“Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.”

I’ve only seen this on Twitter once, but it’s in a few books listed as a quote by the Buddha. It’s actually another of Jack Kornfield’s sayings, from his lovely little title, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book.

Quite a few of the Fake Buddha Quotes documented on this site are from this book, so you’ll find something like the following cropping up a few times. Sorry for the repetition!

Buddha’s Little Instruction Book is not a book of Buddha quotes, as you might think, and as, evidently, many people have assumed. As the back cover of the book tells us:

For this small handbook, a well-known American Buddhist and psychologist has DISTILLED and ADAPTED an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life. (Emphasis added.)

“Distilled and adapted” in this context means that Jack has taken some Buddhist concepts, which are often found in a rather convoluted and repetitive form in the Buddhist scriptures, due to the oral nature of their original transmission, and turned them into pithy and evocative sayings. But they’re not Buddha quotes.

Unfortunately the book’s title seems inadvertently to have misled many people, and Buddha’s Little Instruction Book is the single largest source of Fake Buddha Quotes on this site.

The Buddha did use the metaphor of snakes shedding their skins in a few places that I know of. In the Uraga Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, there are repeated verses along these lines:

The monk who subdues his arisen anger
as, with herbs, snake-venom once it has spread,
sloughs off the near shore and far —
as a snake, its decrepit old skin.

Here, though, it’s attachment to the world of the senses, and attachment to the idea of attaining enlightenment, that’s to be sloughed off like a snake’s skin (as the snake grows). It’s not that the monk is to give up on the idea of attaining enlightenment, it’s just that he’s not to crave it in an unhealthy way. We all have these times when we want happiness so much that it makes us unhappy. That’s the kind of thing that’s to be avoided.

Then there’s a rather puzzling passage that crops up in various suttas (including DN 2, DN 11, and DN 12)  in which the Buddha talks about a how a person who is in the process of becoming enlightened can create a mind-made body.

“With his mind thus concentrated, purified, & bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, he directs & inclines it to creating a mind-made body. From this body he creates another body, endowed with form, made of the mind, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties … “

And he distinguishes between this mind-made body and the real body in this way:

“…as if a man were to pull a snake out from its slough. The thought would occur to him: ‘This is the snake, this is the slough. The snake is one thing, the slough another, but the snake has been pulled out from the slough.’ “

I find it a bit hard to take this talk of “astral bodies” (as they’re usually called) seriously.

There may be other sloughing snake images in the scriptures, but I’d have to dig around in the indexes of my Pali canon texts to find them.

So far I haven’t ever seen anything that corresponds to “shedding our past.” I presume that this would refer to something like dropping old habits, since the Buddha was clear that we couldn’t just walk away from our past karma (ethical actions). he was clear that we can’t wish the consequences of our actions away.

One of the things we’ve to reflect on is that we are heir to our past actions and can’t escape their consequences:

I am the owner of my actions [kamma/karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’

As long as Jack’s quote is taken to mean simply that we need to abandon unskilful habits, I think it’s fine. Otherwise I think we might get into tricky territory by assuming that we can make a clean break with the past, and somehow escape the consequences of our actions.

Here’s the instance of this quote that I found on Twitter.

11 thoughts on ““Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.””

  1. “Otherwise I think we might get into tricky territory by assuming that we can make a clean break with the past, and somehow escape the consequences of our actions.”
    One would have to understand and believe in forgiveness entirely to be able to accomplish this, together with knowing who they really are and what they are here for.

  2. I believe this might be not something Buddha said .. But this is not wrong .. The actual meaning of these words is something Buddha said … When must shed our past if not the sins of our life get more powerful than the merits of our life .. If u keep thinking about ur past we get nothing .. It’s something Lord Buddha said think every sunrise is a new life

    Thank you

  3. Technically thought it may not be something that Buddha said, it is very close to a quote from the first chapter of the adi parva (part of mahabharata). It definitely proceeded Buddha by about 1000 years and was likely to be part of common colloquia during his lifetime.

    1. Thanks, Amit. If you can point me toward a reference for that citation I’d be very grateful. At least some of what the Buddha taught seems to have been part of his culture’s common wisdom. There’s at least one instance of him pointing out that one of his sayings was in fact ancient wisdom that preceded him.

      1. Thank you for the reply – after posting that comment, I realized that I had probably misunderstood the article’s reference to the Lohicca quote. I initially thought that “I find it a bit hard to take this seriously” referred to the Buddha having said that, but now I guess it just referred to it being hard to believe that that quote would have been the “source” of the shorter quote that is the topic of the article.

        1. I’ve reworded a couple of things in the article to make my meaning clearer. Sorry for the confusion.

          “I find it a bit hard to take this seriously” referred to the concept of a mind-made body. The Buddha talked about this supposed phenomenon in SN 51.22 as a way to visit the gods and have conversations with them. I’m afraid I just don’t believe in the reality of such things.

          I recall a conversation the Buddha had (with Saṅgārava) where the latter says “A demonstration of psychic power is experienced only by the one who performs it, occurring only to them. This seems to me like a magic trick.”

          The Buddha reiterates that he does have these psychic powers, but he doesn’t contradict Saṅgārava’s assertion that they are imaginary, which makes me think that he agreed that miracles such as touching the sun and moon with a mind-made body (and presumably visiting the gods in heaven) were things that happened purely in one’s own mind. On the other hand he does talk in DN 11 about these psychic powers being witnessed by others, and how this can lead to arguments about whether they’re magic tricks or genuine spiritual miracles, which suggests he regarded them as real (or at least imaginary events that could be shared). Because of the possibility of these demonstrations being interpreted as vulgar magic he says that he is “horrified, repelled, and disgusted” by them.

          Anyway, until I see a “miracle” I’m not inclined to believe that they exist. I think it’s more reasonable to assume that something the Buddha said has been misconstrued, or that these are later additions to the scriptures, intended to boost the Buddha’s standing.

          1. Thank you for clarifying your meaning, and for such a thorough reply! I was not previously aware of all these references.

            While I have some reason to not be entirely surprised if things such as these were to happen, I strive to withhold my judgement as often as possible, and this seems like one of those cases where a judgement one way or the other is not even necessary until, as you say, more information comes along.

            The references you provide seem to be in line with my previous understanding, mostly based on descriptions of the twin miracle episode at Savatthi, and various passing references to psychic powers. In all these cases, to me the message between the lines seems to be that these things are simply needless, unhelpful, even harmful to pursue. That ultimately it would be no different from connecting Buddha’s teaching to a physical skill or attribute, potentially causing even more clinging one way or the other. Just one more needless part of the equation to be cancelled out by emptiness.

            Thank you, and please keep up the good work with the site!

  4. As a side note, I noticed now that my line breaks seem to be filtered out from the comments. Perhaps it’s because Mac/Unix/Linux newlines are LF whereas Windows newlines are CR+LF? Not that it’s a big problem as most comments aren’t long anyway. But just to test:

    This sentence should be separated from the previous by an empty LF newline.

    Whereas this sentence is separated from the previous by an empty CR+LF newline.

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