This quote is found on many quotes sites, attributed to the Buddha. It’s found on BrainyQuote, for example. It’s also found in a number of books as a “Buddha quote,” including 2010’s Teachers of Wisdom, by Igor Kononenko and Irena Kononenko (page 51), and the Hagopian Institute’s Quote Junkie: Motivational Edition (page 17). It’s therefore a well-established Fake Buddha Quote.
It’s actually something that Marie Curie said, or rather wrote, and it’s found in books going back at least to 1987, when it’s found in a book about perfectionism by Miriam Adderholdt and Jan Goldberg, called, appropriately, Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good?. (I’ll show you the trail I followed in order to establish its authenticity.)
A little earlier — 1986 — it’s found in the form “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done,” in Night Light, by Amy E. Dean, and is also attributed to Mme. Curie.
A 1991 book called Journal Keeping With Young People, by Barbara A. Steiner, Kathleen C. Phillip, says that this version of the quote originated in a letter to Curie’s brother written on March 18, 1894.
And this clue leads me to a biography of Curie, where I discover that a fuller version of the quote is this:
“I regret only one thing, which is that the days are so short and that they pass so quickly. One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done, and if one didn’t like the work it would be very discouraging.”
It’s rather puzzling how this quote — or misquote, in the first person form — should have ended up being attached to the Buddha. There’s no obvious connection with any Buddhist teaching that I can think of. The idea of the Buddha as a perfectionist is quite incongruous in the context of his teachings of non-attachment. It’s hard to think of him not appreciating what he had achieved in his life and being obsessed with what he had yet to achieve.
The Buddha’s attitude to the past and future are nicely summed up in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
On another occasion he says of an ideal practitioner, “He doesn’t regret what life has been.”
It would therefore be a bit of a shock to see the Buddha talking in this way: “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.”