“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.

3 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.

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