“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

This one struck me as suspicious, mainly because of the “no one can and no one may,” which doesn’t strike me as the kind of language the Buddha used. Actually, this turns out to be an example of a translation that is so liberal that the resemblance to the original becomes tenuous.

It’s part of a slightly longer verse passage recorded in an 1894 book, Karma: A Story of Buddhist Ethics, by Paul Carus. In full the quotation is recognizable as having been derived from the Dhammapada:

By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.

No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way.

Here’s a more literal translation, from Access to Insight:

165. By oneself is evil done;
by oneself is one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone;
by oneself is one made pure.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
no one can purify another.

You can see a basic similarity, but “no one can and no one may” has been added to flesh out the poetry. Mostly this quote is fine. Yes, we’re responsible for our own actions. The Buddha can’t save us. We have to save ourselves. But “no one may”? That suggests that some external agency forbids others from saving us, which is not a Buddhist notion. “No one can” would have worked well as a translation on its own, but wouldn’t of course fit the rhyming scheme.

“Buddhas only show the way” seems to have been borrowed from another Dhammapada verse (276): “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.”

The late 19th century attempt to render the Buddha’s teaching in verse was a noble but of course an unsustainable one. In this case we’ve ended up with a note being injected (“no one may”) which simply doesn’t ring true.

PS. I’m aware that Pure Land Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is only possible through the grace of Amida Buddha, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that this approach contradicts what the Buddha seems to have taught — which is that the Buddhas only point the way, and that we must save ourselves.

20 thoughts on ““No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

  1. Awesome, thanks for the info. However, I would like to point out that by “showing the way,” Carus was himself a Buddha, an enlightened being. So in a round-about way, it’s still a Buddhist quote. 😉

    1. Hmm. I’m not sure what makes you say Carus was a Buddha. I’m sure he was a lovely fella, but I doubt he was enlightened :)

      1. Why do you doubt it? That’s the real question. Recognizing Buddha nature, whenever and wherever it manifests, is a vital component and sign of enlightenment. Like recognizes like. 🙏🏻

        1. The primary definition of Buddha is a fully awakened being who has rediscovered the way to enlightenment when that way has been lost. That’s why, of all historical figures, only Gautama is given that title. “Buddha nature” is just the potential for enlightenment. By analogy, you, along with many other people, have the potential to become US president, but that doesn’t make you (or those many other people) president of the US. My potential for awakening might resonate with your potential for awakening, but that doesn’t make either of us Buddhas.

  2. It only makes sense if you read the whole long verse. This verse basically teaches us about karma.

    when we commit sins, we will receive the karma ourselves.

    when we stopped commiting sin then we stop accumulating bad karma.

    However, what is owed previously must still be paid off. So after we stopped commiting sins we still have to endure the bad karma of our past sins. If we keep commiting sins then our debt will never be paid off.

    The meaning of no one can save us but ourselves means nobody can take away our bad karma for us, not even god can do that. To save ourselves we must walk the path of Buddha. Buddha had laid out the path for us and we merely just have to follow it.

    So be grateful to people who wronged us as they are giving us the chance to pay back for our past sins. All misfortune that be fallen us are our bad karma. We just have to accept it to repay for our past sins (this lifetime as well as past lifes).

    Hold the 5 precepts dearly in your heart and live your live following the 5 precepts tightly is the way to stop commiting more sins.

    1. Well, yes, no one can save us from the effects of our unskillful karma (I’d suggest avoiding the word “sin” which is loaded with some very unBuddhist assumptions). The only quibble I was making was with “no one may,” which isn’t and couldn’t be in the original. It inevitably suggests that no one is allowed to save us from our own karma, which implies that there is someone or something that allows or disallows this. That’s a very unhelpful assumption to tag onto the concept of karma, which a lot of people have difficulty understanding anyway.

      1. Karma isn’t mentioned in the quote above; I’m not sure why it’s even being mentioned here. The quote is very direct; it’s about our path, our life journey, and the choices we make. No one can choose for us but us. No one can make the right choice for us but us.

        I am more apt to trust the law of Cause and Effect than that of “karma,” but I suppose that the terms can be interchangeable. Semantics.

        “No one may” doesn’t speak to being “allowed” by “someone” else, but by reality. I may or may not sprout wings and fly, but it’s not biologically possible, so no, I may not. Not because “someone else” won’t allow it, but because biology won’t allow it, reality won’t allow it. No one may save us because it isn’t realistically possible, even if they wanted to.

        The sentiment is Buddhist in nature; that Carus was or wasn’t a Buddha is a matter of opinion. We have different perspectives. Life is a series of moments, and in the moment that Carus wrote this and shared it with others, he was a Buddha, imo. Not in yours, that’s fine. There’s no point in arguing that.

        I think we all agree that the quote is true and wise, a great thing to ponder and a tool with which to craft a happier, more productive, and more peaceful life. And that’s the point.

        1. You’re right, of course, that the word karma isn’t mentioned in the quote, Nadia. But karma is explicitly about choice. It literally means “doing” or “acting.” It’s to do with the volitional and ethical choices we make as we steer our way through life. “Intention, I tell you, is karma,” is a quote from the Buddha.

          The problem with your interpretation that “may” means “we cannot because reality doesn’t allow for it” is that he’s just said “No one can,” so that’s already covered. Therefore it’s logical to assume that “no one may” must mean something else — namely that in some sense we’re not allowed to. Otherwise he’s saying “we can’t do it because it’s not possible and we can’t do it because it’s not possible.” If he’d just said “no one may” then I think your interpretation could stand, since the meaning of “may” extends to capability (its original meaning, in fact) as well as permission.

          1. All I’ve done above is point out that an interpretation someone made doesn’t hold up if you look at what the words are actually saying. Is that arrogant?

  3. Not a Pure Land follower myself but from what I have been taught by a Zen-PureLand Master is that although Amita Buddha can help us be reborn in Pure Land, one must continue to practice there. And depending on how much ones mental qualities have developed it can take an incalculable amount of time to reach enlightenment (albeit in a safer environment compared to our world). (E.g. a person who committed the 5 cardinal unwholesome kamma will take 9 incalculable aeons to reach enlightenment). I guess by this analogy the fact that we ourselves have to make our own effort still stand, even though many Pure Land believes that going to Pure Land is the end of their journey.

    1. maybe we should read something like the dhammapada and meditate when we can.i know-i am to simple for religion.

    2. “although Amita Buddha can help us be reborn in Pure Land, one must continue to practice there. ”

      That is the view of the majority of Pure Land schools – the Pure Land is a training ground for enlightenment.

      However, Shinran Shonin (founder of Jodo Shinshu) taught that the Pure Land is actually a metaphor for nirvana, and as soon as one is born in the Pure Land, one becomes a Buddha.

  4. There is a mistake in the last paragraph.
    “I’m aware that Pure Land Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is ONLY possible through the grace of Amida Buddha …”
    This is wrong. Pure Land excepts all the traditional Buddhist teachings in the Pali cannon.
    What Pure Lands claims to offer is an “easier path” where one takes refuge in Amida Buddha who made a promise to help a believer to be reborn in his heavenly realm. Once there, the believer can practice under the direct guidance of a living Buddha (Amida) and reach enlightenment from there, which is said to be easier than seeking enlightenment in this life.
    It’s common in later sects to promise supposedly “easier” methods than what came before but I’m not aware of any later Buddhist school that teaches early Buddhism was totally wrong.

    1. I can’t help but observe that you don’t cite any citations to back up your claims.

      There may be different beliefs in various Pure Land schools, but Shinran’s view has been described as follows: “Shinran, like his mentor Hōnen, saw the age he was living in as being a degenerate one where beings cannot hope to be able to extricate themselves from the cycle of birth and death through their own power, or jiriki (自力). For both Hōnen and Shinran, all conscious efforts towards achieving enlightenment and realizing the Bodhisattva ideal were contrived and rooted in selfish ignorance; for humans of this age are so deeply rooted in karmic evil as to be incapable of developing the truly altruistic compassion that is requisite to becoming a Bodhisattva.”

      This isn’t a form of Buddhism I’ve had a lot of contact with, so if you have sources confirming different views in Pure Land Buddhism I’d welcome hearing about them.

      1. I love your site and what you are doing. But your approach here is a bit narrow.
        You are talking about a specific Japanese subset of PureLand. Shonen does not represent the whole PureLand. I am not sure if he accepted the Pali cannon. He may had accepted it but considered his times corrupt, with no arahants left around to teach. It is also possible that he didn’t even know the existence of the Pali Canon or Theravada. All he had access to was Chinese translations of Mahayana Sutras read by Japanese. In either case, you have to admit he does not represent the whole PureLand.
        As for providing links, what I wrote above I considered common knowledge and didn’t feel the need to prove myself. I can provide the very link you provided. Just keep reading and beyond your quote and you will find this:
        “Note that this is in contrast to the related Jōdo shū school which promoted a combination of repetition of the nembutsu and devotion to Amida as a means to birth in the Pure Land. It also contrasts with other Buddhist schools in China and Japan, where the nembutsu was part of a more elaborate ritual. ”
        “In another departure from more traditional Pure Land schools of Buddhism, Shinran Shonin advocated that birth in the Pure Land was settled in the midst of life rather than at death.”
        “For Shinran Shonin, … , the Pure Land is synonymous with nirvana.”
        So, PureLand=nirvana, and you can reach that PureLand/Nirvana in this life. Wait a minute! Isn’t this standard Buddhism, just using different words? You may say the difference in jiriki(self-powered) vs tariki (receiving-power), but the practice of PureLand monks can get quite ascetic too. They also meditate long hours, for days. At the end it is not much different than jiriki (self-powered).
        The reason different sects use different language, even when they are teaching the same thing is for political reasons. They need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. It is the same thing in many other religions too. What seems like doctrinal differences are most of the time political differences in descise.

  5. All this discussion is interesting.
    I am actually intending to have a tattoo of the “no-one can, no-one may” translation on my forearm.
    It may not be an accurate translation of Buddha’s original discourse, but I’m proceeding with my plan for 2 reasons (if anyone is vaguely curious!)
    1. Do we really know what Buddha said, with accuracy, after all the time that has passed since his life? ;)
    2. I follow the guidance and inspiration (not very well, but I try) of the Self Realization spiritual community founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. He has stated that we evolve with 50% grace of God, 25% guidance of a guru, and 25% our own effort.
    Addressing that last 25%, no-one else can make that self effort for you. That’s all up to you. That’s how I choose to read this “saying”…
    Have a good one guys, may you all evolve and attain that which apparently already exists perennially within us :)

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