In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
I’ve been asked about this one several times, but have never written it up. There’s not much to say, really. It seems to be a variant on another Fake Buddha Quote that was lifted from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” a lovely little book of sayings, few of which, if any at all, go back directly to the Buddha:
I can understand someone getting confused and thinking that a quote from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book was a quote from the Buddha. Presumably, though, at some point someone decided to “improve the quotation” and keep the attribution to the Buddha, which puzzles me a bit…
The Buddha did talk about “letting go.” He said, for example:
“Give up what’s not yours. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness.”
What he meant here by “not yours” was the “five skandhas.” These can be looked at in a number of ways, but here the Buddha is regarding them as various things we can identify with as being ourselves.
Form isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. Feeling … perception … choice … consciousness isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness.
The Buddha, incidentally, is not saying that we should give up having form, feelings, and so on, but that we should give up identifying them as being us, or ours, or who we are.
I can’t think of anyplace in the Pali canon where the Buddha sums up “life” in this kind of a way. If you see a purported Buddha quote that talks about “the secret of life…” or “only three things matter…” then be very suspicious.
But there are statements where the Buddha singles out certain qualities as important:
Control of the senses, contentment, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline — these form the basis of holy life here for the wise monk. (Dhammapada 375)
Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. (SN 45.2)
In giving some advice to two elderly men who had done little good in their lives, the Buddha said the following:
When a house is on fire,
the vessel salvaged
is the one that will be of use,
not the one left there to burn.
So when the world is on fire
with aging and death,
one should salvage [one’s wealth] by giving:
what’s given is well salvaged.
Whoever here is restrained
in body, speech, and awareness;
who makes merit while he’s alive:
that will be for his bliss after death.
So while restraint of body, speech, and mind are generally praised, giving as a basic practice is being highly recommended. It’s not being said that giving is the only thing that matters, incidentally. The Buddha is giving a specific teaching to two specific individuals, addressing their specific spiritual needs.
Certainly all three things praised in our fake quote — loving, living gently, letting go — are things praised by the Buddha, but I’ve never seen a passage where these are praised together, or as the only things that matter. If you know of one, please do pass it along.
I was asked to provide some quotes from the Buddha on the topic of love. The Buddha described two kinds of love. One is conditional: pema. The other is unconditional: metta. These quotes are all about metta.
Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
Cultivate an all-embracing mind of love
For all throughout the universe,
In all its height, depth and breadth —
Love that is untroubled
And beyond hatred or enmity.
Karaniya Metta Sutta
Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.
Having gone around in all directions with the mind,
There is surely no one found who is loved more than oneself.
In the same way others each love themselves,
Therefore one who cares for himself should not harm another.
You should train like this: ‘I will develop the heart’s release by love. I’ll cultivate it, make it my vehicle and my basis, keep it up, consolidate it, and properly implement it.’