“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.

9 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.

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