“If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.”

A friend asked me about this quote last year, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to investigate and write it up. It was actually passed on to me in a slightly different form: “If a man’s mind become pure, his surroundings will also become pure.” I’ve also seen it as “If man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.”

In any form it’s #FakeAsHeck.

This is not from the Buddhist scriptures, but from an English-language Japanese book called “The Teachings of Buddha,” published by a missionary organization called Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai. This book is a mixture of quotes from Buddhist scriptures and writings about Buddhism. It’s commonly left in hotel rooms as a Buddhist alternative to the Gideon Bible. It’s been published and republished for many decades, and this particular quote can be found on page 160 of the 2005 edition.

Here’s a longer extract showing the quote in context:

As has been explained, if a Brotherhood does not forget its duty of spreading Buddha’s teachings and of living in harmony, it will steadily grow larger and its teachings will spread more widely.

This means that more and more people will be seeking Enlightenment, and it also means that the evil armies of greed, anger, and foolishness, which are led by the devil of ignorance and lust, will begin to retreat, and that wisdom, light, faith and joy will dominate.

The devil’s dominion is full of greed, darkness, struggle, fight, swords and bloodshed, and is replete with jealousy, prejudice, hatred, cheating, flattery, fawning, secrecy and abuse.

Now suppose that the light of wisdom shines upon the dominion, and the rain of compassion falls upon it, and faith begins to take root, and the blossoms of joy begins to spread their fragrance. Then that devil’s domain will turn into Buddha’s Pure Land.

And just like a soft breeze and a few blossoms on a branch that tell the coming of spring, so when a man attains Enlightenment, grass, trees, mountains, rivers and all other things begin to throb with new life.

If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.

I suppose that to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the Buddha’s teachings, this might sound like the way that the Buddha might have taught, or at least how he’s recorded in the scriptures as having taught. But if you are even passingly familiar with the scriptures you’ll immediately spot that their style and content are completely at odds with this passage.

The quote in question, “If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure,” doesn’t align with the Buddha’s teachings at all. I have seen teachings like these in Buddhism, however. For example, I excitedly picked up a book by a contemporary (but not exactly orthodox) western teacher in the Tibetan tradition, and this quote sums up what he taught. He in fact claimed that if we perceive pollution in the outside world this is because we have “dirty minds.” That’s literally the words he used. I remember coming across that passage and then tossing the book across the room, never to resume reading it.

Now some people familiar with Buddhist teachings will be thinking at this point of the first two verses of the Dhammapada. Don’t they teach us that “the world is the creation of our mind”? Or is it that “our lives are the creation of our mind”?

Actually, what the first two verses of the Dhammapada say is that our experiences—pleasant and unpleasant—are created by our minds. It’s not that our minds create something unpleasant happening in the world around us, like a pandemic or an awful presidency, but that the degree to which these things affect our sense of well-being depends on our minds. It’s possible either to sail through such unpleasant experiences with calmness and compassion, or to get bogged down in misery and anxiety.

(If you believe that everything in the world is a creation of your own mind, please don’t write angry comments here. Remember: you created this blog post!)

The Buddha’s teachings on karma also don’t teach that everything that happens to us is the result of our previous actions. In fact he argued that this was a wrong view (micchā-diṭṭhi). And yet this view is something that many Buddhists teach, and many of them get very angry if you contradict them , which suggests that there is a strong degree of clinging to that view, to the extent that contradicting it by pointing out what the Buddha did teach is regarded as a form of blasphemy.

The reference to “[the] Buddha’s Pure Land” in the book extract above is in itself a good indication that we’re dealing with a late text.Pure Land Buddhism didn’t arise until long after the Buddha.

The idea behind the Pure Land is that we are so corrupted and selfish that we can’t possibly attain Enlightenment. However, Buddhas are so powerful that they can create entire worlds, or at least heavens, into which we can be reborn. And in those realms, Enlightenment is guaranteed.

In Pure Land Buddhism the Buddha that’s referred to is not the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, but a mythic Buddha called Amitābha (Sanskrit) or Amida (Japanese). And note that it’s Amida who creates the Pure Land, not us. Our task is to generate faith in Amida, who then purifies us and allows us to be reborn into his heavenly Pure Land, which is called Sukhāvati, or “The Blissful Realm.”

This might sound very far from what the Buddha taught, and in some regards it is. He said, for example, “You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way” (Dhammapada 276). In other words, you have to do the work. No Buddha (historical or mythic) can do the work for you.

On the other hand he did teach that it was possible, though practicing, to become a “non-returner” (anāgāmi) who, after death, is reborn in a non-physical, heavenly plane. And it’s there that the anāgāmi will complete their path to full awakening. So there’s a similarity of theme there.

6 thoughts on ““If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.””

  1. I’m reminded of the Confucian line about the man of quality reshaping the world around him.

    “The Master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east. Some one said, “They are rude. How can you do such a thing?”
    The Master said, “If a superior man dwelt among them, what rudeness would there be?”
    The Master said, “I returned from Wei to Lu, and then the music was
    reformed, and the pieces in the Royal songs and Praise songs all found their proper places.”

  2. I’m so grateful that you keep this up.
    I constantly find myself looking up quotes that I see people post on social media or (even worse) that pop up in one of my daily Buddha quote apps.
    While many of them contain worthwhile ideals, I think accuracy is important. So thanks again.

  3. This quote is remarkable to me in that it is indeed what the Buddha said in the Vimalakirti-nirdesha sutra. “Therefore, Ratnakuta, if a Bodhisattva wants to obtain pure land, they should first purify their mind. When their mind becomes pure, the buddha-lands will become pure.” Maybe this quote is not in the Pali canon.

    1. Thanks for that reference, Sherab. It’s many, many years since I read the Vimalakirti Nirdesha, and I’d forgotten that quote. From taking a quick look it appears that it wasn’t the Buddha who made that statement, although it’s made clear that he approved of it. Here’s the passage I found:

      Then the venerable Sāriputra said to the Brahmā Sikhin, “As for me, O Brahmā, I see this great earth, with its highs and lows, its thorns, its precipices, its peaks, and its abysses, as if it were entirely filled with ordure.”

      Brahma Sikhin replied, “The fact that you see such a buddha-field as this as if it were so impure, reverend Sāriputra, is a sure sign that there are highs and lows in your mind and that your positive thought in regard to the buddha-gnosis is not pure either. Reverend Sāriputra, those whose minds are impartial toward all living beings and whose positive thoughts toward the buddha-gnosis are pure see this buddha-field as perfectly pure.”

      It’s possible there’s another quote along those lines in the VKN, so if you spot one, please let me know.

      I’ll just note, for the benefit of people unfamiliar with this text, that it was composed around the 2nd century — long after the Buddha died, and so the Buddha of the Vimalakirti Nirdesha is not the historical Buddha, and the teachings there are different from the historical Buddha’s. In this case I doubt very much whether the historical Buddha would have agreed with what’s being said. Having said that, I found the text very lively, beautiful, and inspiring when I read it. I’ve often thought that Philip Glass should adapt it into an opera.

  4. In the first chapter, a bit after the gathas, you see the Buddha saying the quoted passage to Ratnakuta. Kumatajiva’s translation of the passage in Taishō is T475 page 538, last column.

    I am not sure I agree with the argument that the late composition of a text means that the text doesn’t contain the Buddha’s Speech. Arguably the prose parts of the Agamas/Nikayas used to be composed from the shlokas by whoever is reciting the texts, but you would agree that those prose passages were Buddha quotes. It is analogous here. Assuming for the sake of argument that, as you said, someone did first wrote down Vimalakirtinirdesha in the 2nd century, I still find it difficult to reach the conclusion that the Buddha did not say that. If you were to use stricter definitions of Buddha-speech where only the passages directly quoting the Buddha represent Buddha-speech (no shloka-to-prose recitations), then you would have to admit that the Buddha did not say the prose seen in the Nikayas that were restored from shlokas.

    The Buddha said something to those studying the Shravaka-yana. After the committees, the bhikshus composed shlokas to record those teachings and committed the shlokas to memory. Each time people recite a text, they recite the shlokas and restore the shlokas into prose. If you considered these prose to be Buddha-speech, then surely the Mahayana sutras are Buddha-speech because they underwent the same process as the nikayas. The disciples had committees, and what is remembered were written down. The fact that written records of Mahayana sutras do not go back earlier than the Common Era does not mean that they were not extant before the Common Era. Neither do records of the Nikayas go back that early. If one applies your argument to texts of all Buddhist traditions, no text would contain Buddha-speech.

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