“It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.”

A reader called Sean sent this one to me yesterday.

It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.

He’d seen Jack Konfield attributing it to the Buddha, and wondered if it was Jack’s own paraphrasing of some statement on the three lakkhanas (Pali) or lakshanas (Sanskrit). These are statements that say that anything that’s fabricated is impermanent and unable to give lasting peace and happiness, and that all things whatsoever are not oneself.

As it happens however, this is canonical. It’s found in the Anguttara Nikaya, which is the Numerical Sayings of the Buddha. It’s from the Sīha Sutta (Discourse on the Lion).

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation this same passage is:

It seems that we are actually impermanent, though we thought ourselves permanent; it seems that we are actually transient, though we thought ourselves everlasting; it seems that we are actually non-eternal, though we thought ourselves eternal.

The people saying these words are gods, who in Buddhism are not immortal, not creators, and not objects of worship, but simply long-lived and joyful beings who live in a kind of parallel dimension. Being long-lived and blessed with happiness, the gods tend to forget about death. As a result, they don’t think much about living life wisely and meaningfully. Here’s a longer quote from the sutta to put the gods’ words in perspective:

When a Realized One arises in the world—perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed—he teaches the Dhamma: ‘Such is identity, such is the origin of identity, such is the cessation of identity, such is the practice that leads to the cessation of identity.’

Now, there are gods who are long-lived, beautiful, and very happy, lasting long in their divine palaces. When they hear this teaching by the Realized One, they’re typically filled with fear, awe, and terror. ‘Oh no! It turns out we’re impermanent, though we thought we were permanent! It turns out we don’t last, though we thought we were everlasting! It turns out we’re transient, though we thought we were eternal! It turns out that we’re impermanent, not lasting, transient, and included within identity.’

That’s how powerful is the Realized One in the world with its gods, how illustrious and mighty.

So this one is verified as been scriptural. I like this sutta because it applies the formula most often associated with the four noble truths to the question of identity-view — the concept that we have some kind of metaphysical self. There is a delusion of self, there are causes for that, there is a cessation of that delusion, and there’s a path leading to that cessation.

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, And you will be filled with joy.”

I was asked about this quote this morning, and thought I’d do a quick write-up in case anyone else was in doubt about it:

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, And you will be filled with joy.”

This immediately made me think of a Dhammapada verse, which in Buddharakkhita’s translation on Access to Insight is:

Should a person do good,
Let him do it again and again.
Let him find pleasure therein,
For blissful is the accumulation of good.

So you’ll see that our suspect quote has the same essential meaning, even if it’s been shifted from a general statement about what “a person” might do to a more imperative instruction.

The quote in question is from Byrom’s Dhammapada. In general his rendition (I can’t call it a translation) of the Dhammapada is very inaccurate. It’s really quite dreadful, even if the poetry is nice. This verse is one of his better efforts.

I have three categories for quotes on this site: fake, fakeish, and verified. This one is somewhere between the last two categories, but closer to being an accurate translation, so with slight misgivings I’m classifying this as verified. It may have taken liberties with the grammatical form of the verse, but otherwise it sticks close to the original meaning.

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.”

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded” is commonly found attributed to the Buddha. It’s also seen as “Nothing can harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts,” where the wording is more natural.

In fact there is a scriptural quotation that is very close. In the Anguttara Nikaya there’s:

I don’t envision a single thing that, when unguarded, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when unguarded leads to great harm.

This is undoubtedly the prototype, and it’s a close enough paraphrase that it would be unfair to call it fake. If you’re looking to quote this, though, why not go for the more accurate version?

“Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance.”

A reader brought this one to my attention today:

Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know what leads you forward and what holds you back and choose the path that leads to wisdom.

He commented, “This feels odd – I think it’s the ‘holds you back’ phrasing.”

This phrasing does sound suspiciously contemporary, but in this case that’s the result of the translation rather than a modern saying being retroactively ascribed to the Buddha.

This quote is actually verse 282 from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada, which is of course a well-known Buddhist canonical text, traditionally regarded as the word of the Buddha. The only difference is that Eknath has “Know well what leads you forward” rather than the “Know what leads you forward” that was passed on to me.

For comparison, here’s Buddharakkhita’s version from Access to Insight:

Wisdom springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes. Having known these two paths of progress and decline, let a man so conduct himself that his wisdom may increase.

The phrasing Eknath has used is very contemporary, but I think it’s a fair rendering of bhavaya —progress — (“What moves you forward”), and vibhavaya —decline — (“what holds you back”).

Thannisaro’s version (also on ATI) is a bit different:

From striving comes wisdom;
from not, wisdom’s end.
Knowing these two courses
— to development,
decline —
conduct yourself
so that wisdom will grow.

Thanissaro has “striving” rather than Buddharakhita and Eknath’s “meditation.” The word in the original is “yoga” and although this is often translated as “practice” or “meditation,” the word does in Pali suggest “striving.” The Pali–English Dictionary includes as the fourth definition of “yoga” the meaning “application, endeavour, undertaking, effort.”

Anyway, I’m pleased to say that this one is genuine, despite the suspiciously modern phrasing.

“If we fail to look after others when they need help, who will look after us?”

This one is more or less legitimate. It’s from a well-known passage in the Vinaya (the book of monastic conduct) about a monk who was sick. In the Access to Insight translation it’s “If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you?”

Your version has been changed from second person to first, but otherwise it’s accurate, and it would seem excessively nit-picking to call it fake.

What happens in the story is that the Buddha comes across a sick monk, lying in his own urine and excrement, who isn’t being taken care of by the other monks. He asks Ananda to go fetch some water, and then:

The Blessed One sprinkled water on the monk, and Ven. Ananda washed him off. Then — with the Blessed One taking the monk by the head, and Ven. Ananda taking him by the feet — they lifted him up and placed him on a bed.

Then the Blessed One, from this cause, because of this event, had the monks assembled and asked them: “Is there a sick monk in that dwelling over there?”

“Yes, O Blessed One, there is.”

“And what is his sickness?”

“He has dysentery, O Blessed One.”

“But does he have an attendant?”

“No, O Blessed One.”

“Then why don’t the monks attend to him?”

“He doesn’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to him.”

“Monks, you have no mother, you have no father, who might tend to you. If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you?

Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.

“A jug fills drop by drop.”

This quote is found on many quotations sites and is commonly found on social media. Happily it’s a genuine quotation, although it’s missing the punch-line:

“Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”

It’s from verse 122 of the Dhammapada.

No doubt however the implied meaning of the shortened quotation is clear to most people.

Here’s a graphic from RealBuddhaQuotes.com, in case you want to share it.

“It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”

This quote is often seen in books, and to some extent in social media and blog posts:

“It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”

It’s a rendition of verse 252 of the Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaró, and published by Penguin Books. It happens to be the first Buddhist scripture I ever encountered, and so it has a place of fondness in my heart, even though it’s not a particularly good translation on the whole.

Despite his occasional flaws as a translator, Mascaró gets this verse right. Here’s Thanissaro’s translation for comparison:

It’s easy to see the errors of others, but hard to see your own.
You winnow like chaff the errors of others, but conceal your own —like a cheat, an unlucky throw.

Uncharacteristically, Buddharakkhita’s version is a little off-base:

Easily seen is the fault of others, but one’s own fault is difficult to see. Like chaff one winnows another’s faults, but hides one’s own, even as a crafty fowler hides behind sham branches.

The Pali Text Society dictionary explains kitava as “one who plays false,” and notes that the traditional Dhammapada commentary says that this term comes from fowling: kitavāya attabhāvaŋ paṭicchādeti: “he hides himself by means of a pretense” (behind sham branches). For some reason Buddharakkhita decided to include the reference to fowling and sham branches, even though this verse refers to “kaliṃ,” which is “bad luck” or “an unlucky throw at dice.”

In case you’re not familiar with winnowing, it’s the process of separating grains from their inedible husks. This is done by first drying the grain and then by tossing it in the air—preferably on a breezy day. The friction between the grains loosens the husk (or chaff). The wind then separates the heavier grain, which falls straight down, from the lighter chaff, which blows away. Thus, winnowing is a metaphor for metaphorically broadcasting information (“broadcasting” being another term borrowed from agriculture — it literally means spreading seed by hand over a wide area). We broadcast news of others’ faults, but try to conceal our own.

Verse 50 of the Dhammapada conveys a similar message:

Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.

“Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.”

This quote is commonly seen on social media, and it’s a genuine scriptural quotation. It’s from verse 5 of the Dhammapada.

In Buddharakkhita’s translation this is:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

In Thanissaro’s version this is:

Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.
Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

Narada Thera has:

Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.

You can see that they’re all basically very similar.

In Pali this is:

Na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
Averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano.

Very literally this is:

Not (na) indeed (hi) by means of hatred (verena) hatreds (verāni) appeased (sammanti) here (idha) at any time (kudācanaṃ).

By means of non-hatred (averena) and (ca — acts to connect this sentence with the one before) are they stilled (sammanti). This (esa) truth/law (dhammo) eternal (sanantano).

Our quotation uses the more conceptually positive word “love” rather than the strictly correct but conceptually negative “non-hatred,” but sometimes translators feel (quite justifiably in my opinion) to make such changes for the sake of accessibility. “Non-hatred” is of course a much broader term than “love,” and can encompass not just love and compassion, but even calm, mindfulness, and patience, which are all “non-hateful” qualities that promote inner peace.

The original translator was Eknath Easwaran, who rendered this verse as:

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

Eknath’s initial “for” has been dropped, and “by” has twice been changed to “through” by some unknown transmitter of the quotation.

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace” is commonly found attributed to the Buddha. And it’s more or less genuine. Here’s Buddharakkhita’s translation of the same verse:

Better than a thousand useless words is one useful word, hearing which one attains peace.
Dhammapada, verse 100

This is from Thomas Byrom’s rendering of the Dhammapada, which is generally very inaccurate, although poetic. In this case he was reasonably close to the mark.

Less successful are Byrom’s “There is pleasure and there is bliss. Forgo the first to possess the second,” “Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear,” and “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine.”

“Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.”

A friend recently passed this on, thinking it sounded false. It’s actually a reasonably accurate translation of Dhammapada verse 223, which in Buddharakkhita’s translation is:

Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

The only real difference is the choice of verb: “silence” in the suspect quote, versus “overcome” in Buddharakhita’s version.

In the Pali the verb used is “jine” which is definitely “conquer” or “overcome.” It’s what’s called the “third person singular optative,” which means that it’s “one should conquer.” It’s kind of an instruction.

Perhaps the translator of the suspect quote thought that those words sounded too violent and martial, and hence out of line with the non-violence tenor of Buddhist teachings. But “silence” is, to my mind, acceptable as a translation.

The Buddha, incidentally, did not shy away from using violent or martial imagery in his teachings. In one sutta he uses the example of parents deciding to eat their child. Another time he said that just as a horse trainer might kill a horse that refused to submit to training, so he would kill a monk who was untrainable. He wasn’t being literal, of course. And he used a fairly unpleasant metaphor to describe the process of analyzing the body in meditation:

Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body

Lastly, one of Amazon’s customers, in reviewing Jan Chozen Bays’ How to Train a Wild Elephant, whose title is taken from a metaphor the Buddha used, condemned the use of that imagery in the book’s title. Apparently she was unable to read the book because she found the reference to training an elephant to be so unpleasant.

I suspect that the choice to use “silence” in place of “conquer” or “overcome” was rooted in the same sort of squeamishness, although I don’t yet know who the translator was.