“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.”

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:

In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?

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.

Postscript

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.
Sankha Sutta

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.
Rāja Sutta

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.’
Saṅkhitta Sutta

14 thoughts on ““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.””

  1. I came across a quote attributed to the Buddha that goes:

    “You stand at the crossroads of the path of love and the path of fear. Which do you choose to follow?”

    It was in a little booklet I picked up in a charity shop: “Relaxation – Exercises and Inspirations for Well-being” by Dr Sarah Brewer.

    Surely not from Buddhist texts? Searching on Wikipedia I cannot even find any reference to a quote using these words. Can you throw any light on this?

    Thank you and best wishes
    Yan

    1. Thanks for passing that one on. No, it’s definitely not from the Buddha. Brewer’s book is the only publication I’ve been able to find that quote it. So far I haven’t even found any similar quotes in books, although I’ll keep looking. Unusually, this one isn’t on the web, either. I wonder if Brewer just made it up?

    1. Hi, Jill. As the article says, it’s based on a quote from Jack Kornfield. This was then slightly changed by some unknown person.

  2. Thank you for an interesting article.
    I didn’t understand the end though. Did Buddha ever prais love?

    1. The Buddha did praise love, Jannike, although he distinguished between what we could call conditional love (pema) where I love you because you’re my partner, friend, child, etc., and because I like you, and unconditional love (metta) where I treat you with kindness simply because you are a being who, like me, wants happiness and doesn’t want to suffer. We can have metta for people even when we don’t like them and when we have no family connection etc. with them.

      He often criticized pema as being inextricably bound up with suffering, but always praised metta.

      1. Thank you, Bodhipaksa, for this explanation. Could you please share a few real quotes of the Buddha, which you are referring to, where he praises love?
        Is there a particularly useful (and non-fake, reliable) literature reference where his perspective on love is addressed? I am trying to understand better the place of love in buddhist teachings, in relation and contrast to kindness (ie, outside the romantic tradition)?
        Many thanks for your valuable website…

        The Buddha did praise love, Jannike, although he distinguished between what we could call conditional love (pema) where I love you because you’re my partner, friend, child, etc., and because I like you, and unconditional love (metta) where I treat you with kindness simply because you are a being who, like me, wants happiness and doesn’t want to suffer. We can have metta for people even when we don’t like them and when we have no family connection etc. with them.

        He often criticized pema as being inextricably bound up with suffering, but always praised metta.

  3. It’s a badass quote that I love so thank you for sparing me the embarrassment of pretentiously attributing it to buddha, like I possibly have ever bothered to read anything he said.

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