Welcome to the first Fake Buddha Quote of 2011 (and on the occasion of my 50th birthday, no less).
A Twitter friend (someone I don’t know personally) tweeted the following the other day:
Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most. Buddha
As is usually the case, the language bears little or no resemblance to how the Buddha taught, which is not to say that the quote is false in its substance or lacking in poetry. It’s certainly a lovely metaphor, and in a sense true. It’s just very unlikely that these words are anywhere in the Buddhist canon.
Google Books brings up only a small selection (around eight) of books containing this exact quotation, and all but one attribute it to the Buddha. The one exception provides the correct source. These are not, in fact, the words of the Buddha, but are the words of the Insight Meditation teacher and psychotherapist, Jack Kornfield. They’re found in his delightful work, “The Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” (page 79). It seems likely that someone has taken the book to be a collection of scriptural verses rather than Mr. Kornfield’s contemporary and poetic presentation of Buddhism. The title of the book quite unintentionally lends itself to that misunderstanding (which I’ve also noted with regard to quotes from a book called “The Teaching of the Buddha”).
I wonder if Jack Kornfield is aware of his promotion to full Buddhahood?
Incidentally, the first part of the quote is very similar to the words of the 4th century Greek poet, Palladas, who wrote “Day by day we are born as night retires, no more possessing aught of our former life, estranged from our course of yesterday, and beginning today the life that remains.”
In fact, the Finnish poet Anselm Hollo used the exact same wording as Jack Kornfield in his translation of Palladas:
each morning we’re born again
of yesterday nothing remains
what’s left began today
(Corvus: Poems, page 32).
Although the Buddha didn’t say we are born every day, he does seems to have made statements like, “a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born.” The “sage at peace” is one who is awakened, having overcome delusion. This may be a metaphorical use of the concept of birth, or rebirth, meaning in this case that because the sage sees everything (including himself) as a process of change, there is no “thing” (or self) there to be born, or to age, or to die.
He did emphasize practicing now: “Today’s the day to keenly work—who knows, tomorrow may bring death!” (Bhaddekaratta Sutta)
He also described practice as requiring urgency: “A mendicant has three urgent duties. What three? Undertaking the training in the higher ethics, the higher mind, and the higher wisdom. These are the three urgent duties of a mendicant.”
He advocated reflecting on the uncertainty of our time of death as a way of artificially creating such a sense of urgency. And following on from that he uses a famous image: that we should practice as if our hair was on fire.
Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, and alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, and alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities.