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…