“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 more than once, in which the Buddha is recorded as having talked about a person who is in the process of becoming enlightened creating 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 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.

4 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.

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