I just came across this one on Facebook, on the page of a Buddhist community in New Jersey.
Most of the quotes I saw on their page were fake. Unfortunately this is rather common. It seems that many contemporary Buddhists aren’t very familiar with their own scriptures and don’t recognize when quotes are strikingly different in style and content from canonical teachings.
Most Buddhists seem content to rely on books by modern Buddhist authors. These often provide excellent guidance in life, but really we should be going back to the earliest sources so that we can develop a feel for how those modern teachings are related (or if they’re related!) to what the Buddha (probably) taught.
This particular quote — “It is better to do nothing, than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself” struck me as being a little off. The first sentence seemed fine, but the second one sounded suspicious.
It turns out that this is from Thomas Byrom’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad translation of the Dhammapada, which also happens to be one of the most popular versions of this text.
It’s from the chapter on “Hell” (niraya) which Byrom renders as “The Dark.” Niraya is from nis+aya, meaning “to go asunder, to go to destruction, to die.” There doesn’t seem to be any etymological connection to darkness. But that’s Byrom for you.
These particular words are from Dhammapada verse 314. In Buddharakkhita’s translation this is:
An evil deed is better left undone, for such a deed torments one afterwards. But a good deed is better done, doing which one repents not later.
Byrom simply omits the second sentence of the original from his translation altogether. Again, that’s Byrom for you.
The part he does include isn’t as bad as many of his efforts. The original (of the whole verse) is, with my own translation, which makes no effort to be elegant:
Akataṃ dukkataṃ seyyo (A bad deed [is] better not-done)
pacchā tapati dukkataṃ (One is tormented by a bad deed afterwards)
Kataṃ ca sukataṃ seyyo (And a good deed [is] better done)
yaṃ katvā nānutappati. (Which, having done, one does not regret)
Compare those first two lines with Byrom’s “It is better to do nothing, than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself.”
The first part is not entirely awful, although the original just says that it’s best not to do a bad deed, which Byrom’s statement, while true, loses this simplicity.
The second part is bad, though. The original is suggesting that you’ll be tormented by regret after doing a bad deed. It’s not saying that you’re doing the bad deed to yourself. Of course we could interpret the Dhammapada’s statement in terms of the consequences of your actions being something that choose for yourself when you choose the bad action. But that’s not what the verse actually says.
Thanissaro’s version of the whole of verse 314 is:
It’s better to leave a misdeed undone.
A misdeed burns you afterward.
Better that a good deed be done
that, after you’ve done it,
won’t make you burn.
You’ll notice that Thanissaro goes for “burns” rather than “torments,” which is fair enough. The verb tappati means to burn, to be tormented, to be consumed. Although on the whole I prefer Buddharakkhita’s translation, Thanissaro’s connects more strongly with the theme of hell. Although at the same time we shouldn’t make too much of the chapter titles of the Dhammapada, since its verses were originally independent sayings and were only later arranged thematically, and this “reframing” can change the way we interpret the word. It’s possible that in talking about remorse the Buddha wasn’t thinking about hell at all.
Anyway, to repeat myself, this is not Byrom’s most egregious mistranslation, although it’s very far from adequate. And if you’re a Buddhist, read the scriptures and buy good translations. Gil Fronsdal’s Dhammapada seems excellent.