“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.

35 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 non-Buddhists) using the Buddha as a convenient cultural totem on which to hang their own beliefs.

      1. Can you cite a credible source that says that the two wolves’ story is fake? Just a genuine question.

        1. In the quote you’re replying to there’s a link to an article by Canadian First Nations writer and lawyer âpihtawikosisân. She seems farily credible. She traces it back to Billy Graham, but Wikipedia’s article cites earlier sources — all Christian, and putting the words in the mouths of Native Americans of various (or unnamed) tribes. No one seems to have produced any evidence that it’s actually a Native American story.

  3. 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.

    1. Some people 😂 . Cannot get it though their heads maybe they should read some Mark Twain comments about arguing…..

  4. Wow, the quote might be fake, but it fits so well with Buddhist teaching, Siddhartha might as well have said it.

  5. My problem: people quote all kinds of ‘faux-wisdom’ based on Buddha, based on Christianity, Based on Rumi and this list goes on. Even reference librarians are having trouble trying to get clear quotes of even authors. Why should it matter? Because even if it comes close to the tenets of whatever faith you have, if they didn’t say it, you are misappropriating what they DID say and what it means.

    It matters! If you are a teacher and your talking to your students, what you write and discuss needs not only to be a clear citation, but very carefully cited because you are teaching. Stephen King isn’t Jesus, nor is his words “Shakespeare”. And while Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play, it is not “West Side Story” language given by Arthur Laurents, adapted for stage by Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. It matters who is adapting what language, what has been added and what is missing.

    Buddha’s writing that is attributed to him was passed down like Jesus’s words. So, yes, it does matter.

    1. Thank you, Mary. It astonishes me that people are still making things up and attributing it to the Buddha. Strangely, they don’t seem to do the same for Jesus or Mohammed. It’s as if these folks don’t think he was a real teacher who left behind a living body of work.

      1. Agreed. I think it’s the exotic quotient and the additional years added to Buddha that leads people to think they can ‘say’ anything that is important, and make it attributed to Buddha. And it frustrates me like crazy. One post mention, “wait a minute, they didn’t have hypodermic needles then!” And again it’s how we don’t think about what we post online to make any critical sense. And thank you for your back comment. I honestly find that blogging, writing or any other discipline these days is absolutely disservice by all these citations that aren’t real, like I said the Libraries can keep up with it, either.

  6. “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” – Mark Twain – seems prototypical

    1. I very much doubt that that’s by Twain. For one thing, it doesn’t appear in Google Books until long after his death. I haven’t so far found anything dated before the mid-1950’s, which also means it’s unlikely to be the prototype of the quote in question.

      Another reason I think it’s unlikely to be from Twain is that for obvious reasons chemists store acids in vessels that they can’t corrode, and much more harm is likely to accrue to anything it’s poured on. Twain was an intelligent man, and I’m sure he would have realized that.

      I’m happy to be shown wrong, though.

  7. ❝If you get angry, then maybe
    You make him suffer, maybe not;
    Though with the hurt that anger brings
    You certainly are punished now.❞
    Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, IX.22 (Translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli.)

    This seems pretty close in spirit.

    1. Yes, that quote from Buddhaghosa, who lived a thousand years after the Buddha, is close in spirit. That still doesn’t make it a quote from the Buddhist scriptures, though. And it’s not even close in terms of the literal meaning.

  8. Here is a saying from me, Dennis Rivers: “I am convinced that a telling analogy rings with its own truth.” I am immediately placing this saying into the public domain, so that it belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. You may use it anywhere it would be helpful, without making the slightest reference to me!

    Introducing a wisdom saying of unknown origin with a simple phrase such as “Whoever said, [insert wisdom saying here], is inviting us to wrestle with a deep truth.” might actually inspire people to think more about the truth of the analogy. It is not clear to me that citing authorities actually deepens engagement.

    My experience has been that if I don’t wrestle with a truth about human life, I don’t understand it very well.

  9. Hello:

    This is a somewhat old thread, but I’d like to add this:

    My mother and grandmother were members of Emmet Fox’s Divine Science Church of the Healing Christ in NYC. They had a number of his books around the house, including Fox’s “The Sermon on the Mount.” I read it when I was about 15.

    Five years later I learned of the “New Thought” movement of the early 20th century. It traces itsorigins to Phineas P. Quimby of Portland, Maine — where I live. I studied New Thought in depth while at college.

    20 years later I became a Zen Buddhist who reads far too much. I have perennially been struck by the similarities between the biblical Sermon on the Mount and many Buddhist canonical sources.

    As you have surmised, AA was definitely influenced by Emmet Fox and other figures in the New Thought movement. New Thought once was extremely popular, particularly in cities such as NYC, and had a much bigger influence on American philospophy/religion than most people realize.

    The New Thought movement, in turn, was strongly influenced by the Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson. Emerson was the first publisher of Buddhist writings in English, and what he published in 1844 was Thoreau’s partial translation of the Lotus Sutra from the French.

    Emerson and Thoreau would have had precious little to go on at the time. It was another 40 years before Max Mueller’s translations of Buddhist scripture in the “Sacred Books of the East” were published. Translations even of that later era were questionable. (Consider Sir Edwin Arnold’s “The Light of Asia” of 1879).

    Although the following is speculative, it is nonetheless possible that the Transcendentalists themselves interpreted or paraphrased the primitive translations available in the early 1800s as containing the quote.

    I guess my point is that, even if there is no known authentic Buddhist scripture containing this saying, it is entirely possible that it was crafted by an individual who was familiar with, and influenced by, Buddhist thought.

    The fact that the Mahayana scriptures were not uttered by the Buddha does not cause them to become “inauthentic” or detract from their importance in developing Buddhist thought. By the same token, even assuming that no one will ever find an “authentic” scripture that contains this particular saying, if it is an accurate exposition of what the Buddha is KNOWN to have said, it doesn’t really matter who said it. Given the Transcendentalists’ eager attempts to comprehend Buddhist thought in a cultural vacuum, it is even more likely that this saying’s “DNA” contains a significant percentage of the Buddhist “genome.”

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