“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

There are many variants of this quote. Sometimes they’re attributed to the Buddha, and sometimes to the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, or to Nelson Mandela. I haven’t found anything resembling this quote in the Buddhist scriptures.

Until a friendly reader helped me out, I had found the quote in books by Anne Lamotte, Alice May, and Malachy McCourt, but I suspected they were all quoting someone else. The earliest references I’d found were from Alcoholics Anonymous, and that organization seemed like it might have been the original source, although I wondered if the saying may have existed in an orally transmitted form for some time before being committed to print.

Here are some of the examples I found, including two from the 12-Step tradition:

  • “In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
  • Hanging on to a resentment, someone once said, is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill someone else. Alice May, Surviving Betrayal (1999)
  • Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Malachy McCourt (1998)
  • “Charles had once remarked that holding onto a resentment was like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamotte, Crooked Little Heart (1997)
  • “I think resentment is when you take the poison and wait for the other person to die.” M.T. A Sponsorship Guide for 12-Step Programs (1995)
  • When we hang on to resentments, we poison ourselves. As compulsive overeaters, we cannot afford resentment, since it exacerbates our disease. Elizabeth L. Food for Thought: Daily Meditations for Overeaters (1992)

Given that two of our earliest sources by M.T. and “Elizabeth L.” are from the 12-step traditions, it seemed possible — likely even — that the quote had “Anonymous” origins.

And this vague suspicion of an AA origin for the quote remained with me for a long time until Joakim (see the comments below) helped me out with a reference, telling me that the quote was to be found in a 1930’s book called The Sermon on the Mount, by Emmet Fox. That didn’t seem to be quite the case. The exact quote isn’t there, but there is a passage that is an obvious prototype:

No Scientific Christian ever considers hatred or execration to be “justifiable” in any circumstances, but whatever your opinion about that might be, there is no question about its practical consequences to you. You might as well swallow a dose of Prussic acid in two gulps, and think to protect yourself by saying, “This one is for Robespierre; and this one for the Bristol murderer” [who had previously been cited as objects of hatred]. You will hardly have any doubt as to who will receive the benefit of the poison.”

It’s not exactly pithy, but it certainly looks like the prototype of our Fake Buddha Quote.

But where’s the AA connection?

Wikipedia says Fox’s secretary was the mother of one of the men who worked with Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W., and partly as a result of this connection early AA groups often went to hear Fox. Wikipedia says “His writing, especially The Sermon on the Mount, became popular in AA.”

This explains how the more polished version of the quote first emerged in AA. It’s easy to imagine how the same image, being used in speech over and over, would tend to be smoothed off, like a pebble rolling around in a river.

There’s an interesting Buddhist twist on all this. Gems of Buddhist Wisdom (1996) from the Buddhist Missionary Society, contains the following: “Hatred is like a poison which you inject into your veins, before injecting it into your enemy. It is throwing cow dung at another: you dirty your hands first, before you dirty others.”

The “dung” part of that quotation is from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, but as far as I can see the first part is not, and it may well be borrowed from the AA tradition.

20 thoughts on ““Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.””

  1. In his book, “Healing Anger: the power of patience from a Buddhist perspective”, the Dalai Lama discusses Chapter 9 from Shantideva’s “The Way of the Bodhisattva” written in 8th century A.D. It is here that Shantideva described hatred as a poison. The Dalai Lama says, “Patience is the antidote to anger.”
    That’s the closest reference to poison in Buddhist teachings I’ve ever heard.

    1. Hi, Babette.

      There are a lot of references to poison in the Pali scriptures, both literally and metaphorically. Anger is even described in terms of poison:

      Slay anger and you will be happy,
      Slay anger and you will not sorrow.
      For the slaying of anger in all its forms
      With its poisoned root and sweet sting—
      That is the slaying the nobles praise;
      With anger slain one weeps no more.

      Anger is also described as a fire and, in one famous simile, as boiling water.

    1. I believe that’s just another misattribution, Fred. Of course if you can point to that quotation in any of his works I’ll happily change my mind and update the article.

  2. I don’t have access to the Pali Canon (in order to fact check) at the moment but I do vaguely recall reading something in the lines of injecting venom in one’s veins.

    1. That image seems rather unlikely, Doran, given that (as far as I know) intravenous injections hadn’t been invented at the time of the Buddha, but it may be that the image has morphed a little in the remembering.

      There are passages where anger is compared to venom or poison, such as this one or this one. But I don’t think there’s anything close to the image used in the AA quote.

    1. I’m glad you appreciate the site.

      I’m afraid that numerous Native Americans have pointed out that the two wolves story is not only fake, but misrepresents their moral beliefs. It’s a very similar thing to what I document on this site: people (initially noon-Buddhists) using the Buddha as a convenient cultural totem on which to hang their own beliefs.

  3. “ Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die“
    ~ The Buddha
    Your message: “Fake Quote”
    My message: “ How do you KNOW he DIDN’T say it?” Were you there when all the Orally transmitted teachings were Passed on & Most likely ALL his orally transmitted teachings were NOT recorded – no matter how many lifetimes you may have lived Or who you were privy to hear from throughout your long journey, by studying all the sutras and teachings that you did you still Could have no clue as to KNOW Whether he said it or not

    1. If you want to claim that the Buddha said this, then it’s up to you to back that claim up with evidence. The only evidence you could possibly supply would be a citation in the Buddhist scriptures, since that’s the only possible record of things he said (although we can’t guarantee that anything that’s in the scriptures was actually said by him). However, since this quote isn’t in the Buddhist scriptures, you can’t supply that evidence. Of course if you want to make unsubstantiated claims about things you think the Buddha might have said — perhaps that he said “May the Force be with you” — then you’re welcome to do so.

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