Or as they say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, misquote him.”
This one’s a puzzle. I’m 100% certain it’s not the Buddha. As usual, the language is all wrong. But I haven’t found a definitive source. I’m always more comfortable pronouncing Buddha quotes to be fake when I can find an original source, but in this case I’m stymied.
It appears in a magazine called Network World from January 16, 1989, as:
There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.
It’s not attributed to the Buddha, but there’s no source given. It’s not even in quotation marks, but since it’s an otherwise unrelated comment prefacing an invitation to contribute to the magazine, it’s almost certainly a quote from somewhere.
In a book published two years earlier, Healing of the Planet Earth, by Alan Cohen, the quote is attributed to the Buddha, although it’s in a slightly different form:
There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: 1 . Not going all the way. 2. Not starting. – Buddha
Here we have “along the road” rather than “on the road” and we have the two mistakes handily numbered.
But how did Cohen come to think this was a quote from the Buddha? The internet was barely active at that time, so it was probably a book or magazine — or perhaps a faulty memory of a talk he’d heard. It’s conceivable that the quote evolved from something said by Chogyam Trungpa:
“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” ~~~ Chögyam Trungpa
The core concept here is similar, although the words used are very different.
Another candidate for the original is verse 47 from the chapter on Virya (vigor) from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. This reads:
After first examining one’s means, one should either begin or not begin. Surely, it is better not to begin than to turn back once one has begun.
It’s possible that this is also what Trungpa was referring to, this text being very well-known in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, although there’s a similarity in theme, the presentation of the concept isn’t a close match.
Perhaps as Google scans more books, the original source will be revealed.
The quote then reappears, once again credited to the Buddha, in 2000’s Treasury Of Spiritual Wisdom: A Collection Of 10,000 Powerful Quotations For Transforming Your Life, by Andy Zubko. After 2000, the quote starts springing up in many, many books. It seems unstoppable. But perhaps some publisher or author doing some fact checking in the future will stumble across this site and pause before spreading this quote any further. I can only dream.