhist equivalent of the Gideon Bible, except that the Gideon Bible can be taken as, you know, Gospel, while the Japanese book, as far as I’m aware doesn’t contain any Buddhist scriptures. I’m just about to order a copy, so I’ll soon find out. Several other Fake Buddha Quotes come from this book, and I’m curious to take a look at it. So far all I’ve seen is snippets on Google Books.

Here’s an example from Twitter.

“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

Sometimes it truly baffles me that some people think a particular quote comes from the Buddha. This is a case in point, because it’s so unlike the tone and language of any Buddhist scripture.

But this particular one is found on Goodreads, in the books Which God Should I Choose? (page 62), by Ben Kniskern, and The Little Red Book of Yoga Wisdom (unnumbered page), edited by Kelsie Besaw, and on numerous quotations sites and blogs.

The quote is actually from Walpola Rahula’s well-known book, What the Buddha Taught (page 3).

Granted, if you’ve never actually read any Buddhist scriptures then you’d have no understanding of the kind of vocabulary and idiom that the Buddha used (or is recorded as having used) and so you perhaps wouldn’t know that the Buddha didn’t talk like a 20th century intellectual — but yet I’m still surprised that the modernity of the phrasing and vocabulary didn’t trigger some kind of alert in the minds of the many people who have passed this on.

The word “political” stands out for me. I don’t recall the Buddha using any language similar to that. My Pali-English dictionary tells me there is a term, khattadhamma, which means “the law of ruling, political science,” although it’s not clear that the Buddha used this term in any of his discourses. Rather than using concise terms like “politics” or “political” the Buddha’s suttas are far more expansive, and so when “unedifying talk” about politics is condemned it’s talk “about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars” etc. that is mentioned.

I wholeheartedly agree with what Rahula has to say, incidentally. Buddhism is not principally a belief system, but a system of practice. Belief is not absent in Buddhism, and faith is reckoned as an important spiritual faculty. But faith in Buddhism is more like trust or confidence. That trust or confidence is based on experience, and is in turn the basis for practice and exploration. It’s not unlike taking on a hypothesis in a scientific sense and checking it out. The hypothesis is not believed blindly, either in Buddhism or in science, but is the starting point in a search for the truth.

Rahula points out that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to voice their doubts or uncertainties about the teaching, and said that if it was out of respect for him, the teacher, that they didn’t ask questions, they should get a friend to ask for them. It’s this kind of spirit of openness and inquiry that attracted me to Buddhist practice in the first place.

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

This is a Fake Buddha Quote.

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

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

Appamadarata hotha sacittam anurakkhatha.

A literal translation would be:

Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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