A friend recently asked me about this quote because she’s scrupulous about sourcing her attributions. I saw nothing suspicious about the quote at all but I like to help out a Dharma sister and so I went hunting.
The quote is very much in keeping with the style and content of the early scriptures, but I couldn’t find anything corresponding to this in either Access to Insight or, more tellingly, in Sutta Central. So it didn’t seem to come from the Pali sources.
Of course the Pali texts aren’t the only early Buddhist scriptures. There are many early texts that were translated into Chinese or Tibetan that aren’t found in the Pali Tipitaka, and there are early texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages as well, although those tend to be fragmentary. And it’s possible that this quote might be found in one of those collections. (Despite some claims to the contrary, those texts are just as ancient as the Pali texts, and have an equal claim to represent what the Buddha taught.)
I did find the origins of the quote, however. It comes from the Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana Sutra (“the teaching on the great decease of the Buddha”). Now, you might assume that this is a Sanskrit version of the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which describes the Buddha’s last days and his death, but actually it’s a much later teaching, probably composed around the second century of the Common Era. It’s a Mahayana sutra, the Mahayana being a collection of schools that emphasized different things in order to reform Buddhism away from a narrow, monastic, scholarly interpretation of practice. Some emphasized a more devotional approach to practice, or emphasized compassion, or placed more emphasis on meditation, or explored (or perhaps even preserved) the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness.
In Mark L. Blum’s translation of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the same passage is translated as: “World-Honored One, just as among the footprints of all living beings there is nothing that surpasses the footprint of an elephant, so too is the concept of impermanence paramount among all concepts.”
In Kosho Yamamoto’s translation, it’s “Just as all beings leave behind footprints and the best of all footprints are those of the elephant, so with this thought of the non-Eternal: it heads all thoughts.”
So far I haven’t found which translation the version “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme” comes from.
Now, the reason I’m saying this is likely to be a Fake Buddha Quote is not because it comes from a Mahayana Sutra — I’ve pointed out before that my criteria for accepting a quote as valid is that it’s from a canonical scriptural source. And this one is from a canonical scriptural source, so what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that the quote, in the context of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, isn’t spoken by the Buddha, but is said to him by some unnamed monks. Since it’s not presented in the Sutra as something the Buddha said, it can’t be a Buddha quote.
This is something that a number of people, seeing that the quote comes from a Sutra, have missed. For example in one Lion’s Roar article, we read “The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. ‘Of all the footprints,’ he said, ‘that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” Similarly, in Tricycle magazine an author says: “‘Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme,’ declared the Buddha in the Great Nirvana Sutra. ‘And of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” And the same error has been made in a number of books.
Glenn H. Mullin takes a more careful approach in his book, “Living in the Face of Death”:
It is said in The Sutra of Buddha’s Entering into Parinirvana: “Of all footprints, That of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, Of all mindfulness meditations, That on death is supreme.”
I can well imagine the Buddha saying something like this quote. Perhaps he did! But unless it shows up in some scripture, attributed to him, then we shouldn’t describe is as something the Buddha said.